The Xenos way of Doubling Groups

Xenos Church, in Columbia, Ohio may be more committed to doubling groups than any other churches in America.


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Look up Xenos in your handy-dandy Greek dictionary and you will find translations such as "stranger" and "foreigner." "Weird" might not be too far off.

Visit the Xenos website and you will find a church that is, well, strange. They even have a section on their web with the heading, "Strange things at Xenos." Funny thing is, that page includes just about everything you can imagine. It would be a far shorter page if it had the heading, "Normal things at Xenos," or "Things at Xenos that are like just about every other church."

Yet, with all their strangeness, they are soundly biblical and extremely effective. Oh, that we had a nation full of strange churches like Xenos. And, what do I love about Xenos? They are deeply committed to doubling groups. Maybe not every two years or less, but at least every three years or less:

"Home churches," are the backbone of Xenos home group ministry. These groups usually range from 15-60 people who meet for fellowship and Bible teaching. Home churches are also open to non-Christian neighbors and friends, and are a major entry point for new people into the church. Each home church also has a discipleship program involving men's and women's groups and supervised ministry experience, usually combined with some one-on-one mentoring. By the end of a typical three-year cycle, the leadership team of a given home church tries to have a new leadership team in place, along with new members and discipleship groups. When everything is ready, the group has a harvest meeting where testimonies are shared, and the group divides to plant a new home church.

This vision grew naturally out of Xenos' early history. It was started by two ex-atheist hippies who came to faith in Christ during the Jesus movement era of the late sixties and early 70s.

In 1970, some Ohio State University students, including future lead pastor, Dennis McCallum, began printing an underground newspaper in the basement of their rooming house, a practice that was popular among students in those days. But theirs was no ordinary underground newspaper. The Fish derived its name from the Greek word for "fish," Icthus, which was also an acronym used by early Christians meaning "Jesus Christ, God's Son, the Savior." The Fish was dedicated to helping other students discover that Jesus Christ holds the key for humanity's problems.

Early editions of The FishTheir rooming house on East 16th Avenue was no ordinary student house either. Known as "The Fish House" because of its association with the paper, it became a center for regular Bible studies. These meetings, referred to as "The Fish House Fellowship" attracted students searching for answers during turbulent times. Future co-lead pastor, Gary DeLashmutt moved into the house in 1971.

The Fish newspaper has long since vanished, but today the Bible studies it spawned are flourishing. The old Fish House Fellowship, which adopted the name "Xenos Christian Fellowship" in 1982, has grown into an interdenominational, evangelical church that, as of 2004, includes more than 4,500 people from all walks of life.

(The church would actually be much bigger if they had not lost about a third of their membership--dropping 1400 in attendance--back in the early 90s.)

Out of this hippie, anti-establishment background, Xenos formed a successful ministry that is not like any other ministry I am aware of. You can read all about it on their web page if you like--it is the most thorough church web page I Have ever seen--but here are a few highlights:

Home group leadership requirements far higher than normal.

How churches manage to train competent leaders during a one- to eight-week training program is a complete mystery to us at Xenos. Our training program takes several years of classroom and field training. We allow people to become leaders with relatively few qualifications. But if they want to remain leaders, they must complete their training over the next three years. Our typical leader has completed:

  • 210 hours of classroom instruction with homework and graded exams;
  • Two to five years of personal mentoring from an older believer
  • Have either won non-Christians to Christ, or at least brought people who were converted
  • Have won one or more individuals into a personal discipleship relationship;
  • Have led a cell group (within their home church) with growth and spiritual advancement in the members' lives;
  • Have a proven character like that required for deacons in 1 Tim. 3.

At a time when many church leaders are telling me, "no one can get their workers to come to training any more," and "weekly worker meetings are dead; they are attended so weakly" I find it extraordinary that this church asks for and gets 210 hours of classroom training, complete with tests, from their workers. What is the result?

High Proportion of Converts

According to several recent studies on churches in America, over 80% of growth in growing churches is the result of Christians transferring from other evangelical churches. Disturbed by these findings, Xenos leaders did a church-wide survey of our own membership in the spring of 2005. We were pleased and a bit surprised to find that 82% of Xenos members claim they were not involved in any church at the time they began coming to Xenos. Over 60% of our members reported that they met Christ at Xenos.

Well, you may be thinking, maybe they are one of those churches that just has a hot band in their worship services and that is how they are doing it. That would be wrong:

No Worship Services

Visitors to Xenos are always amazed (and often appalled) that we don't conduct worship services. This often leads to the commonly heard question, "Why doesn't Xenos worship?" Xenos leaders are never happy to hear this question, since it signals a misunderstanding. We certainly do worship the Lord! The problem is that the modern Western church has a very specific understanding of what worship is, and visitors do not find that particular form of worship at Xenos.

They go on to explain that worship happens at the house church level, not the cooperate level. House churches are just that--house churches. They are microcosms of the church. But, they are not independent house churches. They are very much connected to the larger Xenos family. It is just that at Xenos, the center of church life is at the group level, not the congregational level. There are an increasing number of churches that see it this way.

In the great reformation in the 16th century, the center of gravity for the church shifted from the denomination to the local church. The denomination did not go away, it is just that the center of things shifted one level down to the local church. In this era, in many churches, the center is shifting from the local church to the micro-church. Pastors will say and mean it, "If you can only come to one meeting a week, come to your Sunday School class, not the worship service." These churches have predictably strong Sunday Schools. At Xenos, the center of gravity is definitely at the House Church level. I think is a fair assessment to say that if the centralized church went away, the House Churches would continue to function.

One further illustration of the way the House Churches are the center of gravity is in the way they do weddings funerals and visitation:

Home group leaders handle all weddings, visitations and funerals

In most churches, the staff handles functions such as these. In order to marry members, home church leaders have to be ordained by the church, and this is something most churches are reluctant to do. Churches don't want to proliferate ordained pastors who may not be well qualified. This, of course, leads to the conclusion mentioned earlier: that we must hold higher qualifications for our home church leaders.

One way Xenos emphasizes the importance of the House Church is to require all staff members to be in one:

All staff and eldership required to be in a home group

This is certainly not unique, but in our experience, it is relatively unusual. Particularly important to us is that our top leadership is fully involved and actually lead regular home churches. When consulting with churches interested in building their home group networks, we often find that the senior pastor and others aren't in a home group for a variety of reasons, and have no intention of joining one. We find it unlikely that such churches will succeed in building high-caliber home-based body life. For one thing, if the top leadership isn't on board with the home fellowship agenda, how likely is it that the church will see this as a central issue? People also will quickly draw the conclusion that community of this kind must not be essential for spiritual health, because what's good for the goose is apparently not good for the gander.

What a contrast to many of the churches I am in where the Pastor stands in the pulpit to wave the flag for group life--be it home groups, or, in most of the churches I am in, Sunday School. The pastor waves the flag, but if you look behind the scenes, often the pastor himself is not in a group. The Worship Leader is not in a group. The Youth Pastor is not in a group. The Minister of Education is not in a group. But, the pastor is waving the flag: group life is really important for you people! (Just not for us at the top of the leadership pyramid.) There is a reason Sunday School is struggling in many cases, and it is not because Sunday School won't work. It is because we have not worked at it.

In a way, Sunday School doesn't work. Home groups don't work. Visitation doesn't work. Seeker services don't work. Nothing works. Do you know what does work? People work. God works through people. Sunday School will not work on its own. It will work because people work it. Home groups will work because people work them. But, the top level of leadership must embrace the vision and participate in the groups. It the Pastor and staff are too busy for groups, so is everyone else. That doesn't happen at Xenos. 

McCallum and DeLashmutt envisioned a radically involved church where everyone took part in ministry, virtually erasing the usual clergy-laity distinction in western Christianity. They saw the importance of keeping the church outward focused, and sought to avoid what they perceived as a tendency in the American church to be inward-focused and out of touch with contemporary culture. Evangelism and personal discipleship were the means for building the church. In Xenos, all leaders sought to disciple younger believers, and that was supposed to lead to duplication. Duplication of mature Christians would hopefully lead to duplication of house churches. And as house churches multiplied, a church planting movement would erupt. To the present day, Xenos strives to be a church planting movement.

I would encourage you to learn everything you can from Xenos--not to duplicate their model, but to learn from and be inspired y these brothers who are doing an unusual and effective work in Columbus, Ohio.

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