How To Avoid Becoming a Cult (or for that matter A Large Consumer Mega Church): Oikos versus Ekklesia

imagesOikos and Ekklesia: Every Church Needs Both
In Gregory Dix’s monumental book The Shape of the Liturgy he describes how the early gathering of the Christians took on a double character. There were private meetings in homes where an intimate fellowship around the Table happened weekly. This was called oikos (the household). And there were meetings that were larger and public that gave witness to the reality that Jesus is Lord over the wider polis /city. This became called the ekklesia, a Greek term used to refer to the political gathering of the city to discuss the affairs of the city (although the Christian use of this word took from Hebrew/Jewish connotations). Dix says that public worship (ekklesia) happened in the synagogue where Scripture was read, gospel proclaimed and celebrated and open to the public. But there was no Eucharist. Dix says private worship took place in private homes where they gathered to share a meal, apostles teaching, the Lord’s Table, and the sending (oikos Dix p. 36). Here the gathering was centered in the Eucharist. Dix says this private/public distinction was maintained until Constantine where a shift happened “From Private to Public Worship”  (p. 304ff).  As Roman society became officially Christian, and there was no need to discern who was “present” as a Body-member around the Table, the private function and the public function melded. Huge public buildings were built or taken over. The tension between private and public was lost. (*Note: This is my read on Dix. There is some dispute as to how to interpret all this. See Bernd Wannenwetsch Political Worship ch. 6).

IMO all of the above speaks loud and clear that the church must necessarily be both private and public. Every church must hold these two social dynamics together or it can no longer be church. We are called to both gather in intimate fellowship in the Spirit around the presence of Christ (and in this we are formed and shaped into His Kingdom as His body in the world) and we are also called to give public witness socially to the new political reality coming into being, the Kingdom of God. The two dynamics feed off one another and make each possible. Either one on its own shrinks and eventually loses its integrity.

We Need Both or else Bad Things Happen

In a culture where we no longer can assume people are Christians, I contend we once again need to separate oikos and ekklesia in the local church. Perhaps in a Christianized world, say the 1950’s, we could afford to do both at the same time. We could hold large gatherings open to the public where we do the Eucharist and not lose its meaning, and central forming force. But today, in many places, we can no longer assume everybody knows what it means to surrender and be present to the very presence of Christ, his forgiveness, reconciliation and new life, in the bread and the cup. If we don’t maintain the oikos/ekkelsia distinction, bad things happen.

For instance, when we emphasize ekklesia to the exclusion of oikos our life loses the intimacy of life in His presence and in the presence of one another. We lose the space in which we are nurtured and formed into His reign and transformation through all the gifts and the Lord’s Table etc. Mega churches have long recognized the need for oikos. Amidst the huge gathering open to seekers, the small places got lost where true discipleship takes place. They tried their hardest to have small groups or local community house gatherings. Yet still, I contend, when the Sunday morning attractional event is so central, it determines the other smaller social spaces. People get trained into consumerist events as the basis of their Christianity. The ability to be present, open and vulnerable to one another around a Table is lost.  The inbreaking life of Kingdom that shatters the hold of society’s sins is lost and the church becomes more and more accommodative and consumerist the longer it is detached from oikos.

On the other hand, when we emphasize oikos to the exclusion of ekklesia we become isolated from the life of the broader context in which we live. Indeed we become cult-ish. We gather in homes in such intimacy and drink of the blessing of that life until we are full. We are involved in the neighborhood relationally, engaging the hurting and lost. But when someone wants to become part of this social body where together we all can make sense of Christ and in the encounter around the Table, outsiders can’t enter. It’s too intimidating. Years later, we have become isolated unable to speak the language of those outside us. The little community becomes more ingrown as the years go by. Amish? Exclusive? Even Cultish?

This Problem in Missional Communities

Most missional communities/new missional start-ups I know start by inhabiting a context/neighborhood with oikos. It is rich, contextual and place to work out on the ground what God is doing. This makes sense to me. Every home is a place to be present to Christ and one another and allow the Kingdom (His Lordship) to shape this place and our presence together in the world. But eventually, if there is no public meeting, this small community gets shut out from the neighborhood because of the intense intimacy and incredible encounter. It becomes a clique a cult. No one can break in. (The early church had this problem).

Certainly members of the small house gathering make friends, relationally the Kingdom happens, and they can invite them in. But!! Too often the boundaries to enter are too high. The habits of the small intimate gathering have gone unchallenged for too long by the social reality outside it. There is no bridge place for outsiders to make sense enough to commit to becoming part of an oikos.

And so, I believe it is as essential for the local oikos to have ekklesia just as it is for the ekklesia to have oikos.

The more I think about this, and the more I hear of what others are doing in cities like Minneapolis, Cleveland etc. (Mike Breen has advocated a version of this here) the more I see the advantages of organizing the church gatherings into something like this (although there are many other ways to accomplish holding oikos and ekklesia together in tension without either melding into the other).

1. Keep oikos in the homes. Here we have a sharing of a meal. We have mutual sharing of our lives. We have Scriptural proclamation. We have Eucharist and prayer. We have presence with one another. We have a sending.

2.Once a month however we have a broader celebration friendly to the public (ekklesia): Call it “Celebration of What God is Doing” in (town or village you inhabit).”

Here we would:

  • Invite all churches in the neighborhood to join us.
  • We would collectively tell stories of what God is doing in neighborhood …
  • We would proclaim the gospel over this neighborhood (what we used to call preaching) in such a way that connects to everyone in neighborhood.
  • We would praise God in music and celebratory praise and invite the world into this.
  • We would send out with a blessing over the city/village we inhabit.

Here there would be NO Eucharist – no intimate settings where we share life … it could not possibly be a staple of Christian life. But it can be public ecclesia gospel witnessing event that gives people the wherewithal to make sense of what they are seeing (hearing rumors of) in the neighborhood and encouraging everyone into what God is doing.

If you have a large building in center of town, use this building for this grand celebration every month. But do not let this meeting become the center of Christian life or else oikos will be lost and the church will lose the tension.

Instead use the larger building (larger than a house) for gathering together to care of important functions in the church such as children’s catechesis, serve needs of the community – food for the hurting, recreation, concerts for the local businesses.

In summary

Every missional church needs both oikos and ekklesia. Many hold oikos and ekklesia in tension in different ways. At Life on the Vine what has evolved is a singular gathering where both are held together in one gathering with intensified oikos developed in local missional order house gatherings. On the other hand, our discussions in Peace of Christ church suggest another strategy altogether. There are many different approaches but the two must be held in tension. How do you hold both in tension at your church? How does one get lost in the other?

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