Out of Africa—Shared Church

What can we learn about practicing shared church from our brothers and sisters in Africa?

Click on arrow for video interview with Dotun Reju, the founding pastor of Kingdom Citizens Pavilion in Jos, Nigeria.

In The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins said the center of gravity in Christendom has shifted away from the Western church to places like Asia, South America, and Africa. Some churches there are learning to “do church” in participatory ways. I recently interviewed Dotun Reju online in a Zoom conversation. He is the founding pastor of the Kingdom Citizens Pavilion in Jos, Nigeria. This blog is based on our conversation. (Click here to see and hear a YouTube video of that interview.)

Q: Kingdom Citizens Pavilion is an unusual name for a church. Please explain.

In Matthew 5, I discovered the centrality of the Kingdom in the gospel Jesus preached. I realized it’s just like being a citizen of a country. Being African, I know what a kingdom is. We’ve lived under a monarchy. A citizen of a kingdom reflects the values, the personality, and the principles of the king who rules that kingdom. I concluded that Jesus Christ came to raise up a community of citizens for his Kingdom. Believers are to operate like citizens of the Kingdom where Jesus is King. And then I read Psalm 31:20—“In the time of trouble, he will hide me in his pavilion from the strife of tongues.” So that’s the Pavilion part of the name. This is a Pavilion for Citizens of the Kingdom.

Q: How does a church that practices the priesthood of all believers differ from so many churches?

Titles are downplayed—titles like Pastor, Reverend, Prophet. You never a see a situation where it is the pastor who prays for the people; people pray together. In most churches there is a very clear demarcation between the leader and the led. But in a church that believes in the priesthood of all believers, the key is function, not titles.

Q: You have accountability groups. What do those involve? How are they formed?

Because priests basically represent God in their society, we ask ourselves, “How do we go into our society? How do we go into the world? We need to go with something.” And we discovered that it’s our professions, our careers. We gather people of like professions and passions for mutual accountability and mutual benefit. What are you going through in your own place of work? What challenges, what opportunities exist there? How can the person who works in Organization A or B learn from one in Organization C?

We have four categories of accountability groups: health, education, the arts, and business. Each group comes up with community projects. For example, the education accountability group is close to a slum with a high level of illiteracy. So they have begun a reading clinic. Their long-term plan is to build a library there. They bring their skills as educators to teach people how to read and write, even without formal schooling. Right now the business group is trying to set up a pilot farm, where they can train small-scale farmers. The purpose is not to bring them to our church. The purpose is to take the church to them. But we’ve seen a lot of them come to the saving knowledge of Christ.

Q: You also have community pastors. How are they related to the accountability groups? And how are they chosen?

The leaders of the accountability groups are the community pastors. Each group functions like a micro-church. Leaders emerge from the groups. The groups identify those who are going to lead them.

Events like naming children and baptisms are done in those groups. If you want to get married, the first person who will know is the community pastor. Your accountability group leader/pastor provides pastoral care. This person needs to have the skill set, the emotional bent, to be able to function in that role. If that group wants to have a Bible study, their pastor will not necessarily lead it. It will be led by someone in the group with the skill to moderate a Bible study. So leadership is highly adaptive. The community pastor coordinates.

Q: So the community pastor in an education group would be an educator, right?

Yes. The way you disciple an educator should be distinctly different from the way you disciple a doctor. We disciple by taking the mission field into consideration. We’ve seen that most times other churches disciple people to function within the church—to become good ushers, good choir members, good Bible study attendees. We disciple for that, but also for where they spend most of their waking moments. We take their places of work into consideration when we disciple them.

Q. How often do these community accountability groups come together?

On the level of the leadership, they are expected to meet once a month. But on their own level, they have other meetings. They have potlucks, when they meet to just have fun, eat together, or celebrate someone’s birthday. So they have one meeting a month on the whole-church calendar. But they are also expected to have other meetings. Maybe once a quarter, the leaders of all these accountability groups also meet with me for orientation, for feedback, and for training. The first Sunday of every month is the whole-church family Sunday. We have stories from the accountability group fellowships. This week we will be hearing from the education accountability group, from the health group, and some praise reports from families. This community gathering is very life-giving. It makes the church come alive. Everyone sees that what you learn you will be held responsible and accountable for. And when you teach, you will receive feedback. Is what you are teaching actually getting across?

Q: So the whole church can see what God is doing right now in their community—not just what he did 2,000 years ago, right?

Yes, what he is doing right now. Absolutely!

Q: Tell us about how you commission people and how they take this to heart on the job.

Yes, maybe you’ve finished your education and graduated, completed vocational training, or gone through the post-university, mandatory, national service. These people go through an orientation, which is basically my teaching them the theology of work. We show them that the next phase of their life is a call to ministry. In commissioning them, we say, “This is not different from what many churches know as ordination.” There is no title, and they are not necessarily being sent to go and serve in a local church. Our philosophy: we don’t go to church; church goes to places.

So we have this special Sunday service where these people are presented to the whole congregation and prayed for. They are commissioned and deployed to where we believe God is sending them. They are meant to understand that where they are going to is not just about “getting a job,” but that they are actually going into ministry. We call them the “Invaders’ Squad,” because we believe they are going to invade their worlds with the gospel—primarily with lifestyle and work quality.

Q: Who serves on your teaching team? How many are on that team? And what are their qualifications?

We think not in terms of qualifications but in terms of skills. Everyone in the church can express themselves in all ways. But for now, the teaching team consists of myself and three others who have valuable teaching gifts. As leaders, we observe. What is this person’s strength? So the teaching team is highly flexible. We always want to raise up fresh minds who will be brought into the teaching and pastoral roles. We define the five-fold ministry offices [of Ephesians 4:11] and ask people to do a self-appraisal. We also watch to see if this or that person has a particular gifting in one of those areas. It is something people grow into.

Q: How has the congregation responded to the reports from the accountability groups?

Everyone looks forward to this Sunday, because they are not going to be bored with my long preaching! It gives everyone a sense of belonging. People might have some issues in their own lives, and to hear others talk about something they are going through is very encouraging. We have demystified Sunday. The gospel we received from the West—the way it was given to us—was very Sunday-oriented. We still value Sunday, but we see it as an opportunity to come and connect.

We have also demystified church weddings. If you get married in your living room, it’s not inferior to getting married in the church building. So we have been able to demystify the building, to demystify Sunday, and to use every opportunity to engage our culture. God doesn’t live in this building. It’s only church when we are here. And everywhere we are, that becomes the church. Take the example of the American President. Any kind of aircraft he enters becomes Air Force One. What makes the aircraft Air Force One is the presence of the American President.

Q: You have visited the U.S. many times. How would you suggest that in our U. S. culture we can adopt some of the things you’ve discovered?

What I’ve seen in the American experience is individualism taken to a very negative extent. Community is not valued. Lack of accountability to each other is not the way it should be. Because of that, the church in America is fast losing their society. And what can solve that problem is to begin to emphasize where Christians spend most of their waking moments. We need to value where we really live—which is in the workplace. We need to know how to really engage that place. It’s not a Sunday-Sunday kind of thing. That’s one thing America can learn. You can learn from Africans in terms of community, how we really come together, how we value community, and how we demystify Sundays.

A Church Patterned on Trinity

Several authors have urged a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog is the second on such books.

How Should “Trinity” Shape the Church?

In Trinity in Human Community, Peter R. Holmes explains how. His subtitle, Exploring Congregational Life in the Image of the Social Trinity, offers a hint. God, he says, is a social, relational Being. This truth should mold the way we meet and interact in our churches.

As those created in the likeness of this personal, communal God, we grow best as we relate to him and to others in true community. But too often church people do not experience such fellowship. Holmes notes that “Congregational meetings can look like the classroom, faith being a thing we learn to do intellectually. We often stand in rows to worship God.”

After-Effects of Augustine

Peter Holmes2.jpg

Why do we find it so challenging to experience real community? Holmes traces much of the difficulty to the theology we in the Western Church got from Augustine. Most of us don’t realize how greatly the ideas of this fourth/fifth-century theologian still color the way we think. Influenced by Greek thought, Augustine emphasized the oneness of the Godhead. By contrast, the Eastern Church had stressed the personhood of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From Augustine, says Holmes, we “inherited . . . the idea of a static, transcendent Trinity.” This “makes it more difficult for us to imagine the possibility of engaging with our spirituality, and knowing an intimate relationship with God.”

The insights of Augustine, Holmes believes, need to be counterbalanced with those of his Eastern-Church contemporaries, the Cappadocian Fathers—Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil the Great. Although we should not see them through rose-colored glasses, the Cappadocians offer an understanding of God we have missed: perichoresis. This means that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always lived in intimate social relationship, mutually indwelling each other. As Jesus said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (Jn. 14:11). In other words, God himself is, lives, and loves as a Community.

A Reluctant Church Planter

In 1998, along with four others, Holmes planted Christ Church Deal (CCD) in Deal, a coastal UK city located where the North Sea and English Channel meet. With years of experience in churches and church leadership, Holmes had a “personal problem” in making the transition to a perichoretic church. “It had never really occurred to me,” he admits, “that congregational life could or should be more than a series of regular meetings, and that ‘fellowship’ as I was regularly practicing it was actually not authentic community.”

He discovered that he had “deep personal prejudices against ideas of ‘community.’” Solid Christians didn’t need community, he thought. He’d been raised to think of himself as a strong, independent male. Who needed close relationships? He had read and heard stories of the heroes of the faith, recalling that “Most of these writings seem to focus on the journey and successes of the individual.”

Realizing what it would cost to practice perichoretic church, Holmes resisted. “I instinctively and stubbornly held on to the old ways, redoubling my efforts rather than taking the risk of changing my thinking. What I had to admit was that reproducing traditional institutional Church is always much easier for me. After all, I had had over thirty-five years of doing it this way. The task of seeking to create a new model of congregation as community was far too daunting to undertake.”

Steps Toward a Perichoretic Church

But as he began to listen to the hearts of those in the newly planted church, Holmes began to realize that what he and they needed most was a true community patterned on the social Trinity. He recalls that the people in CCD “did not want meetings, but they did want relationships.” Since then, CCD has intentionally taken steps to create an environment in which relationships in community can flourish. For example:

  • “We have experimented with the idea of doing things together, seeing this as an excuse for a get-together, or for making a job a relational event.”

  • “Another change in our community was when we moved the worship band to the back of the congregation, requiring each person to proactively visualize worshiping Christ in relationship rather than continue to be passively ‘led’ in worship by the singers and musicians.”

  • “On the last Sunday of the month, we cancel Sunday church altogether. We do this to facilitate social relations in and outside the congregation.”

CCD has not built or bought a building. “We decided that would not put money into buildings, but into people.” So their homes serve as their primary meeting-places. As the congregation grew, they rented or leased space when they needed more room for special events.

Should We Meet to Worship, or . . . ?

For CCD, the central reason for gathering together differs from the typical understanding of why Christians gather. “A characteristic for Paul of faith community life was that people did not go to church to ‘worship.’ Rather, Paul saw one’s whole life as worship (Rom. 12:1-2). . . . Paul saw the purpose of meeting corporately as the spiritual strengthening of one another (1 Cor. 14:12, 19, 26). This was done through sharing gifts in mutual ministry or charism (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16-17).”

This one-anothering—which Jesus calls for in his New Command—has led CCD to adopt a non-hierarchical church structure. “In CCD we have sought to take up the idea of a flat organization. . . . Easy access to the leadership is important. . . . we elect most of our Leadership Team (LT) of ten men and ten women, and choose a chairperson from among this group. All are lay people and work on a voluntary basis.” CCD has adopted “arrangements [that] militate against individuals having power over others or developing a power base within the congregation.” Holmes says, “by putting people ahead of tasks, we have endeavored to mirror social Trinity.”

“What I am suggesting is that our modern practice of one priest leading a congregation is in danger of usurping what Hebrew thought and Paul are actually saying to us. It is the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ as Peter suggested (1 Pet. 2:9), that should form the foundation of local congregational life and leadership, not just one man or woman.”

Rapha: A People-Mending Community

A core teaching in the CCD community comes from God’s word to the community of Israel after their exodus from Egypt: “I am the Lord, who heals you” (Ex. 15:26). In Hebrew, that word for heals is rapha, which means “to stitch together.” God wants to stitch his people back together from being ripped apart by such things as our bent to sinning, our inability to find God, and our being held captive by external forces. So the whole body of believers, as each part does its work, becomes a therapeutic community.

Throughout the book, Holmes intersperses many quotations in which CCD people describe their experience in this perichoretic church community. Here are just three:

  • “There is an accountability with each other within the community.”

  • “There is a sense that the load is shared. If you have got a problem . . . you can seek someone else to help you, a community of helping.”

  • “Prior to CCD I thought being a Christian was like having a label, being part of a club you attended once a week. . . . But since being at CCD, I understand that being a Christian is about how you live your life every day—it’s in you, about living in truth and loving each other, belonging.”

Holmes says, “In CCD we have now been seeking to live this journey of intentional therapeutic faith community for a number of years. . . . We have not got everything right, but we are trying.”