Planting an Underground Church

Brad and Mary Culver - Refugee' Community


Language paints pictures. It is powerful. We can create barriers or remove them by the use of a word. A little experiment I always enjoy conducting goes like this: What does the word church bring to mind? Usually 95% of the responses go something like this: pews, stain glass, steeples, collection plates, hymns or chorus singing, order of service, do's and don'ts, ... these are answers that come from Christians and we know that church is none of these. Yet the word church creates certain images. These associations get really weird when I query the unchurched.

The words we use have become very important, by reason of what they have come to mean. Therefore to make the good news known more effectively we must use words that tear down skewed images and present true pictures. Often when translating the Bible into other languages an equivalent in English can't be found. Words are then chosen that paint an equally powerful picture in that people-group's cultural understanding.

Sometimes we hold onto words, concepts and ideas because of our own comfort zones. God put on a frame of flesh, wore the clothing, spoke the language and became adept at one of the art forms of that time in history, not so he could understand us but that we could have the opportunity to know him.

The Church is People.

What we planted is a faith community. When we meet we are gathering. I am a follower of Jesus. I can dialogue about spirituality with just about anyone.

The Refuge - In August of 1993 half a dozen people met in our living room to seek God's direction. Our desire: present the gospel in a culturally relevant way to a disenfranchised generation. Our goal: love God and our neighbors with reckless abandon and encourage others to do the same.

We saw ourselves as cross-cultural missionaries. When Paul went to the non-Jewish gentile world with the gospel he spoke their language, used their customs, culture and stories to share The Story and established communities of Christians that reflected this [acts 17:16-28; 1cor. 9:19-28].

The heart of the Refuge was the Refugee Cafe, which we operated as a cafe, not a drop-in. It afforded us a means to serve others, carry on relationships and model the Kingdom. The Refuge was birthed not as an outreach or ministry, but rather as a faith community for the subculture. After six years our landlord pulled the plug. We still gather and are transitioning again.

We could give you, the reader, a step-by-step of what we did; laying out all the details, but simply duplicating our approach or exporting our program will not give life to a community. You've got to hear from God for your particulars. But there are certain principles that we apply in the life of the Refuge. We see these principles as universal tools for planting, developing and nurturing an alternative faith community. So we will share a couple principles and a few stories.

Principles and Rules

There once was a man who loved model trains. His life's passion was model trains. He ate, slept and drank model trains. He eventually became a follower of Jesus. One of the first things he felt he was to do was to get rid of his train sets. Those things had become idols that consumed his life and adoration. This brought him great peace.

Too bad the story doesn't end there. In his mind he had seen the light. Model trains were sin. If it was wrong for him it must be wrong for everyone. He went on a great crusade to stamp out model trains. He became ungracious, intolerant and self-righteous, basically a proverbial pain in the you know what.

All of us have the moral law written in our hearts: Don't steal, don't lie, don't murder... Even a headhunter in Pago Pago knows it's wrong to hunt heads because he doesn't want his head to hang from his neighbor's lodge pole.

The moral law is black and white. It's navigating all the grays in life that becomes perilous. Is it cool with God if I watch the Simpsons? Is it ok to listen to this or that kind of music? What about certain clothing, hair cuts, make up, drinking coffee, drinking wine, nudity in art, R movies, a certain job, having lots of money, nice stuff... God has invited His people to live by His spirit. He is far more intricate and colourful than any rules and laws we can conjure up.

We have been called to a life of freedom in Christ [the book Galatians]. Rather than being bound by rigid rules we are released to the fullness of grace through His eternal principles of love [Mat.22: 37-40]. Living love is more difficult and exacting than living law [Romans 14; 1Corintians 8]. This entails us as individuals and as community to be cultivating an active relationship with God and each other. We are invited to a life of hearing and doing based on friendship with God, living by love-motivated principles [John 5:19; John 8:28-29] rather than merely following a set of do's and don'ts.

As young believers, my wife and I befriended a community of Dutch Reformers and an Italian Pentecostal group at the same time. After the Sunday morning gathering our Dutch friends would step outside and discuss their faith while enjoying deep drags on unfiltered cigarettes. When we visited our Italian hosts we would discuss the deep things of God around the dinner table while they gulped down glasses of home made vino.

The Dutch would never dream of allowing "the demon alcohol to touch their consecrated lips". The Italians would never "desecrate the temple of the Holy Ghost with nicotine."

This was such a strong topic that it made it impossible for them to hang out together without stumbling. The real tension was a matter of culture. The Dutch were comfortable with tobacco, the Italians with wine tragically not each other. The sad thing was we loved them both.

I am unable to have Crosby, Still's and Nash or John Lennon CD's in our music collection. Let's just say they were gods in my former life. It is best for me not to have those "model trains". Hey, if you know who they are and you enjoy their music go right ahead. Others may, I may not.

We need to encourage people to know whom to know is life eternal. As a pastor I don't feel compelled to tell everyone how they should live their lives but to encourage them in relationship with the one who can. Sure, from time to time God calls me to bring a word of correction or rebuke but I do it with fear and trembling [Rom.2: 21;]. I must trust that God can guide His people in their relationship with Him. I'm not the Holy Spirit. I need to be there to help encourage that vital relationship.

All of this may sound simplistic, but one of the major issues we had to deal with in developing our community was whether we would allow smoking in the cafe. Sounds silly doesn't it. It had the potential to divide us. I have observed that we in the underground can tend to be a little legalistic in our approach to life in the grays.

Living life by the principles of the spirit cultivates love, forgiveness, tolerance, acceptance and maturity. This principle became the soul of the Refuge. Grace can be messy and risky. Sure it's easier to just live by a set of do's and don'ts but its no substitute for the life of love and freedom that God has made available to his children.

Form and Function

Form is how something looks.
Function is what it does.
Here's a helpful illustration. There are lots of makes and styles of cars (form). No matter the bells and whistles or lack of them, all cars perform the same primary purpose (function). They get us from point A to B quicker and more conveniently than walking or taking a horse and buggy.

The type or form of car that a person drives or owns usually reflects need, taste, lifestyle, economics and a host of personal likes and dislikes. It has nothing to do with the chief function of a car, to move you from place to place. My wife, Mary for example is drawn to style (form). One day she hopes to get her hands on a sixty-seven Mustang convertible. As for myself, cars have always been strictly utilitarian (function). It could be a rust bucket as long as it gets me where I need to go.

Sounds simple. Should be. Often, though, within the sphere of "church" it can sometimes get confusing. People, even well meaning ones, can confuse form with function. Scripture is clear that "The Church" is not a building shaped or designed a certain way nor is it a specific order of service or worship [Acts7:48; 17:42]. Rather, it is a living organism, the community of faith. It's about people living in vital relationships with Christ and each other [Romans 16:6; 1Corinthians 14:12; Ephsians 5:23-32]. God doesn't make his home in mortar, brick, rituals, traditions, or programs, rather only in the human heart. Not that any of these in the right application can't be useful tools to help assist us to get from point A to B.

The primary function of the church is essential to what makes it The Church. The function or heartbeat of this living organism The Church is found in a life of worship, service, honest fellowship with each other and the divine, prayer and the application of the living word of God (Acts 2:42).

So it is the function (a Christ centered holistic community) of the church that makes it The Church, not the form it may take. We have constantly experimented with form. Before the Cafe was closed we were transitioning into a dance club and it was working.

This is a key principle to be remembered and applied when in the process of planting or developing an alternative faith community. The form needs to be an appropriate vehicle that helps the community (people) to fulfill its purpose (function). Simply put, form is not a matter of orthodoxy but rather calling, culture, style and mission.

Friends or Targets: Community

In her book Rediscovering Ophliea, Mary Pratt points out that one of the greatest contributors to our burgeoning dysfunctional society is the fracturing of family and the disintegration of healthy nurturing communities. Isolation, loneliness, disconnectedness and a burning need to belong have given birth to counterfeit community, brand identification, gangs and culture cliques. People desperately want to belong. God desires to put the solitary into families.

The generally accepted and practiced model for evangelism in North America goes something like this:

  1. present the message
  2. give an invitation to accept the message and become a Christian
  3. if the decision is a positive one the recipient(s) are received into fellowship (community).

This is done in various ways but the script is always the same. Presentation, decision, and assimilation.

We adopted and experimented with a different model. It was much later that we discovered we had implemented the Celtic way of sharing faith. To the early Celtic followers of Christ, community and sharing of faith could not be separated. They were one in the same.

First, they would establish community with people or bring them into the fellowship of their faith community. Secondly, within community they would engage in natural conversation, develop friendship and, through relationship, enter into ministry, care, prayer, etc. Finally, in time, as the individual discovered they now believed, they were invited to commit. This holistic approach reinforces the concept that Christianity is more caught then taught.

For us the cafe became the hub of community. It became our natural point of contact. From there we could feed the hungry, teach life skills, encourage and facilitate creativity, dialogue about life issues and so much more, all within the context of developing relationship. We didn't censor or separate. These folks weren't targets but friends. Nurturing developing and maintaining community takes work. We shared our lives, birthdays, graduations, weddings, births and deaths. We have laughed together, cried together, worked out stuff together. In many cases we have come to share faith together.

I will never forget when one young fellow turned to me and said, "I don't believe like you do but this is my community. If I'm screwing up tell me." Relationship brings with it the privilege of speaking into someone's life.

The Community worked on three different levels.

  1. The faith community: those who identified with as followers of Jesus,
  2. the cafe community: those who identified with the cafe as their family, and
  3. the larger community: those affected by contact.

John Finney in his book Finding Faith Today; How Does It Happen, contends that the Celtic model is more effective for use in the post-modern West than the traditional evangelical approach. His data confirms more people come to faith gradually than suddenly.

Professor Robin Gill has observed, "Belonging comes before believing, evangelism is about helping people belong so they can believe."

Bridges or Gates

I remember, as a kid growing up, our family crowding around the black and white TV in the living room. Each of us was trying to get a clear view of the screen. "Down in front. Sit still, I can't see, your head's in the way..." Ever hear the old saying, "you make a better door than you do a window." Think about that statement with me for a moment...

Simply put, doors keep us out, windows help us see in. We who are following Jesus must pursue lives that enable us to be windows not doors. Our lives, practices and attitudes need to reflect as best as possible the heart of God to other pilgrims and journeyers. Jesus was known as the man who went about everywhere doing good.

In the same way there are bridges and gates. A bridge helps us get to the other side. A gate keeps us from doing that. All around us are bridges, means that make known and shed light on The Story. God wants to teach us to see and use them. One plants, one waters but He brings understanding. Within the cry of creation and the call of the Creator could there be bridges?

The cry of creation is heard all around us [Ro.8:22]. One of the places creation's anguished voice is heard loudest is in the arts. Popular culture is laced with heart cries. From Reznor's Hurt to Couplands Life after God creation groans, "I know you're out there somewhere." The Creator responds. I Am here and I created you to know me. He makes himself known through the wonders of the natural world [Ps.19: 1-3] and through that wonderful gift of conscience, the moral law written on our hearts. What about the possibility that He also calls to us through culture?

In his book Eternity in their Hearts Don Richardson explores the concept of redemptive lore. The idea that deposited in all cultures in their legends, rituals, ceremonies, myths and stories are shadows of the Story.

The Story

These shadows are touchstones or signposts to point the way to Christ. C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Simone Wie were all deeply influenced by myth in their journey to faith in Christ. Lewis spoke of the corn kings who die and are reborn and referred to Christ as the true myth. Chesterton remarked that there are only so many variations on a theme. Tell enough stories and eventually you will tell the story. Simone Wie felt that Christ was the completion of all myth, the fulfillment of all legend.

Could it be that to the discerning there are bridges in our culture to be used to help post-modern pilgrims cross the raging sea of doubt to faith? Is there a cry from the human heart that resounds in popular culture that grace can respond to? Are there popular stories that, like parables of old, teach God's eternal principles? Is there redemptive lore in pop culture? Are there heroes and legends that are types that point to Christ? I believe there are.

The Wachowski brothers had a concept to make a cool, martial arts, special effects, metaphysical mind blowing movie. The Matrix was born. Melisa Mathison and Steven Spielberg desired to tap into the awe and wonder of childhood and create a whimsical tail about a visitor from another planet. The result was E.T. In the fifties Robert Wise and Edmund North adapted a story by Harry Bates and brought us The Day the Earth Stood Still, a tale of a caller from space that brings a message of peace. The creators of all these films vigorously denied any attempt at purposely recounting the story of Jesus. Yet, The Story is undeniably there.

Just about everyone that frequented the cafe had seen The Matrix and not many had read the Gospels: yet we were able to dialogue about spirituality using the Matrix with people that would never discuss Christianity. The story opened up The Story to many. In the same way, everyone I know watches the Simpsons. Many times we have used Simpsons episodes like parables to share the principles of God. Inevitably people would come away understanding because they had a frame of reference in the Simpsons.

There are endless examples. They are there waiting for us to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit so He can point the way to Christ. Be open, be creative, listen to what the Spirit may say and pass it on.

In Conclusion:

There are a lot of wonderful stories that came out of this faith experiment (I love to refer to the Refuge Faith Community this way). If you desire more info, have questions or comments please feel free to contact us at:

Remember, success in the Kingdom is faithfulness and obedience. Seek God, be faithful, be obedient to the heavenly vision and walk in Grace. Something to keep in mind as we pursue God's heart in all of this is that different is not better, just different. We are all a part of the larger body of Christ. Remember, GRACE.

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