I remember the day very well. The doctor came in the exam room and began to relay to us the heartbreaking news that our two and a half year old son was autistic. He began to describe what my son's future would be like. He said that our son would always live with us, would never get married, would never learn more than one language (if he ever spoke...), and that he was mildly retarded. As the doctor relayed this news to us, our son sat in the corner of the exam room with his back to us, oblivious to the gravity of our conversation - further "proof", according to the doctor, that our little boy was indeed autistic.
Fast forward 23 years. I am sitting at the Harvard University graduation ceremony listening to Steven Spielberg give the commencement address. My son, the same one described in the scene above, has just earned his master's degree from Harvard Divinity School. Four years earlier he had earned his undergraduate degree from that same institution. The contrast in emotion was striking - from heartbreak to my heart bursting with joy and pride. What happened? Was he misdiagnosed? Did God work a miracle? We may never know the answers to these questions.
As I pondered this emotional journey, I recalled the outpouring of love and support that our son Joseph had received immediately following his diagnosis and how this had continued for many years. We were encouraged to enroll him in a special school where each class would have very few children. Evidently, children with learning disabilities do better in small classrooms. In addition, our son received speech and occupational therapy for many years. A group of incredible friends sacrificially gave him special love and attention in their homes, and our extended family provided an atmosphere of unconditional love and acceptance. While we did not know what his future would hold, we knew that he would reach his full potential if he were given special love and attention. Indeed, all of us function best when we are surrounded by a small group of friends and family, given special attention, and loved unconditionally.
When I consider all of this, I am reminded of the power of the church and how the church functions optimally. In this series of articles, I am describing the intentional behaviors of people who have chosen to gather in house churches. As I described in the previous article, house church is also known as simple church, organic church, and new church (among other names). The intentional behavior that I am describing here is the decision to gather in a way where God's family love can be emphasized. Just as my son needed a "small classroom", "special attention" and "extra" love, many of us require the same in a spiritual fashion. Many of us are spiritually "autistic". We have a hard time experiencing God's love for us, and communicating that love to others. Practitioners of house church feel that the best way to convey the love of God is through "family style gatherings". As author Del Birkey states "What better way to communicate the personal nature of God and His love for people than by having church in a home?" This is not to say that family love cannot be conveyed in 'big church". It can. Practitioners of house church simply believe that our main emphasis should be on gathering in a home, sharing a meal, and most importantly, sharing our lives.
Rather than simply focusing on the blueprint or pattern of the New Testament church, it has been helpful for me to consider this God whom we serve. Who is our God? God is love. Our God is a relational God. The most important question then becomes, "What is the best way to demonstrate the love of God?' Practitioners of house church believe that the best way to do this is through the deliberate, conscious and purposeful manner of gathering as a small, family group. Intimacy comes through mutual self-disclosure. As we gather as a family and share our fears, struggles, hopes and concerns, love is shared and community emerges. As author Brian McClaren says "unless we are following the great commandment, it is futile to engage in the great commission."
(My next post will reveal some startling statistics that shed light on the need for Christians to be more intentional in terms of building relationships.)
My son Joseph and I at his graduation