The DOVE International story book excerpt
by Larry and LaVerne Kreider
During the mid-1970s, we took new believers to local churches in our community on Sunday evenings. These youth had come to faith in Christ through a youth ministry called Lost But Found that a group of us started in northern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We wanted to help them find a church home. We visited Baptist, Assembly of God, Independent, Bible Fellowship, Methodist, and Mennonite churches—all types and flavors of churches. Sometimes we brought more new believers to a Sunday night service than the number of members who were present from the church itself.
After the services, van loads of young people would return to our house. We worshipped God as I played my guitar. We prayed, counseled, and built relationships. We noticed, however, that although these young Christians loved God and wanted to grow in faith, they did not seem to fit into the established congregations.
These were the days when God was moving among a young generation across the United States. In what is remembered as the Jesus Movement, record numbers surrendered their lives to Jesus. Miracles of instantaneous deliverance from drugs and the baptism of the Holy Spirit became daily occurrences. We were perplexed when we heard that many “Jesus people” were also finding it difficult to fit into established churches and were falling back into sinful lifestyles. We did not want this to happen to the new Christians who were a part of our outreach.
As I was praying about this, I sensed the Lord was asking me, “Are you willing to be involved with the underground church?”
What came to my mind were the horrific accounts of persecution in some nations where Christians were gathering in secret in order to avoid being imprisoned, tortured, and killed. This was known as the “underground church.” I wrestled with God. I wept. I hated the thought of persecution. But I finally surrendered and promised the Lord I was willing to do whatever He was asking me to do.
Soon after, we started a discipleship and accountability group in 1979 with friends who were serving with us in the youth ministry. This was our first small group. We called it a house fellowship. Soon, our home was filled to capacity and we started a second house fellowship.
We began to understand more about what God meant when He asked me to be involved in the “underground church.” If we use the analogy of a tree, we realize that the bark, branches, leaves, and fruit are above the ground; we can see them. However, it is the unseen root system that nourishes the tree. If the root system is strong and healthy, the tree remains healthy. In the same way, the root system of the church is underground. When believers are nourished and healthy in small underground groups, the church grows stronger.
In Acts 20:20, we learn that Paul taught the believers publicly and from house to house. The New Testament church met in relational small groups in homes of believers and also met in larger meetings in the temple courts. Our traditions told us that the Sunday morning church services were the most important part of a local church, yet we found the house fellowship to be the place where we were experiencing the most spiritual growth.
We believed our main focus needed to be making disciples as Jesus taught us, not having a Sunday morning church program. Since this was done most effectively in one-on-one relationships and small group Bible studies, we called this the underground part of the church. We challenged one another to reach those who did not know Christ, and we prayed for each other more intimately than we could in the larger gatherings of Sunday morning or Sunday evening services.
Different Type of Church
The call for us to start a different type of church for new believers was later clarified when a Mennonite bishop explained to us the meaning of Matthew 9:16-17: “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse. Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
He explained that a wineskin is like a balloon. It needs to be flexible and pliable. Putting a new Christian into an old structure can cause the structure to break, and the new Christian may be lost. New Christians should be placed in new structures that are flexible and that encourage spiritual growth.
Our team realized we had been trying to force new believers (or new wine) into older church structures (old wineskins). The older church structures were wonderful for the people who served there for many years, but the new believers needed a new type of church, a new structure, a new wineskin. What better place than a home? We repeatedly saw that new believers thrived in small group Bible studies. They prayed for each other, saw God move among them, listened attentively to teaching, asked questions, and grew in Christ.
On October 12, 1980, a group of around twenty-five people met for our first public meeting on a Sunday morning in the house at Abundant Living Ministries near Brickerville, Pennsylvania. By that time, we had three house fellowship groups meeting “underground.” In those early years, house churches were rare in our area. We pioneered through the unchartered territory of starting house fellowships and also conducted a Sunday meeting that encouraged and motivated believers to live wholeheartedly for God.
During the first six months, we felt we were growing backward. The three house fellowships went down to two. But as we received counsel from some seasoned spiritual leaders, by the grace of God, we began to grow. I remember looking at LaVerne one day and telling her, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could grow to a church of 200 people by the time we are eighty?” We had no idea what the Lord had planned. Ten years later our new church had grown into a multi-site church of more than 2,000 people in 130 small groups and we had planted churches in Scotland, Brazil, and Kenya. It was truly the grace of God. In 1996 we decentralized this one church to become a family of eleven churches in four nations.
Today, by God’s grace, DOVE International has grown to become a family of over 1,000 churches in 26 nations. God has called us as a global family of churches to lead people to Christ and plant churches in the nations. Some of these churches are community churches of a few hundred people or less, some are micro churches committed to planting new micro churches, and others are larger regional churches sometimes called mega-churches. But the call remains the same: to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ, disciple them in small groups, and plant new small groups and churches—new wineskins for the new wine. Paul the apostle said it so well in Timothy 2:2, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”
Read more of the DOVE International story in the book Our Journey with God: the DOVE International Story
Learn more about micro churches in episode 4 of the Larry Kreider Leadership Podcast, “Larry Kreider & Merle Shenk on Micro Churches and House Church Movements.”
About Larry and LaVerne Kreider
Larry and LaVerne have spent the past four decades training leaders to make disciples with the small group concept. Larry serves as the international director of DOVE International, a worldwide network of over 1,000 churches in twenty-six nations. Larry has written more than forty books and travels extensively teaching and imparting practical discipleship to leaders globally. Read about Larry and LaVerne or catch up on Larry’s blog.