Life in an American Underground Church

Consider a lifestyle choice about how you do ministry.

Underground: a movement or group of people who seek to win others and grow their movement through relational experiences and communication with others in the course of everyday life. Typically this movement exists outside of traditional organizational structures and accepted traditions and procedures.

It is not because of persecution or fear of authorities (like in China or parts of the Muslim world). It is not because I have joined a cult or sectarian group who thinks they are the only ones going to heaven. It is not because it is trendy or post-modern, but it is true—I have become part of an "underground church" right here in America!

Why did I do it? The short answer: Because "normal" church life had such a grip on my calendar and life that it became a barrier to living my life in relationship to Christ and others.

Let me explain. It was like I lived in two different churches. One church was the "above ground" church of programs, projects, and meetings—most of which took place on church property. The other church seemed like an "underground" church of relationships with family, Christian friends and, to a very small extent, with those not yet Christ-followers. This underground church largely took place away from church property in homes, workplaces, and in the community. These two churches did intersect in many areas of life, but they also seemed to compete with one another. As time went on, the tension of life in the two churches became a real problem.

My heart yearned to spend time with my Christian brothers and sisters, and I wanted to make friends with my non-Christian neighbors and hang out with them so they could get to know me and the Lord who lives in me. However, my "above ground" church world seemed to be a barrier.

"How?" you ask. It was not the belief system. The "above ground" church's beliefs and mission matched my own as a Christ-follower. It is just that instead of helping "us" Christ-followers live out that mission together, the traditions and structure of the "above ground" church seemed to replace serving Christ together with serving the organizational institution of the church.

—This church scheduled good intentioned, but mostly unproductive meetings - meetings that were mandated by the church by-laws (We tried to call them other things like "small team-task groups" to ease the guilt of wasted time, but it was no use).

—I wanted to get to know the parents of my kid's friends at their activities rather than just dropping my kids off and running to my next "appointment." However, I was trapped in a world of having to schedule so much of my time on nights and weekends for planned "church" activities that I had little time remaining for those relationships. Of course, we were encouraged to make friends with those with whom we served, but there was a different group of people involved in every activity in which I was involved. How do you invest your life in 50 people at the same time?

—I longed for my relationship to the Lord to not be based on how many church ministries I was involved in or how many minutes I spent in Bible reading and prayer every day. At the same time, I could not do any of these things because I was trapped by my calendar!

As I lived in these two church environments, it always seemed the "above ground" church took priority over the "underground" church environment, even though I am not sure it should have. The leverage the above ground church had was that it controlled my calendar.

Here's a typical "church calendar" for my week:

  • Monday—rushed through supper with my family in order to make it to the church building in time for a building and facilities meeting where we discussed budgeting controversies about the upcoming building project.

  • Tuesday—hosted an adult small group that met at our house in the evening. The kids stay downstairs with a hired baby-sitter while the adults enjoy 90 minutes of fellowship, prayer, and snacks. When the 90 minutes is over everyone rushes to get home and get their kids in bed.

  • Wednesday—took my kids to a youth Bible study at the church building. I had been asked by the leader to volunteer to sit-in on the study and facilitate one of the small discussion groups they have after the teaching time. My own kids were not in my small discussion group.

  • Thursday—family night at home, although two of my kids have a club meeting they are required to attend.

  • Friday—really wanted to invite our new neighbors over for dinner and games, but the week was so busy we did not get them invited. We were so tired that we did not have the energy to have them over anyway, so we just ordered pizza for ourselves.

  • Saturday—my kids have ball practice in the morning while I meet with a group of men at the church building as part of our men's ministry. We did an early a.m. Bible study and then we did a short service project for someone in the church. I got home about lunchtime. I spent the rest of the day catching up on projects around our home while my kids whined at me that I never do anything with them.

  • Sunday—got up early to prepare for teaching a children's Sunday school class which I was scheduled to teach this quarter. Rushed to get the kids ready, argued with my family through the process; made it to the church building just in time to teach my children's Sunday school class; went to the worship service (where I realized I was assigned to be a greeter). After the worship service, we ate out, just our family. We thought about inviting some new people at the church to eat with us, but everyone was in such a rush to get out that we did not catch up to the people we wanted to invite. Went home, watched some TV. That evening, we went back to the church building where my kids had practice for a musical the children's ministry was going to perform. While they practiced, I had an evangelism committee meeting where we discussed why the church was not being more successful at reaching unchurched people in our community. We came to the conclusion that we needed to offer more programs that people could become involved in (which, of course, was going to require more sacrifice of time for the committed church goers!)

To top it off, I felt deeply obligated to all these programs I had volunteered to serve in because if I quit, I would be letting God down (because, after all, these programs are so important to the mission of my local church).

I went deeper and deeper into this "above ground" church world. Through the years, I became a leader and even became a staff member at my church. After several years, I realized the things that God had showed me were truly important, were not a part of my life. I was doing a lot but not becoming much of anything, except busy.

You might ask, but were you not having an impact on people's lives? Yes, but it seemed like as we were winning people to Jesus, subtly, we were really winning them to our church—not so much to the people of the church but to the process and programs of the church. There was much good in some of it and God used some of it, but somehow as I spent time with God and His word, I just felt like we were missing the center of the target. It seemed like my few "underground" off-church-campus-relational-organic-ministry experiences were the ones that matched God's story as revealed in Scripture.

After a lot of prayer, I left the "normal" church and went "underground." It was one of the hardest decisions my family and I ever made. Truthfully, it felt awkward at first. It was like an addict going through withdraws. Slowly, I adapted to the new lifestyle. Along with a few friends, we just started to do life with God and others. If you want to know what it looked like, imagine a "church calendar" that looked like this over a typical week:

  • Monday—after supper, we did a fun activity for family devotions together and then played games afterwards.

  • Tuesday—hosted a small group at our home where everyone brings a dish of food and we share a simple meal together—adults and kids. After our meal, the kids join the adults in singing some songs and doing an ice breaker all together. Afterwards, the kids go downstairs with one of the adults to do a Bible lesson and craft while the adults share, pray, and provide accountability with one another.

  • Wednesday—I had lunch with my accountability partner, who is also in my small group. Together we held each other accountable for a weekly quantity of Bible reading, confessed sins to each other, and prayed for the lost we knew. Later that same evening, during supper, our family worked on a memory verse that we are going to recite together for our next small group gathering.

  • Thursday—went over to our small group leaders' home and had supper with them. We each shared what we were doing in our own personal devotions and then our leaders talked about how we should consider becoming apprentice leaders of the group with them. We dropped the kids off at their club meeting on the way home.

  • Friday—we invited one of our unchurched neighbors over for supper and had a great evening of fun and games. We asked them if we could practice our memory verse in front of them and told them they were welcome to come to small group the next week to see us do it again.

  • Saturday—I went to ball practice with my kids and volunteered to be an assistant coach. Over several Saturday's, friendships began to form with many of the other parents, some of whom were Christians and some were not.

  • Sunday—we gathered for an intergenerational time of informal worship and sharing at a sports club building that we rented for Sunday morning. Singing and sharing time was shared by the whole family and included songs that both kids and adults love. After singing, the kids go into separate rooms for some age-appropriate learning and the adults listen and participate as a member of our church leads us through a learning experience. My specific role that day at our worship gathering was to facilitate a small group discussion after the teaching time. After worship, I spontaneously pitched in to help put chairs away and clean up. After cleaning up, we went out to lunch with a couple of other families who also pitched in to clean up. We relaxed the rest of the day with family and neighbors outside in our yards.

To be honest, the "church calendar" that I am living now is just as time-intensive as the church calendar I was living. The difference, for me, is the time I am spending now seems to align much closer with my Biblical values about "church" life. I am doing ministry with my family way more than I was before, and my church calendar is serving the people of the church more than the programs of the church. I know, that sounds bad—it sounds like church programs do not really serve the people. For sure many do, it is just that I am convicted that being intentional to live a relationally based church life (regardless if you are involved in programs or not) is central to our mission to make disciples. The best part is that even though I am busy, it does not feel like busyness for busyness sake anymore. Praise the Lord!

Some might say: "You could have done that without leaving the 'normal above ground' church; you could have done that without joining some fringe group." My response is, "maybe," but I would tell you that to even do it in a typical program-based church might still necessitate going underground to pull it off! Otherwise, your lifestyle has too many other strings attached.

How do you go underground or find an underground church group? It may not be easy simply because they are "underground!" Your best bet is to start an underground movement yourself. I am not advocating being divisive or subversive about what you are doing in your local church. I am just asking you to consider a lifestyle choice about how you do ministry. Maybe a few will want to join you. Maybe your church leadership will embrace that choice too! It is not an easy choice, but it may be one that God is calling you to make.

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