Lionell Woods (LW): Pastor Jim, I guess the first thing I have been meaning to ask you is this: How long have you been a Christian and can you give us a brief testimony?
Jim Elliff (JE): I repented of my sin and believed in Christ as a child of nine in a home of believers. My dad was a pastor, as was my grandfather. I’ve been a believer for 51 years now! Many children turn out to be mistaken about childhood experiences. I’m glad mine did not turn out to be false, though many of my friends had other outcomes.
LW: You are a house church Pastor, how did that come about?
JE: Though I have been leading Christian Communicators Worldwide for 21 years, a speaking and writing ministry, my great love is the local church. In churches where I have served as a pastor, we designed cell groups that were, thankfully, very successful in incorporating the people. In each case 95% of the people were involved. Yet, I would look at what was happening and say, “This is still short of the goal.”
I longed for more intimacy and more pastoral care. I used to dream about turning the cell church idea on its head by having the main weekly meetings in the home, with the larger meetings of the whole church (i.e. all the house churches together) taking place only every few weeks. I wondered what such a network of house churches would work like.
Five years ago, while leading a Bible study in the Northland of Kansas City, I saw the door open to begin such a "house church network." The pattern I dreamed of is a biblical one. It is the way the early church met until the early 300s. I don’t believe it is the only way to meet, but it has huge advantages, like saving millions of dollars that can be put into missions, giving more people the opportunity to serve, providing a natural environment for more intimate Christian relationships, and being uncomplicated and less programmatic. On top of all of that, you get to sample everybody’s food every week!
Readers may wish to take a look at our church website to understand better what we do (www.ChristFellowshipKC.org). We are very happy to promote the idea of the house concept with reform-minded leaders. Also, sanctuary style churches may wish to consider augmenting their work by using house churches as extensions of the present church. This can take care of the growth and building issues that active churches sometimes face, without huge expense. I’ve written an article on that which may be helpful to some ("An Appeal for the Use of House Churches to Extend Sanctuary-Style Churches").
LW: What do you see as some of the reasons people join house churches versus the current church model that is prevalent today?
JE: I think many people are looking for a group that is authentic, where people are not playing church. Also, I believe that the program-driven churches are wearing people out. A few are sincerely looking for more biblical meeting patterns. In our case, people are often drawn to the idea of a truly regenerate membership with good theology and intimate relationships. I actually think most of our people did not come first because we meet in homes, but because they thought they would find a solid church. Only one family in our church had any house church experience before coming to us.
LW: You are also affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). What do you think of the latest information on what is going on in the SBC?
JE: I’m not sure exactly to what you are referring because something is always stirring in the SBC. But if you are thinking of the issue of integrity of the churches, meaning the restoration of regenerate membership, then I’m for it. I’ve written on this problem in an article called Southern Baptists, An Unregenerate Denomination. The SBC members need to be humble before God and admit that two-thirds of its membership don’t even bother to come to church meetings and are most likely unconverted. Humility is the real issue, and the need to be responsible in church membership. When a church is called a leading church, yet has 7000 on the roll and only 1500 coming, with 500 of those being children and guests (or nonmembers), then something is wrong. Yet these ratios are typical of both large and small churches. Our evangelism is not doing the job. In fact, we cannot tolerate much more evangelism like the kind we’ve had.
LW: I also see that you hold to the Doctrines of Grace. What do you think about the dialogue going on within the SBC about Calvinism?
JE: I’m glad that there is an ongoing dialogue on these doctrines in the SBC. When I was much younger, there were so few believing these great truths. They were held by the first SBC churches, up until the early 1900s, but for many years they have been nearly forgotten. The Founders movement within the SBC has been a significant help in this regard. I’ve had the privilege of addressing those groups many times through the years. Founders represents a viral, evangelistic Calvinism and is doing some real good. Also, the Christian media provides the average SBC member numerous opportunities to hear great preaching with sound doctrine from men outside the SBC. I won’t mention all the names of the well-known speakers, because your readers know these names already. Outside of the SBC, we associate with other Calvinistic leaders and ministries. For instance, I’m on the board of the Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals (FIRE, www.Firefellowshipkc.org). By the way, it was at a FIRE Conference in Atlanta that I heard Anthony Carter and secured his excellent book, On Being Black and Reformed: A New Perspective on the African-American Christian Experience. As an aside, I prefer just to think of myself as biblical, of course, and don’t feel a tremendous need to use the word Calvinism, except among friends who understand. Most people have wrong ideas about the word, thinking that people like us are not evangelistic. That’s simply not true, as can be seen in the history of the church and, I trust, in my own life. Evangelism is a deep burden for me and I’m active that way daily.
LW: If anyone didn’t know, you are an author. What motivated you to publish books?
JE: I wish I could say I was motivated by greed, but there is no evidence of that even being possible yet! Writing books is usually not about money for most Christian authors. Actually, my wife encouraged me to write. When I began Christian Communicators Worldwide (www.CCWtoday.org), I thought of traveling and speaking in conferences only, but had never written anything significant. Pam pushed me to sit down in the little office she had made out of a closet to write my first book. It was so hot in that office, but I pecked away.
That first attempt at a book, Wasted Faith, has been distributed now to over 170,000 people. I certainly didn’t think such a wide distribution was in our future when I held that reddish brown book in my hands the first time. (The cover print actually came off on your hands!) But it has and we are thankful that many have been converted or brought to assurance through it. That experience stimulated our ministry to continue. Now we have several books and items to offer that we believe are helping people walk with God. We think of ourselves as a ministry first, and not merely a book publisher. Only God could make this work like it has. By the way, speaking of cover print coming off on the hands, one woman read Wasted Faith so often that all the cover ink rubbed off. But she was converted in the process!
LW: I wanted to talk specifically about your work Wasted Faith. What convinced you that a book on the subject of regeneration was needed for the Body of Christ?
JE: I was struck by the number of unregenerate people who were members of evangelical churches.
As you know, the book explains types of faith that do not save. It is a hard look at regeneration, that is, the life of God in the soul of man. What does that look like? The Bible has much to say about this. Even a person "with one eye and half sense" (as my father used to call him) should be able to see that most church members in evangelical churches are not regenerate. They do not have the marks of the life of God. The book is for those who want to understand the biblical basis behind that assumption, and for those who wish to check their lives out on the basis of the biblical tests to see if they are really regenerate.
We’ve now supplied a free online discussion guide for small groups so that people can study these life-changing truths together. And just recently we’re offering our new Wasted Faith Audio Book. Right now, we’re giving two free copies to anyone who writes us online at our new site, www.CCWtoday.org, just by paying shipping costs. I hope your readers will get these free copies so that we can introduce this to them. We don’t mind sending these out like this because we know it contains needed truths for the church today. So, we are driven by this idea that the churches are full of unregenerate people, most of whom are totally blind to their need.
LW: You have done some extensive work with childhood conversion. Where did this conviction come from and what do you think of the current youth ministries and its ever growing popularity?
JE: I simply observed that many of the people who had the least evidence that they were true believers claimed to have been converted while a child.
For years I’ve traveled around giving a seminar on childhood conversion. You can hear that three hour seminar online at our site. Now Steve Burchett on our staff travels and offers this seminar. We are writing a book together on the subject. The need for discussion in this area is great. I hope that many can listen to this seminar and attempt to evaluate their own childhood conversion experience more accurately. We have a set of seven interviews with Dennis Rainey and FamilyLife Today available on our site also, if any are interested in this material in a question and answer format. It is called "How Children Come to Faith in Christ."
On the current youth ministry in churches, let me be brief. Most youth groups are weak and inept, or even damaging to the child. I appreciate the efforts of men like Vodie Baucham in this area. I can amen most of what he is saying. In our church we do not interpret the Bible to say that a full family integration model (that is, that there be no separate age or gender specific meetings) is required, so there are some freedoms we exercise. We don’t want to place a hedge around the law, so to speak, by saying that we can only do things the full family integration way. Yet we are also free to do that approach to whatever degree we believe God is leading us. In our church we are very interested in the family, bring the whole family together most of the time, but have some specific meetings that are different than that. If we find problems in our methods, we will change them as needed because we are as interested in our kids as the family integrationists are. But so far, we are thrilled with the way things have been working. So, we have a large appreciation for people who are trying to work this problem out.
LW: You recently wrote an article that I believe to be the most pressing issue facing the Body of Christ in America. The title of the article is “Multi-cultural Glory in the Church: Should We Have Black Churches and White Churches? Or Cowboy Churches?” Can you talk about this?
JE: I’m stirred by this issue. Our church, which started out meeting with only a few people, including some whites and one black mother and her children, has continued to think about this. Thankfully, we are seeing some progress. Our mutual friend, Tyris Horton, is a constant encouragement to me in this area and is doing much to promote our right thinking. He is one of my dearest friends. Last week another black family came to us. I believe God may have his hand on this man for leadership among us. But where are the Hispanics and Asians? So, when I talk about this, I want you to know that our church’s heart is there, and we are working on it aggressively. But we are not yet the perfect model. I actually don’t know many perfect models in this area.
The article (which I hope all will read) came not only from our personal sense of rightness about multi-culturality in the church, but also out of a Bible study with a few men in two of our home congregations. Tyris is in that meeting and can tell you how excited we’ve been about what we’ve seen in Ephesians as we’ve continued to work on it together. We’ve discovered that the main theme of the book concerns “the mystery,” that is, the mystery once hidden but now revealed that Gentiles are included in the body of Christ. The church in Ephesus was made up of Jewish background and Gentile background Christians.
There could not be more diverse groups than Jews and Gentiles. Yet, God brought them together in Christ. When Paul started churches, he did not start Gentile Christian churches in one part of town and Jewish Christian churches in the other. They were to be one. And, in being one, they demonstrated the power of God. As one friend of mine says, bringing different cultures together in Christ is “God showing off.”
All this takes hard work. There are major differences among the various cultural backgrounds. Paul shows us in his letters just how much work there is to doing that. He was constantly working on it.
It is a vision that can ignite you. For one thing, when we think this way, we cut out so much of the silliness that the homogenous principle of church growth teaches. If you think you are supposed to reach only one culture, say cowboys, you may find yourself having rodeos and riding broncos for Jesus as a means of reaching people. That, of course, is absurd, but it happens more than you think. But you cannot do this silly sort of thing if you are reaching people multi-culturally, because it just won’t work. Vietnamese people don’t care for rodeos. The only way to bring Christian people together who are diverse is to major on Christ and the Word. That’s the only ground that the diverse Christian cultures share in common. So, if this mentality gets in us, we will put aside much of the entertainment evangelism we’ve been doing and become the true church emphasizing the very things that the first churches emphasized.
There is so much more. But this is a start. I hope people will read the article.
LW: How does your vision fit into the house church concept? Given the level of intimacy and closeness one must have to worship in such a setting this may be an even bigger obstacle for Christ Fellowship correct?
JE: I don’t think so. But, we will see. At least it does not seem so now. The authentic relationships cut through the old culture and create a new Christian culture. We’re enjoying the adventure of sharing cultures in our beginning way. Some of our congregations may eventually become mostly black. At least I hope that will be so. I think I would love being a part of such a group. With our understanding of multi-cultural glory in the church, it sounds so appealing to think of sharing lives in a multi-cultural environment where we can talk openly and lovingly about our unity and diversity.
Another good possibility, which we are already thinking about, is to use the flexibility of the house church model to reach various cultures. You know, if you have a building, it must be located somewhere. That building and that location preach something. They say, “This is the kind of people we have here.” But if you are meeting in homes, you can start up in all kinds of neighborhoods, helping fulfill the vision. We think people will eventually consider moving to various types of neighborhoods as we continue, in order to reach the different cultures. In fact, Tyris is already wanting to move into a multi-million dollar neighborhood. All he lacks is a few million and a Lexus!
LW: You really don’t offer many practical steps in your article (you know 5 steps to this or 10 steps toward that), so can you give any advice for current pastors who share the same burden or even church planters who may be looking to plant in the future?
JE: You are right. We’re learning ourselves so we don’t want to act like we are experts. I do believe it starts in the hearts of our people. You’ve got to see God’s glory in it. The ideas will come on how to reach people. We don’t do events for evangelism, so we’re not looking into that approach. But we do try to show love to people. Our church believes that our house church meetings are for believers and seekers. We don’t try to fill them with unconverted people on purpose actually, but we do show a lot of love and interest in our friends, acquaintances, and work associates on the outside.
The other day one of our white families, for instance, housed an alcoholic black man the father met while doing some street evangelism. He worked with him for several days. We were hopeful for this man, but he reverted back to his alcohol. We’re beginning to see some results from our interest in the local college where a huge percentage of students are from other cultures. Already a family in our church is housing a girl from Kenya who is coming to our church regularly. We’re working on our first adoption by one of our white families. They are hopeful of having a black or bi-racial baby, or, if that fails, they have inquired into a Chinese child. The idea of a white adopting a black may not please every person, I’m not sure, but it represents a heart to mix it up for God’s glory. The church would be just as pleased for a black couple to adopt a white baby. Today I met a Polish believer who promises that he will attend our church on Sunday. So, our eyes are open and we are praying. But again, where are the Hispanics and Asians? We’re only beginning and don’t hold ourselves up as a model, but just as well-meaning Christians who have a lot to learn.
LW: Finally what if someone says “I don’t have a burden for multi-culturalism”? What would you like to say to them?
JE: Get one. Otherwise you’ll never enjoy heaven!
LW: Thanks for your time Jim!