Striving No More, Part 1, or Why I Keep Talking About Circle of Hope

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The cell group we left when we left Philly/Circle of Hope the first time, in 1998.

This is part 1 of a 5 part series. This post started out very differently. I set out to write about our ongoing struggle to follow Jesus, now in MN, and what that means for our participation in a local faith community. As is usually the case, however, I felt like I couldn’t tell that story very well without giving some background on our participation in other faith communities, including and especially our experience with Circle of Hope. Since I find myself telling this story so often, it made sense to pull it out of its context as a precursor or the background for any other story I might tell and instead let it stand alone as its own tale. It is, obviously, a story in its own right, and a foundational one for me, no less. This also gives me the ability to refer (link) back to it the next time I feel the need to re-tell it as context for further adventures. So, here goes.

As anyone who knows much of anything about me and/or has read much of this blog would know, to whatever extent I have, however little that may be, I “grew up” as a would be Jesus follower among the people of Circle of Hope. As I’ve often said, it was in that faith community that I learned that an isolated faith is no faith at all, that following Jesus is a communal project. It was among them that I learned that the church is a people, not a place, that “we are the church” and that it is therefore incumbent upon us to go and be the church, which is why it’s impossible to “go to church,” unless you mean you’re go(ing) to (meet the gathered) church. It was among them that I learned the power of storytelling as a means for working at right relationships, together. In fact, most of what I’m still trying to learn about how to follow Jesus has its roots in their proverbs, such as:

  • Jesus should be “lens through which” I “read the Bible”
  • As I alluded to above,”the Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project”
  • The church “exists for those yet to” become a part of it
  • “Life in Christ is one whole cloth,” and so I should “repent of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ “
  • I should be a “world Christian” if I am to be one at all; that is, the body of Christ is “transnational.” Therefore, if I am to pledge allegiance to anyone, it is to Christ and his kingdom. There’s much to say there about patriotism; for now, suffice it to say I am grateful for my privilege as a white male U.S. citizen but work continually at least to have some dim self-awareness of how many of my global brothers and sisters suffer so that I can enjoy that privilege
  • “Without worship, a person shrinks”
  • “We are discipled for mission, not just for personal growth”
  • “We learn best person to person, not program to person”
  • “In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable;” therefore they (the people of Circle of Hope) say:
    • “A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.”
    • “We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represent the new humanity.”
  • “In a culture deformed by violence, proactive peacemaking transforms our individual fears and faithfully witnesses to the Prince of Peace like nothing else;” therefore, I’m working to learn how to be a peacemaker, which is why I am against not just war, but violence of any kind
  • Circle of Hope, as I’ve oft described, is a cell group based church. Thus, they say:
    • “Our cells are the basic components of our living body in Christ. In them, Jesus is our ‘agenda’.”
    • “Our cells are the primary place where we help one another grow as disciples, face to face.”
    • “Living in covenant, like a family with a common Father, is basic to being a Christian.”
  • “Women and men are co-bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach and serve.”
  • “A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor.”

That basic concept of a cell group based church remains foundational and formative for my understanding of how the church can and maybe should work. As I’ve said before and they (the people of Circle of Hope) can describe much better than I, the metaphor is biological. Just as the human body exists as a collection of cells, each working together to serve the whole and allowing the whole (that is, the body) to grow as cells not just reproduce, but multiply; so too the church can function in this way as well. The local church known as Circle of Hope exists again not as a building or slickly produced worship experience or program or ministry, but rather as a collection of cell groups and, eventually in Circle of Hope’s history, congregations that work together in a network to serve Jesus in the greater Philadelphia region. Every cell, a circle of no more than about ten or so, has Jesus as “its only agenda” as described above. The cell has a leadership team consisting of a leader, apprentice, and host or hostess. The cell forms and covenants together, perhaps after telling one another their “stories” for a little while so they have a sense of who they are as a group. Their covenant specifies when they will meet, how often, and for how long. No cell is meant to go on forever. It’s written into each cell’s “DNA” that it will eventually either “multiply,” or die.

Once stories are told and a covenant made, each cell is free to focus on whatever they’d like to. Whatever they do, whether it’s read a book or talk about the latest sermon or explore coffee shops in the city, those activities are a means to the end of deepening their right relationships with God and one another as together they do the face to face hard work of trying to follow Jesus. When “life happens” and a group member walks into a meeting with what feels like the weight of the world on their shoulders, whatever activity may have been planned for that evening may be delayed or scrapped altogether so that the group can surround that person in love, support, and prayer. It’s about being a people on a mission together. All the while as the cell goes through its life cycle, the cell leader is discipling his or her apprentice so that when the group is ready to multiply, the apprentice is ready to step up as a leader of the next cell group. This is important because it really gets at the idea of the “priesthood of all believers” and turns it into a reality. As cell groups grow and multiply leaders are constantly being called out, trained, equipped, and unleashed to lead. There’s a part to play for everyone whether they lead a cell or not as it’s “all in” to do the work of not just following Jesus but having a life together. The people of Circle of Hope have bought and rehabbed old buildings and turned them into worship spaces, art galleries, and thrift stores that serve real needs in their community, including the need for jobs. The people of Circle of Hope have started community gardens and host an ongoing, free baby (and kids) goods exchange where everyone brings their gently used baby and kids clothes and offers it to their neighbors who might have an older or younger kid in need of just that size or that item.

In the meantime, if lives in the individual cell groups and in the network of cells and congregations as a whole are being changed and people are experiencing what it means to really be a part of something larger than themselves as they respond to the experience of actually having a life together that is rooted in Jesus, then each cell group is growing. This group project of following Jesus together is powerfully transformative, such that you can’t help but talk about it to your neighbors, friends, family, and co-workers. Among the people of Circle of Hope, you don’t really “invite someone to church” (remember, that’s impossible because the church is a people, not a place).  Instead, you invite someone into the life you’re having together as the church in your weekly cell group meeting. You might also invite them to the “public meeting” that happens on Sunday when all the cell groups gather for worship and teaching, but that meeting is also a big part of the church’s life together and serves as a celebration of all that good stuff that is already happening throughout the week. In any case, ideally each cell grows, and once it gets to be bigger than roughly 10 people or so (the “just right” size for meaningful face to face relationships in which there’s space and time for everyone to be heard, known, and loved over the course of a group’s life cycle), so long as the apprentice leader is ready, the group multiplies, forming two groups from one, with the apprentice leading a new group with his or her own apprentice and host, while the former leader selects a new apprentice and host, and the whole process starts over.

Multiplication is hard, and it doesn’t always happen, but forming a group that is designed to grow in this way, that has multiplication again written into its “DNA” is a powerful reminder again that the church exists for those yet to become a part of it. As members of that church, folks yearn to know and be known and loved for their own sake, to be sure, but again they’re learning that following Jesus is a group project. Therefore, they are not (only) their own. They’re not trying to “save” anybody by offering them “fire insurance,” by convincing or coercing them to say a few magic words before they die so that they don’t burn in hell forever. That’s not their motivation. Rather, the love they experience in the life they’re having together with Jesus makes for a genuinely better life than any they could have known otherwise, and certainly better than any that any one person could have known alone, and folks therefore want to share it. They have, after all, been invited to join God in the “family business” of reconciliation. By definition, then, a cell group can never be insular. It can never go on indefinitely in any sort of static form. God’s love can not be contained in this way. No one’s perfect, obviously, and no group is either. Some groups don’t multiply, in which case once their covenant period has come to an end the group dissolves and members are free to become a part of other cell groups.

I should say too that because this is how the people of Circle of Hope work so very intentionally at being the church, at being a people on a mission together, “membership” looks very different among them. It doesn’t happen by attending a class and signing an agreement to give of one’s “time and talents.” Like some individual cell groups make a covenant together that outlines what their shared life will look like, the people of Circle of Hope as a whole have done the same thing. Thus, to join the circle, you become a covenant member. Remember too that on Sundays the various Circle of Hope congregations have a “public meeting” to put a public face on the life of the church that is happening throughout the week in the cells. This meeting is a time for worship (remember, “without worship, we shrink”) and celebration of all that good stuff happening throughout the week. Similarly, as cells multiply congregations do as well and Circle of Hope has grown over the past 20 years from one fledgling congregation and a few cells to a network of five congregations and more than 50 cell groups. Thus, each quarter all the congregations and cells gather for a “love feast.” This is a celebration of the life the whole network is having together; it’s also a time when folks join the covenant that helps bind the whole network together. The process is intense, but beautiful. At a Love Feast, a covenant member will stand up in front of the whole assembly and introduce their friend who is joining the covenant. They might say, “This is my friend John. He’s a buddy from work who started coming to my cell. His family lives elsewhere and he didn’t have too many connections here. He didn’t really know a lot about Jesus and honestly may not have been that interested in him, but I’ve really seen him grow and change since joining my cell. He’s been really honest about some things and I’ve seen him really love the people around him well. I know he’s working to love and follow Jesus now too, and I’m proud to recommend him for membership in our covenant.” Then John will say a few words about why he wants to join the covenant, and then the gathered church can lovingly ask John questions. Then the group together assents to John becoming part of the covenant they all share together, and the party begins. It’s intense, like I said, but you might imagine, deeply meaningful and not much like most church memberships I’ve been around or know of.

So Kirsten and I were a part of Circle of Hope in two stints, from ’96-’98 and ’03-’05. In the latter stint I was a cell leader apprentice, then cell group leader, and for a short while a cell leader “coordinator” (a leader of cell leaders). Obviously, this model for how to be the church together has stuck with me and continues to captivate and shape my imagination. Obviously too we left Philly and Circle of Hope not once, but twice, both times under duress in the first case as Kirsten’s dad was rapidly dying here in the Twin Cities and in the second case in the wake of Samuel’s extraordinarily premature birth. In the latter case, we did not leave well or lovingly. Any meaningful relationship among imperfect people involves pain, of course, and we let ourselves get hurt when we weren’t loved in just the way we wanted or hoped to be as we dealt with the trauma of Samuel’s prematurity and all the disruption it caused in our lives. Instead of working through the issues that came up and growing as a result, and giving the community a chance to grow too, we skipped town. It wasn’t our best moment.

And truth is, since leaving Philly and Circle that second time we’ve struggled mightily in our efforts to be a part of any subsequent church. I’ve discussed that elsewhere on this blog. The one notable exception was House of Mercy here in the Twin Cities, which we were a part of for five years between Circle of Hope stints and which we’ve tried to reconnect with here since we’ve been back. There’s more to say about that, but this post is focused on Circle of Hope and why it continues to serve as the model for what I hope for from life together as the church. Before I end, I should add that every once in a while I’ve been in touch with one of the pastors of Circle of Hope since we left. I appreciate his leadership even from afar and even long after we’ve moved away- again- even if I didn’t always submit to it very well when I was there. I recently asked him to comment on the way a local church here in the “cities” is working at trying to follow Jesus together, and he had some helpful things to say. I’ll say more about that in a follow-up post to this one, but for now I want to comment on one of the things he said in response to me expressing some reservations about how that local church here was working at “being the church.” He said:

“I have to say that I think a lot of the things that trouble you are in you. Stay in therapy and don’t project too much on others — they won’t match up to what you need. Jesus will save you, not some outer experience (you know that). If you came back here, we would likely look wrong, too, by this time. Jesus may have also had an idealization of what we ought to be, but, fortunately, he healed us instead of holding us to it and just being eternally disappointed in how human we were.”

I suspect he’s right, and again I’ll have more to say about that in a follow-up post. For now, though, I want to focus on his comment that they (Circle of Hope) “would likely look wrong, too (to me), by this time.” I think part of what he’s getting at is that Circle of Hope has changed over the 20 years of their life together, most of that life now having occurred since we left for the last time 13 years ago. They’ve added some “proverbs” to their collection of them and taken some away. People have come and gone (though many have stayed). They’ve stayed true to their mission of being the church through cells, but because they work so hard to be relational not just with one another but with God and therefore to be organic; that is, living and alive; because this is so, their life together has changed too. For instance, they have compassion and mission teams now in addition to cells. These other teams are never programmatic but rise up when there is a need for them and go away as soon as that need is met. Cells remain the basic building blocks of the church. Compassion and mission teams work with the cells to help the larger network fulfill its calling in the region, especially as they are called to works of compassion and service. As they say: “None of our teams constitute a ‘program’ of the church. They are all an expression of the life of the Spirit in the body of Christ. They start with an inspiration and form when enough people want to join together to express God’s leading. When they lose steam or their service is done, they disperse.”

This may or may not be one of the changes my former Circle of Hope pastor was perhaps alluding to when he suggested that they “might look wrong” to me “by this time.” I don’t know. I do know that I continue to appreciate what Circle of Hope is becoming. As they listen to God and try hard to get with “what God is doing next” and listen to one another as they keep making their covenant together and do the hard work of being the church together, face to face, person to person, lives are being changed and they are impacting their region. I’m glad just to know that they’re out there and will re-double my effort to figure out what that means for me and my family here in MN.  I appreciate too that in the past I’ve gotten the message that what God is doing in the Philly region among the people of Circle of Hope is just that- what God is doing there. I don’t think they’d ever try to “take this thing national.” As I said, I asked my former Circle of Hope pastor to comment on how a local church here was working to be the church, here. Part of that work by that local MN church involves their connection to a larger, (inter)national group which I’ll comment on in a separate post. Anyway, about that, my former Circle of Hope pastor said, “why don’t you steer away from national things that should be local?” This question is contextual and his larger point was that, from what he saw online, he likes the local church here, but my point now is that the work of being the church together is always contextual too. God got really particular in the person of Jesus, and he continues to work quite particularly in local people in all the places and times where they can be found. I need to be better at not only paying attention to what God might be up to among the people here, where I am now, but perhaps more importantly, I need to be better at allowing myself to be one of them. In other words, I need to be better at letting God do his particular work in and through me, here in MN, whatever that may mean. Stay tuned.

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