Innovative church plant builds on home groups without a building
By Lindsay Peyton
Most church plants start with a front door and a worship service. Members are then encouraged to join a small group and become more of a part of the church community. At Oikon UMC, that order is reversed. The Rev. Mike Whang places the focus on small groups, which meet in house churches. The strong sense of community that resulted, as well as the strong presence of God, has been remarkable to witness.
“There are a lot of reasons not to do what I’m doing now,” Pastor Whang said with a laugh.
After all, he’s planting a church in the midst of a pandemic — and one that looks a little different from the usual church plant.
On the other hand, there are so many reasons to do what he is doing, especially right now. Everything has fallen into place — and God has been at work at Oikon UMC from the start.
Born in Korea, Whang immigrated to the U.S. at age 4 with his family. As the son of a pastor, he grew up in L.A., loving music and eventually forming a band. He also studied audio engineering and production.
After attending seminary at Duke Divinity, Whang was recruited by the Texas Annual Conference five years ago as a church planter. His dream was to create a culture of community and discipleship from the front end, rather than trying to change the culture of an established church.
“I wanted to start a Wesleyan group from the ground up,” Whang said. “The churches I resonated with are all new church starts, with a focus on community and a shared vision.”
He was also drawn to the idea of “cultural architecture” – where buildings respond and fit culture, instead of the other way around. With a new church, that meant the brick and mortar would respond to the needs and desires of the congregation. In other words, culture had to come first.
When Whang came to Texas, he was first appointed at Christ Church in Sugar Land, and then two years later, went to Chapelwood UMC. Each experience helped him on the journey of becoming a pastor and a part of the TAC.
At Chapelwood, Whang was able to launch “Oikon Chapelwood” – a worship service at the church combined with a discipleship program built through house churches. This ended up evolving into his current church plant.
“Oikon” comes from the Greek term “oikos,” which is translated to “the family dwelling” or the “house.” In the Bible, Whang explained, oikos can describe the dwelling place of God.
Also, in the Bible, he pointed out that the word becomes “oikon” when it is the object of a sentence and not the subject. That distinction is important. God should be the subject, Whang said.
A launch team for Oikon Chapelwood, formed in January 2019, created 10 house churches. “I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I was just going by faith and living a set of values,” Whang said. “I learned a lot.”
Members of Oikon Chapelwood came from the church’s zip code in Memorial and Piney Point Village, as well as from across the city, including the Fifth Ward and Spring Branch. There were people from other faiths, individuals who thought they were done with church and families interested in starting something new.
Together, they joined to explore new ways of discipleship and fellowship. “I just stepped into a wave of what God was already doing,” Whang said.
The pastor started by asking several out-of-the-box questions, like “What if the goal of a church were not to grow numerically? What if the metric of success were not measured in worship attendance? What if churches stayed small?
Small groups were essential to his vision. After all, friends and families united in small groups can journey together through raising children, navigating work and facing life’s many challenges.
What if, Whang asked, when members said “church” they weren’t referring to a building but rather to the group of people at their house church?
At Oikon Chapelwood, the core values of covenant community, spiritual formation and social justice were established. Making a promise to God – and to each other to pray, serve and witness together – is essential.
When COVID-19 hit, Oikon Chapelwood had been growing steadily for about 15 months. “Then, everything was turned upside down,” Whang said.
Worship moved online – but the small groups at house church stayed connected, through phone calls and text chains. Sometimes, they join for a picnic. “It’s been beautiful to see,” Whang said.
In the midst of the pandemic, Whang decided to take another risk – to move Oikon from a division of Chapelwood into its own separate church. “We feel led to become our own congregation,” Whang said. “We feel so strongly about this vision, about this community, that we’re going to jump.”
Bishop Scott Jones guided Whang through the process. “Mike has this passion for what he is doing,” the Bishop said. “He is already reaching people in new ways with his ministry. We’re looking forward to watching him continue to grow and reach new people for the Kingdom of God.
On Oct. 1, Whang celebrated his official first day as pastor at a separate Oikon UMC, a church plant with members, house churches but no building yet.
While that may not be the usual model of a church plant, Whang said Oikon actually follows the oldest model of worship, a nomadic one that the ancient Israelites followed, as God guided them by cloud and fire to the Promised Land.
In fact, Whang and the Oikon band recently released a song on the subject, “Wisdom Song.” The lyrics start: “Holy Spirit would you fill our heart with wisdom. Holy spirit would you fill our mind with kindness. Cause we don’t want to go anywhere that you aren’t moving.”
“Cloud by day, fire by night, show me where the true and living God is moving,” the chorus refrains.
Even in a pandemic, even in uncertain times, Whang explained, God is present. “God is still on the move,” he said.
In a way, COVID-19 has validated small group-focused church ministry, he added. The importance of community and connection are being felt as never before. House churches were grateful to have already formed– and members were able to help each other through trying times.
“COVID is forcing us to realize, it’s in these connections that transformations take place and God does his best work,” Whang said.
An unexpected outcome of the pandemic is the way Oikon is reaching faraway places through online worship. For example, a group of 15 college students at the University of Texas at Arlington convenes on Sunday mornings to make breakfast and watch Whang’s sermons. There is also a group called Oikon L.A. that joins the worship virtually.
“When you look at John Wesley and how Methodism began, it was a movement,” Whang said. “Wesley talked about how we’re saying these words every week, but why aren’t you actually praying? Why aren’t you actually helping the poor? Why aren’t you living as if Jesus is Lord?”
Through building connections, through joining together in prayer, service and community, Oikon UMC plans to continue this important work.