It is happening again. A new species of church is emerging throughout North America and in other nations. In major cities as well as rural areas, a unique kind of church life is peeking through like the fresh growth of new crops pressing through the surface of the soil.
Hungry for community and relationship, people are learning what the church is really all about by first-hand participation. They meet in small groups in homes, offices, boardrooms or restaurants. For them church has become a way of life where discipleship and growth occurs naturally as everyone develops their gifts and “learns by doing,” under the mentorship of spiritual fathers and mothers. I like to call this fledgling grassroots phenomenon “micro church networks.”
They are called micro churches because each one functions as a little church. They are networks because the churches work together to foster accountability and encouragement. These new micro church networks are beginning to dot the landscape of North America just as they already do in other nations of the world. Places like China, central Asia, Latin America, India and Cambodia have experienced tremendous growth through micro churches that disciple and empower each member to “be the church.”
In micro churches, many are finding true Christian community where they can form close and supportive relationships and be assisted in their personal development. People are searching for this kind of connection.
The need for new wineskins
Here is how we became involved in the new micro churches both in our area of Lancaster County Pennsylvania, USA and in other nations. I had the privilege of serving as a senior pastor of a church in our county for fifteen years. In 1980, our new rural church plant in south central Pennsylvania started as a cell group in our home and grew from twenty-five people to over one thousand within seven years. By 1990, we had grown to over 2,300. Back then, we thought we had a radical outlook on doing church because we incorporated small groups as our foundational structure. However, after several years, it became apparent that there was a sense of unrest in our growing church.
I especially noticed this with some of the young people. They craved a new type of wineskin that would provide a more contemporary venue in which to get involved. They were saying the same kind of things we had said years earlier: “We are looking for something new. We need something that truly meets our needs.” Our wineskin had begun to age—it was past its prime for many of the younger generation.
In 1996, we decentralized our church into eight churches in Pennsylvania and three other churches we helped to plant in other nations asked to be a part of our new family of churches—DOVE International. Today, by the grace of God, we are blessed to serve together with believers from five continents.
We have seen the need to help a new generation plant new churches—micro churches—that fit their generation, alongside the current church models (community and mega-churches) we have been planting for years. “Community churches” are needed in every community, and “mega-churches” in some urban areas meet a need the average community church may not meet. But let’s get ready for the new micro churches that will soon be springing up all around us. Let me explain it like this.
The community church
In nearly every community around the world, you can find what I call “community churches.” Most of these churches meet in a church facility each Sunday morning, in addition to holding various meetings at the church building throughout the week. There are many styles and flavors of community churches. There is the Methodist flavor, the Baptist flavor, the Episcopal flavor, the Presbyterian flavor, the Assembly of God flavor, the non-denominational flavor, the independent flavor; the list goes on and on. Some are Calvinistic; some are Arminian. Some are Charismatic in their worship expression, while some are traditional. Some churches are dispensational in their theology, while others focus on the here and now. Some churches are small group based, and others are not. Many Sundays somewhere in the world, I have the privilege of speaking at one of these community churches with their different flavors. I love the many unique expressions of the body of Christ. It would be boring if each expression looked exactly the same!
In our county alone, there are more than six hundred community churches of every kind. The great majority of those churches have between fifty and two hundred members, and others have more. (When they reach approximately 1,000 attendees, they usually fall into another classification—the mega-church.) Although community churches range in size, they all have a clear target area they are reaching—the local populace. In many cases, those that attend and those they reach live in the general geographical area.
The community church reminds me of the local community store. Where do you buy your groceries? You probably shop at a local grocery store in your community. It might be an independent store, or it could be part of a large chain of stores, but it is a store in close proximity to where you live. You may personally know the clerks, and you know where specific items are shelved.
Some neighborhood stores, like community churches, are larger than others, but they still feel like a community store. This store serves your local area. Very few people in your neighborhood would drive a long distance to get their groceries. Some even walk to a corner grocery store.
Likewise, very few people will drive long distances to worship with other believers who gather each week at their community church facility. Proximity and ease of access are a large part of the very nature of the community church.
Years ago, nearly every church in America was a community church (generally a church of 50-1,000 in attendance). There were very few exceptions. A wave of mega-churches mushrooming across America. Many implemented small groups to help them grow. Not only did mega-churches like this spring up in major metropolitan areas, they appeared on the rural scene. Today, in the United States, it is not unusual for people to drive for over an hour to attend worship services at a megachurch. Megachurches have much to offer. There are ministries for every member of the family, twelve step programs for those with addictions, Bible schools, concerts, youth ministries, singles’ ministries; you name it, almost anything is available. The megachurch phenomenon has changed the face of the church.
It is a fact that megachurches are growing rapidly. According to the National Association of Evangelicals, there are about 189 churches with more than 3,000 average weekly attendance nationwide. In our nation, every two weeks a new church with 2,000 or more members opens.3
Megachurches are like Walmart superstores!
I like to call the mega-church the “Walmart superstore church.” Walmart is a popular department store chain in the United States. Shoppers love the large inventory of consumer products and they can get all they need in one place.
Megachurches, like the Walmart superstores, are large and they offer an abundance of services to the churchgoer. However, unlike the community church where you may know nearly everyone, at a mega-church you probably know only a few people. Yet, church members thoroughly enjoy a mega-church since everything is easily accessible in one location.
Everyone is different, having varying needs, so it’s not unusual that some people love Wal-mart while others seldom if ever shop there. The same is true when people decide which church to attend. Some love the megachurch while others feel lost in the crowd and prefer the smaller community church.
The new micro churches—a new wineskin
Time marches on. What was new and unique several years ago becomes an old wineskin in today’s world. I believe it is time again to pray and obey. The Lord has been instructing me and many of my generation to prepare the way for the next generation of church planters and church leaders who will model a new type of church for the next generation.
In today’s church world, you can find the community store churches and the Walmart superstore churches everywhere. The Lord has and will continue to use both. However, He will also use the new micro church networks with their different approaches and structures to build His kingdom. Let’s open our hearts to this revolutionary force that is growing quietly in humble house churches across the nation and around the world.
In describing a micro church network, the analogy would be equivalent to the stores in a shopping mall. If the average store found in a shopping mall was taken out of the mall and let to stand on its own, it would die within a year. The normal store in a shopping mall needs the others to survive. Each specialized store flourishes together within the cluster of the others. Yet each store is fully a “store” in its own right, despite being in a mall. Each micro church has its own unique vision from the Lord and focuses on a specific group of people it is reaching out to. However, the micro churches are accountable to the larger vision of the micro church network. This provides accountability for the leadership of the micro churches and keeps them from getting into heresy and exclusiveness.
We needed to rethink our wineskins
It didn’t take us long to conclude that we must find ways to plant new churches (new wineskins) and begin the process of handing over the reins to the next generation. If we didn’t, we would lose what we already had. How then could we reach out to our world and reap a harvest? As Dr. Peter Wagner has said so often, “The single most effective way to evangelize is to plant new churches.” 4
DAWN (Discipling A Whole Nation) Ministries, a saturation church planting organization, agrees. This kind of church planting infiltration, that envisions a Christ-centered congregation of believers in every neighborhood in every nation, will deeply affect our society. They suggest that one church is needed for every 500-1,000 people, and our current and prevailing church models will not be able to do it without the influence of these micro churches.5
New micro churches networking effectively together in our communities give the opportunity for thousands of new churches to be planted rapidly all across the nations of the world. Many more new churches are needed to care for the harvest of souls coming into God’s kingdom. Now is the time to prepare.
Young leaders with a vision.
My wife LaVerne and I are currently serving with a group of young leaders who started a new micro church network here in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, last year. A team of young leaders started their first micro church in our home. Nearly one third of the believers in the micro church were new believers! Within four months, the micro church grew to fifty believers! People were everywhere in our house! Two months later the church multiplied into two churches and the micro church network had begun. Church in our home meets every Wednesday night. We start with a meal, and then have a meeting for worship and prayer and spiritual discussions in the basement of our home. Then we break up into about eight smaller groups for personal ministry and relationship building. This micro church network is still in its infancy stages, but it has been exciting. LaVerne and I are not leading any of the micro churches, but we are involved in coaching the leaders and trying to stay out of the way!
The micro churches in the Lancaster Micro Church Network meet together in a combined meeting once every two months. Sometimes we have a picnic in a park, at other times a night of worship or teaching, and sometimes we have a baptism to baptize the new believers. We also baptize new believers in bathtubs and in swimming pools as a micro church. The Network has designed a simple vision for the new micro church network. It states: “The vision for the Lancaster Micro Church Network is to create new, flexible wineskins that will be a leadership training ground for rapid reproduction of leaders of small, relational, evangelistic churches.” Each micro church has a vision to plant a new micro church.
Micro churches and finances
In most churches today, approximately eighty percent of all finances are used to support the church staff, buildings, and church programs. The other twenty percent is given outside the church to missions and to support ministry to the community. We have found that in the micro church this figure is inverted. Since there is no building rental, and pastors are not paid but are bi-vocational, eighty percent of all finances are used to support missions and to support ministry to the community, and the other twenty percent is given support the micro church needs for ministry within the church. The micro churches in the Lancaster Micro Church Network have been willing to give thousands of dollars to missions and to serve our community. When a fivefold minister comes in to minister at a micro church meeting, they receive very generous offerings, because micro church folks love to give! The micro church elders tell me they love to give money away to missions and to needy people in our community, because they have the money to give!
Accountability and training
DOVE International, the worldwide network of churches that I and a team of spiritual leaders oversee, found we had to broaden our territory to include micro church networks. We realize that small group based community churches, mega-churches and micro church networks, although different, are close cousins.
In light of this, we added training to our leadership school for micro church planters. DOVE Leadership and Ministry School developed to train leadership. We emphasize that there can be small groups in micro churches, community churches and megachurches. If we want all three types of churches to coexist, we will need to be proactive in training for all three.
We want to stay current with what the Lord is doing in our day and work with the existing churches as well. We believe we are called by the Lord to help start new community churches, meg-churches, and micro churches that form micro church networks, because all three types of churches are a part of the Lord’s plan for His church in every region. Leaders of all denominations and movements will also be wise to reach out to those within their family of churches and help them start micro church networks, otherwise future micro church leaders within their denominations will look elsewhere for spiritual oversight.
Both young and old want involvement in church life but fail to find their niche.
Just like the generations before them, many of today’s young people look at the existing wineskins and have no enthusiasm for them. Young people are looking for a church experience that will give them a reason to get involved and motivate them to enthusiastically participate.
Older people, too, are looking for a new model of church where they can be fully involved. I can still vividly remember a man in his 50’s confiding in me, with tears running down his cheeks, after I taught at his megachurch: “I know the Lord called me years ago to be a pastor, but I just do not know how it can ever happen here in my church.”
This man, who gave relationships high priority, was a loving person with a pastor’s heart. He was longing to fulfill God’s call on his life. Think what could happen if he had a micro church venue. As a spiritual father in a micro church, he could fulfill his heart’s cry. In a micro church, he could look after his spiritual extended family and find his niche.
Therefore, it is not just the younger generation that micro churches appeal to. However, overall, I believe it will be the younger generation that will take the lead in starting new micro churches and micro church networks in our communities. Why? Because they will thrive in a new wineskin that fits their generation’s need for authentic relationships. Young adults are very open to small groups that are based on friendships and socializing. They love to spend time in homes and in discussion. This young generation especially craves real-life connections because it is a generation raised in the non-physical oriented communication structures of cyberspace, cell phones and a multitude of other gadgets at our fingertips do not inspire deep relational connections. This generation is looking for dependable, meaningful relationships.
The need for spiritual fathers and mothers
Once I spoke at a Bible school sponsored by a thriving megachurch. After the class was completed, a young man in his mid-twenties came up to me and opened his heart. “I have been a staff member of this church for the past few years. I have not told anyone yet, but I am planning to quit and move on to something else. I can’t take it anymore. This is a great church, and I love the leaders and the other staff. But they are too busy. If just one of them gave me only one hour a month to sit down with me for breakfast and hear my heart, I would stay. What I really want is a father. I just do not feel I fit in here. Therefore, I am going to leave. I need to find a place I fit. Even though good things are happening here, it is just not me. I must take a step of faith and find my way. There has to be more.”
The four basic values of the next generation
The four top things I hear repeatedly from this generation is that they are looking for relationship, authenticity, the freedom to be creative and intergenerational connection.
- Relationship Young people just want others with whom they can connect. They love to “hang out” with friends. They really value their relationships.
- Authenticity They are tired of the plastic, smiling Christianity, where things look good on the surface, but underneath it isn’t real. They are looking for people who are real who live out their Christianity authentically every day. If they blow it, they say so, receive forgiveness and move on.
- Freedom to be creative They want the freedom to express Christianity in a way that is unique to them. They say, “The kind of church I’m involved with may look different from other churches. I may be involved with one particular sector of society because that is where God has called me.”
- Intergenerational connection I hear them say again and again, “I don’t want to do it myself. I want fathers and mothers in the Lord who will encourage me, help me avoid pitfalls, and release me to fulfill my destiny in God.”
The micro church network gives the opportunity to experience these four values!
We need to release the younger generation to build their own structures and reproduce. I mention in my book The Cry for Spiritual Fathers and Mothers that Rick Joyner from Charlotte, North Carolina, told a group of pastors in our city: “Pastors sometimes don’t like having young stallions in their churches. They seem to cause too many problems. But only young stallions can reproduce. Resist the temptation to ‘fix’ them so they cannot reproduce!”
A group of 18 to 35-year-olds shared with me: “We like our churches and our pastors, but our present churches are not something we want to give our lives for. We lead smell groups, youth groups and serve in the church, but we do not want to do this our whole lives. God is calling us to something new—new kinds of churches. We are not even sure what it will look like, but we want the opportunity to try. We are not rebellious. We want the blessing of the leaders of our churches. We respect and honor them. But we want to build our own house. There are things the Lord has placed inside of us that we desire to see become reality. It is good to have a room within our father’s house, but we have a God-given desire to build a new home.”
A major aspect of micro church ministry is preparing and training future spiritual fathers and mothers and then releasing them to reproduce themselves. Only dysfunctional parents will try to hang on to their children and use them to fulfill their own vision. Healthy parents expect their children to leave their home to start their own families. Healthy spiritual parents must think the same way. This generation of Christian leaders are called to “give away” many of the believers in their churches to start their own spiritual families—new micro churches.
We must think in terms of our spiritual children starting their own micro churches in the future. Without raising up spiritual fathers and mothers today, we are in danger of losing the next generation. If we do not believe we have the grace to start a church planting movement, then we should ask the Lord to join us to a church planting movement so we can be productive.
The church in the book of Acts multiplied rapidly because they understood the value of believers meeting in homes in spiritual family relationships. They functioned in close relationship with each other. This healthy activity and interdependence resulted in healthy growth for the early church.
As the Lord restores spiritual family life into His kingdom today, the church in our generation will also multiply rapidly. We must be ready. We must properly train and prepare spiritual parents, sons and daughters so that Christ may be formed in them.
A sweeping revival is just around the corner. God’s people need to be alert to accommodate the great harvest this will bring into the kingdom of God. Spiritual parents will need to be ready to obey His call and take these young Christians under their wings. God has called us to be spiritual parents.
Restoring the New Testament pattern
Although for the past 1700 years much of the church of Jesus Christ has strayed from the truth of relational restoration between fathers and sons, the Lord is breathing a fresh word to His people in our generation. Rather than having the focus on meetings and buildings which promote programs to encourage the spiritual growth of believers, He is calling us back to be His family and return to the New Testament truth of building families.
If you are a pastor or a Christian leader, let me take a moment and speak with you. Now is the time for the generations to come together to build His kingdom! We must commission this next generation to establish their own new churches. We must not hold them back. Let’s empower them and then rejoice with them when they reproduce!
Many believers are meeting from house to house in small groups throughout the world because the Lord is restoring this sense of family to the body of Christ. Christians are again beginning to re-live the book of Acts. They are seeing the importance of empowering and parenting the next generation to start churches that fit their generation.