If Philipp Jakob Spener were alive and in America today he would be a best selling Christian author with a flashy website, cool blog, and a cult following. Family Christian Stores would probably sell a bobblehead doll in his likeness. But ol' Spener...he's been dead a long time. He never came to America and you've probably never heard of him. I never had. Yet over the course of the past few weeks as I've embarked upon the nebulous task of directing a midsize flock of Protestants toward a phenomenon referred to as home groups, Spener has become somewhat of a hero to me.
I met Spener in the midst of a rather dry semester's worth of 17th century Christian history. Honestly, how much religious persecution and burning at the stake can one take before it all starts to run together? Thus when I read that Spener, after the aptly named Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants, had himself grown weary of all the arguing over who killed who I thought, "Now here's a guy I could have sat down with at the local Hofbrauhaus and thrown back a sudsy beverage."
See, Spener is credited with beginning the German Pietistic Movement. Don't hold that against him. You don't even know what it means yet. Basically he had a few ideas that were a little ahead of their time. Among other things he had the audacity to suggest that ministers in churches should actually be Christians themselves. Revolutionary. But Spener also had the impression that preaching, while good and altogether necessary, just wasn't quite enough to get the job done. He suggested that what people really need are small "colleges of piety." Has a more paradoxical phrase ever graced postmodern American ears than "colleges of piety?" That is so self-contradictory it doesn't even make sense. But remember, Spener's been dead a long time.
Fortunately you can read exaclty what Spener meant by "colleges of piety" in his book Pia Desideria, published in 1675.
I'm just messin' with ya! I'll tell you what he was talking about. All Spener meant by "colleges of piety" were small groups of people, committed and accountable to one another, who met in homes some time after the weekly sermon, probably over Wienerschnitzel, to discuss the text, the message, and its application to their lives. This was groundbreaking stuff that, in spite of John 17:20-26 and Romans 15:5-7 among other passages, had never occurred to normal people prior to Spener suggesting it.
And you probably thought Rick Warren or the Duck Dynasty guys invented home groups.
This still doesn't answer the question of why I've adopted Jacob Spener as my own personal hero...for a couple weeks at least. Truth is I find something heartening about the fact that the home group is an idea that has been around for, oh, several centuries now. Thus I am reassured by the fact that this is not just some church growth gimmick developed by dweebs listening to Keith Green on vinyl records in a Grand Rapids basement (although I do love me some vintage Keith Green!).
But here's the other thing that Spener's history impresses upon my soul. This idea of Christians coming together, opening their homes to one another (not to mention opening their homes to other curious observers), having honest discussions about how the Bible messes up all their plans and then praying about it together... I'm sorry, but that is where it's at. You can disagree with me, but try disagreeing with a German guy who's angry about 30 years worth of religious war and sour beer!
Home groups can appear supremely impractical, especially to those of us comfortably institutionalized in 6-week DVD curriculums accompanied by a nursery and Veggie Tales for the kids. I get it. Really, I do. Please do not interpret me as judging the commuter who leaves home at 4 a.m. and doesn't return until 8 p.m. each day just to balance the family budget. Nor am I ragging on the young mom with multiple curtain-climbers who longs for nothing more than to be able to leave the house and have adult conversation for a couple hours. We have trusty Sunday School and Wednesday night groups for that, and you're no less a believer if you're not in a home group. But with all this other stuff I worry that when people hear me talk about home groups many think to themselves, "Ugh...another thing to do."
I'm not suggesting that home group is another church thing to be added to all the other church things many believers do. I'm suggesting that along with worship, committing ourselves to one another as we walk down this road together is the thing to do. Home groups are the closest I've come to seeing it happen, thus I would say clear the decks if you have to. I'm not interested in how many groups, studies, committees, or classes one person can be a part of. I'm interested in seeing how many people can become connected to a small group of other people that has the potential to demonstrate Christ's love for us by loving one another. Home groups are indeed countercultural. Unusual. Odd. Weird even. And distinctly Christian. Even if being part of a home group is something that you can't see happening in your life right now, it's something you and your family should consider aspiring to. And remember, Philipp Jakob Spener has my back.