See also Milton's article, featured in the spirituality section of our website.
Milton Adams is a pastor in the Florida Conference and is founder/director of Simple Church, a network of lay-led Adventist house churches dedicated to touching the lives of unchurched people. Spectrum asked Adams why Simple Church started and how it is being implemented within the denomination.
RD: What initially provoked your interest in house churches?
MA: George Barna wrote a book, Revolutionaries, where he stated that 20 million Christians left the conventional church between 2000 and 2005 – to go find God. To go find God! I was amazed.
In The American Church in Crisis, Dave Olsen addresses this North American trend from a different perspective. In 1990, 20.7% of Christians attended church on a given weekend. In 2007, 17.1%, and for 2010, it is estimated that 16.6% will attend church on a given weekend.
These kinds of statistics caught my attention and started me on a search that was missional: How do we reach people in our western culture? So I kept reading and researching.
Barna continued in his book by noting that house churches are one place people are going to find God. Since house churches seemed promising, my wife and I decided to start one. We called it Simple Church. Now it is growing into a global network.
RD: You used the term “conventional church.” How do you define a conventional church?
MA: A public building (church or store front) + professional leadership (pastor, staff, and Bible workers) + programs = “real” church. This definition finds its roots in the fourth century. Adventism usually gives Constantine credit for changing Sabbath to Sunday, but he also influenced the replacement of lay-leadership with professional spiritual leaders and he moved “church” from the house to the basilica, or cathedral.
RD: What does a “Simple Church” look like?
MA: Simple Church is such a different missionary paradigm that it is difficult to adequately describe it. One needs to experience Simple Church.
But in short, Simple Churches meet on Sabbath. Our particular location meets on Sabbath at 10 am for brunch. At 11 am our focus shifts to some singing, check-in, and “God moments.” At noon we begin a 90 minute relational Bible study. Lunch follows the Bible study, and usually by 3 or 4 pm our home is quiet again – but not always.
The Simple Church Network averages 15 people per location with a range of 5 to 35. On average 30% of adult attendees are unchurched or “secular” people.
RD: Why has the Adventist Church not attempted something like Simple Church before, or has it?
MA: It has, and it is – outside of North America. But it is only recently that house churches in North America have gained momentum. The reason for this could be that for the past 100 years there has not been a “need” for this method here in North America. But culture has changed around us. The question Adventism will increasingly face is, “How will we respond? Will we be a mission that is well organized or will we be an organization that has a mission?” There is a significant fundamental and directional difference between the two.
RD: Why do we need Simple Church?
MA: My answer to this is four-part:
1. Financially – Simple Church uses a low-cost, grass-roots method of reaching people. Olsen says that America would need, as of 2008, 24,240 new churches of any kind, every year, just to keep up with population growth. Conventional church planting models are becoming cost prohibitive in many areas.
2. Missionally – Simple Church network statistics seem to indicate that house churches are indeed accomplishing the goal of reaching unchurched or secular people in western cultures. Specifically, we are reaching those people that conventional church is not reaching.
3. Biblically – Simple Church empowers common lay-people to do the work of ministry. Our church theology says that every member is a minister, and we teach the “priesthood of all believers.” But functionally and structurally our church says there is a clear distinction between lay-people and the professional pastor, evangelist or more recently, Bible worker.
4. Stewardship – Research is revealing that the average conventional church in North America will spend as much as 64 percent of its budget on staff salaries. Additionally, it will spend as much as 30 percent of its offerings on maintaining its buildings. Researchers say that churches spend between 82 - 96 percent of their financial resources on maintaining themselves. If 82 percent of my portfolio investment dollar went into maintaining the investment firm, I might have something to say.
RD: As house churches continue to take off the ground, how do you see them working together with our existing institutional churches?
MA: The question of “working together” is usually a question with unspoken expectations that need to be explored. So from a general perspective, Simple Church first and foremost asks missionary questions.
1. As Christians, what are the best ways to contextualize “Go and make disciples” in our culture – baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded?
2. As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, what are the best ways to “go” and share the “Everlasting Gospel” such that additional and/or unnecessary barriers can be removed? This is what missiologists call “indigenization.”
Assuming that these are the same questions conventional churches are asking, we may be using different methods but we are working together toward common goals.
RD: Who are your partners and supporters in the denomination?
MA: In general, denominational leadership has been very supportive. For example Don and Marti Schneider spent 11 hours in our home one Sabbath. The first 5 hours were spent experiencing Simple Church, the remaining 6 hours understanding the network's infrastructure and the intention behind it. Mark Finley also spent about 4 hours with me asking similar questions. These church leaders were both appropriately cautious, yet very supportive of Simple Church’s mission, message, and method. Michael Cauley, Florida Conference President, has provided ongoing encouragement, advice, and a location in which the Simple Church network could be birthed.
But what has been most meaningful to me over the past months has been the support and encouragement that our denomination globally has given to this experimental project. I would be the first to say that it is premature to assess both 1) Simple Church’s long term effectiveness and 2) the denomination’s response. I hope and pray that both with be positive.
RD: How does Simple Church relate, organizationally, to the existing Adventist church structure?
MA: It is a recognized church, just like any church in our denomination. So far three conferences (Florida, Ohio, and North New Zealand) have voted Simple Church at the conference executive committee level. At the time of this interview a handful of other conferences, both in North America and overseas, are at different stages of exploring the possibility of partnering with the Simple Church Network.
RD: What happens with tithe? What do you do with the money you save on church budget?
MA: All tithe is remitted to the local conferences, as with any Adventist church.
Offerings are used by the specific Simple Church locations to help people. In other words, we do not spend offerings on asset items or on inventory items for improving or restoring a facility, but for improving and restoring lives. And, yes, it means the network of Simple Churches has thousands of dollars to help people.
RD: If Simple Church is meant to operate without a paid pastor, who takes care of leadership?
MA: Like Adventist Frontier Missions, Simple Church missionaries are mentored and coached from within the Simple Church Network. We do not put this additional responsibility on local church boards, pastors, or conference leadership. In fact, Simple Church home- grows its leadership; those who do the coaching/mentoring have actually raised up and multiplied a Simple Church.
RD: Do Simple Church members participate together in any activities during the week, like outreach or small groups? MA: Yes and no. Simple Church encourages its missionaries to actually simplify the “religious rat-race.” Midweek activities focus on 1) “hanging out with” secular and unchurched people and 2) giving one-on-one Bible studies--often the KidZone and Come Alive/Stay Alive Bible study series. In fact, KidZone is often used with adults who are young in their Christian experience. We have found it to be the best series available for working with secular people – thanks to Kurt Johnson of Voice of Prophecy and Pastor Karl Haffner of Kettering, Ohio.
RD: How many “Simple Churches” exist right now, officially? Do you personally keep track of them?
MA: Simple Church started with two families 19 months ago. At present there are 6 locations going, 5 of which are in North America and 1 overseas. There are another 12 groups that are at various stages in the training process.
Yes, the network does keep track of them through a very simple grass-roots accountability process.
RD: If someone reading this wanted to learn more about starting a house church, how could he or she get involved?
MA: Simple Church is designed to train and mentor 21st century missionaries no matter where you live, with one stipulation: you will need an internet connection!
Go to www.SimpleChurchAtHome.com and click on the “How do I get started?” link.
Also, one could attend the March 21 webinar, “Simple Church - What is it? Why consider it? And how to start it” For more information, and to register, go to: https://www.gotowebinar.com/register/115929592
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2183