It’s about fourteen years since Molong and I began our conversation about organic ways of being church. After many years of leading congregations, Molong struck out to make a living through building small businesses and bringing into those businesses young people who were being discipled through a web of friendships. It is a fruitful web of friends that has grown into a wider web of family. Gospelling, Baptising, Discipling and sharing life all happen in as organic a way as I have yet seen. I always love catching up with Molong for a window onto his activities:
From Meetings to Meeting-up
MOLONG: Our ways of gathering always just look like a big family – or like any healthy one. The gifts that we have, generosity, helps, mercy, administration etc, are all incorporated in our everyday life – as we live daily from house to house. Two things that anyone will notice here – i) You’ll see no “religious” activity ii) You’ll just see us living our faith.
PAUL: I know in the past you have pastored program-based, congregation-shaped churches. How does teaching and discipleship work in the more organic model you’re working with now?
MOLONG: With regard to teaching; I have seen a kind of teaching that separates and systematizes all types of teachings – creating patterns of ‘discipleship classes’ – that unless you finish them, you are not ‘discipled.’ That way Jesus gets downgraded into a program.
Instead, we decided to treat each other as members of our own family (extending our family through making disciples). And because we make disciples through our friends, relationship is in place already.
PAUL: I don’t know why but I find that often church people are anxious about more organic approaches. I often hear people appeal to the text in Hebrews 10:25 that says, “Do not neglect meeting together as some do.” Of course they read that as, “Don’t stop putting on services and getting people to attend.” Which isn’t quite the same thing! I sometimes think it would help people to understand it as “Don’t miss out on the blessing of meeting up with each other – anywhere and everywhere – at every opportunity – to give each other encouragement from day to day.”
When I first arrived in Canberra twenty years ago my ice creamery operated for the youth of the city’s south side like an equivalent of the Jerusalem Temple Courts. Any time that place was open it was a melting pot of young believers from heaps of different churches. It really was an ecumenical church lounge – with ice cream!
There are so many natural ways in which people gather. We need to see it as an addition rather than a subtraction to let the stuff of our fellowship burst the banks of services-based thinking.
MOLONG: Here spontaneous meet-ups happen naturally among friends. [That is our fellowship. That is our] basis of meeting, not creating a new schedule of meetings for the purpose of spirituality. Of course we change the ‘topics’ of our ‘discussions’ and gear them toward our faith.
Another Baptism in Molong’s wider spiritual family
PAUL: Molong, I love how you really have broken out of a meetings-based paradigm. Where do we get the idea from the Gospels that if you become a Christian you must spend the rest of your life indoors, seated, consuming something from a stage or a pulpit? It was one of the first questions that bothered me when I became a Christian. I live in a beautiful country, often blessed with beautiful weather. Often on a beautiful Sunday morning I have found myself asking why anyone would want to spend this morning indoors, sat down, watching a stage or a screen?!
That’s not to mention that for a child or a younger family, or an older person it can be physically very challenging to sit through a two hour meeting. Everything revolves around multiple comfort stops – and that can really detract from focused attention or quality conversations. And in a lot of churches we translate everything into meetings – teaching, fellowship, prayer, worship, study, discipleship – even evangelism! So if you’re not in the schedule of meetings you’re totally on the outside.
Or think of the many people who are forced these days to work 7 days a week. If Christians overemphasize the “holy meeting” (and some really do – I know a church in Sydney that expects its people in meetings six days a week) that will exclude the hardest working families and/or pile a whole heap of pressure on them. There are plenty of people for whom meetings are difficult. It’s a shame we make a problem of something that is nowhere near an emphasis in the Gospel.
I think that’s why a lot of churched believers have a sense of recognition, a “Yes that’s right!” response when they discover organic ways of community. And it comes with a sense of relief and an excitement towards re-imagining what being church really means.
Now Molong you’ve actually made this shift. And on Cebu you’ve been able not just to re-imagine but to make things happen organically better than anyone I know.
MOLONG: Of course there are many expressions of meetings. Some friends live far from each other. So what does that look like? For us the key is do a lot of meeting-up, without thinking in terms of a schedule. You know families don’t do “meetings” but they meet a lot, don’t they!
So questions about spiritual growth become normal – family questions first – because we are a family-based church, not a church-based family.
We know the names of our children and spouses – where people are, what they do etc. We may not know everyone’s birthdays and middle names but we sure know each other.
Along the way we share testimonies of our lives, but we don’t call it ‘testimony’ or name it that way or mention that word at all, never. We just share it normally. For instance:
One says, “I had a dream last night of a twister that caught the whole house and transferred to an other place.”
Then someone else exclaims, “Alright, that’s it! We are going to move house next door to you. That’s just what we have been thinking and praying and asking God if that’s His will for us to live next door to you.”
Or, “I’ve visited a widow today and saw her having a hard time cleaning her house. Oh, I just jumped in and mopped her floor.”
It is not, “Good evening everyone (grumpy smile). Today I visited a widow and helped clean her house and mop her floor. Praise the Lord, I give back all the glory to him. Amen.” And everyone claps their hands. That’s ‘testimony‘ the religious way!!
PAUL: I get that. I love it when testimony is no more and no less than a natural, organic part of our everyday conversation. And spoken in everyday language! In fact I have been learning to re-conceive teaching, pastoring, discipling, evangelizing as story-telling. And that more than anything has let those things out of the box for me and let me take those things to the streets and into my everyday interactions. I love story-telling. It’s part of my family culture – and people love stories. For me it’s a great way to connect. It’s fun/ It really joins everything up for me.
Clustered Housing and Co-Housing
Molong, on another tack I know that in making fellowship and discipling work more organically, clustered housing has been something significant for you. That’s something I connect with. In Victoria my family enjoyed a wonderful experience of faith-community based on clustered housing. We didn’t make it happen. It has just been the gift of God to locate us that way! I loved the “walking distance fellowship” and am in the process of re-imagining that again in the car-based city of Canberra.
Friends, neighbours and church – all within walking distance!
Over the 12 years that I was running Jesus Generation our gathered life was centered on co-housing. We had a number of group houses and our ministry inhabited all the natural and social networks of those who house-shared this way. In one mansion of a house for instance we had three couples, three single people a dog and some chickens. So you can imagine that their house was a meeting place and social hub for a great number of of people – will the potential that comes from that.
In London and Portsmouth in the UK I did a lot of extra-mural pastoring in the student scene – which was a really fluid and relational environment for organic ministry. And that was in large part because our housing was tightly clustered. It was the design of the city. Everyone lived close – within walking distance of one another.
Molong, I know that lot of your people when they have needed to relocate have chosen to live closer to each other and that has really enhanced your ability to “meet-up” rather than do meetings – and it’s really defined what you are achieving in terms of close community.
Busy-ness vs Community
MOLONG: Yes, we have gatherings like a very, very, very close family because they are living next door to each other. That way we easily function in our giftings and one-anothering. A Bible Study Group scheduled at 7 in the evening is nonsense to our people because they can just talk and discuss what they have been learning and reading in the morning coffee under the tree.
PAUL: That sounds awesome – and it really tempts me to move to Cebu for that lifestyle! One great challenge we struggle with in this part of the world is the busy-ness of Australians. Often we don’t live close to our biological or spiritual family. We don’t work close to each other either. So if we want to meet up with our spiritual family – or anyone we know really – we generally have to schedule it. The spontaneity you enjoy just isn’t there for us. Where Ruth and I lived before we could suggest meeting up for a coffee or a beer or for food – and even with our closest friends the answer would be, “That would be great. It will have to be in a couple of months though!” You can see how limiting that would be!
On top of that, financial and time pressures on working people in Australia often force us into patterns of living that are really too busy for our own families – let alone allowing us the energy to build up a wider, spiritual family. For me it is something important to model the slower, more local life – and to teach it better. It’s something that we’re really enjoying getting into in the country town where we live now. We’re very blessed that a lot of people have chosen to live here for the slower pace and the greater opportunity to connect with neighbours and fellow townspeople.
Befriending and Doing Life Together
MOLONG: In our set up in Cebu, nobody is too busy for connection because families do the busy things together – read together, coffee together, carpentry together, clean up together, go to the market together, cook together, taxi-ride children together etc….
PAUL: Molong, I love flowing with that as much as I can. At present Ruth and I are very focused on shopping in the shops that we can walk to, and taking the time to befriend people on our street and in our local businesses. There are enough people who move around our town centre slowly enough to allow conversation and relationships to build. It’s one of the advantages of living outside the suburbs. And we have befriended people simply through talking to them at the local shops. We’re also getting into a rhythm with our next door neighbours – another Christian family – of hosting gatherings for our little street when Christmas and Easter come around. Our neighbours are such natural gatherers and befrienders. They’re natural hospitality people.
In the town where we live there are two families we are beginning to connect with, family to family, just through having got into conversation with them at the shops. We see them in other contexts and have eaten in each other’s homes. There is a third family who we have met at the kids’ swimming lessons who we are getting to know, inviting them into our home.
There’s also a couple of local business owners I’m getting to know. The other evening I sat down with one of them – our fish and chip shop guy – for a couple of hours as he was closing up – just to talk about life, and we got onto some really meaningful stuff. We both enjoyed getting beyond, “That’ll be $20 thanks!” and connecting as people. Just this last week I met up for coffee with one of the guys who serves me at the bottle shop. We talked about health stuff and self-care and naturally that ventured onto prayer and healing with a bit of God story. These have been just the natural overflow of shopping slowly enough to get o know people.
That’s why organizing ourselves to be not in a rush when we’re in town has become a really key thing for us. Shaping our way of living so as to have enough spare social energy is certainly a challenge. But we believe it is the central plank in becoming more apostolic, more fruiftul and more expressive of the John 10:10 life Jesus offers us.
MOLONG: Yes. And along the way we talk about people, and things, and Bible and God, sexuality, and marriage, and war and peace and hate and love.
PAUL: Molong, what would you say is the secret to this closer degree of family and intimacy. Living geographically close is clearly one factor. What is another? How has your spiritual family achieved it?
MOLONG: The people who decided to be like this are all deniers of themselves. That’s why they say things like: “I want to love you and care for you so to make that easier for me I will move house next door to you.”
“I have a TV that I could sell to help you in your need, because you are more important than my TV.”
Our people have changed their priorities.
PAUL: So you have made changes which then alter the kind of relationship you have with one another?
MOLONG: Yes. There’s transparency with each other. If anyone takes advantage he’ll be rebuked. We don’t live as ‘commune’ but share our lives from house to house. All take care of their own families and needs, but all are willing to give up themselves for the sake of the other. Not communism, but commonism!
Your things and money are yours, and mine is mine. We own what we own. But we are just so willing to give it up if you and I need to help each other. We do this because we love one another. And this creates security among us. Our insurance system is found in this way of life. We are hundreds of fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters!!
I have to write a lot because it’s just hard to explain it in religious terminology for you!
PAUL: That’s funny! The process of de-religious-ising it all is important to me too! Lately Ruth and I have noticed that when we make our language less religious, really break it down, or simply when we use language from outside the Christian ghetto, then the real content of what we are saying starts making sense a whole lot better to people outside the world of church.
In the common ground we find with people we meet out and about in the community… and when we find non-religious ways to express ourselves… and when we rescue Jesus and his teachings from church-centred or religious agendas and interpretations… that’s when we find all kinds of connections with our neighbours and we remember how to live as people of faith in THE community! After all, in a lot of ways, Jesus had very little to say about religion – heaps to say about life, and how to live with each other!
MOLONG: Yes, yes, yes!! I love how you just said that Paul! I wish I was there in Australia sat down with you!
PAUL: Same, Molong!! I look forward to our next conversation!