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.
Their 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 now includes more than 5,300 people.
For years Xenos was a disorganized association of house-based groups scattered around the campus of the Ohio State University and the North side of Columbus. The leading figures who began the group continued to set direction through counsel and personal influence rather than through leadership offices. From the beginning Xenos leaders encouraged individual Bible teachers and evangelists to start home study groups as they were able, sharing knowledge informally. By 1974 the fellowship consisted of a dozen different groups comprising more than 200 people.
By 1974, the fellowship consisted of a dozen different groups comprising more than 200 people.
During this period, the group's theology was influenced most by four strangely contradictory sources: Francis Schaeffer and the L'Abri group, Plymouth Brethren teaching as typified by authors like T. Austin Sparks and Miles Stanford, grace-oriented Bible commentary like that of William R. Newell, and Watchman Nee. Yet, such eclectic approaches were common in the milieu of the Jesus revolution, which was in full swing in those years. The theological emphases they gleaned from these authors were: the centrality of the grace of God, the importance of learning Christian truth content--including the Bible, theology, church history and contemporary social criticism, the importance of staying in touch with contemporary culture, and the importance of developing Christian community, including a network of deep relationships.
Xenos leaders often attended Bible studies taught by former Campus Crusade staffers Gordon Walker and Ray Nethery. These men were instrumental in the early equipping of Xenos leaders, and Xenos enjoyed an alliance with groups in town these men had founded. But when Walker and Nethery joined a larger group and moved in a different direction theologically in 1974, Xenos leaders broke with them and the associated groups in our area. Nethery later also broke with the group, which eventually became convinced that the Eastern Orthodox tradition is the truest expression of the Body of Christ. Today they have become Eastern Orthodox priests, while Xenos has continued to develop the ideals they taught earlier, including a return to primitive Christianity as seen in the New Testament.
After struggling with whether the interpretive community of the post-apostolic fathers should be considered authoritative today, Xenos leaders settled on a view that church tradition should have no authority whatsoever in the life of the church. They concluded that all authority accorded tradition is at the direct expense of biblical authority. Although these same leaders later got graduate degrees in historical theology, they have come to see the history of interpretation as important for comparison, but in no way determinative in understanding the Bible. The incident had the effect of confirming Xenos' radically non-traditional path. Xenos teachers continue to see human tradition as more often the enemy of good exegesis than a help. While recognizing that no group is without traditions, we see all human tradition, including our own, as carrying the dangerous potential of becoming an idol—a familiar pattern of thought and practice to which people often will cling, even if it means defying God's will and causing lost people to stay lost.
At that time several leaders, including the two main teachers for the group, McCallum and DeLashmutt, decided to seek formal graduate study. They went to Los Angeles where they studied for two years at Christian Associates Seminary, an unaccredited seminary specializing in training leaders of "street-oriented" ministries. Most of the seminary's faculty had been Campus Crusade staffers earlier in their careers.
A Different Kind of Church
Upon returning to Columbus in 1976, the group from California joined those leaders who had remained behind to take up leadership of the now smaller group of about 60 students. An eldership was elected and they set about starting new home Bible study groups, some for students and some for adults. McCallum's mother, Martha, had been active in teaching home Bible studies for several years and was instrumental in starting several groups.
By 1980, the group had grown to more than 400 adults.
Xenos leadership had clarified their vision for the church during their time of study in California, settling on the central values that continue to characterize Xenos to this day: that the church is people in community, actively growing through using their gifts in ministry and reaching out to those outside the church. The group shared a dread of shallowness, of outward "churchy" piety, and of formalism. 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 outwardly 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 leaders sought to disciple younger believers, and that led 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.
Very quickly, people were attracted to the Bible studies they started. By 1980, the group had grown to more than 500 adults. During this entire period, all leadership participated on a volunteer basis. McCallum, DeLashmutt and many other teachers made their livings as house painters. That year, the group decided to open a bank account so they could lease space for their meetings. They leased 9,000 square feet in an office-warehouse—a venue unimaginatively dubbed "Building 4," from its name in the complex. Others called it "the Warehouse." Not until 1981 did Xenos hire its first paid staff, as McCallum and DeLashmutt were placed on part-time salary. By now the church had grown to nearly 800 members. During the decade in which there were no paid leaders in the church, Xenos members developed deep convictions about lay ministry. To this day, Xenos members shoulder the bulk of ministry including extensive training. Xenos leaders are convinced that without the many years of serving as soldiers at their own expense, they never would have been able to develop the same level of certainty about the equality of all members' responsibility for ministry.
When it became evident that the Fish House Fellowship was becoming a large church, the leadership decided to incorporate the church under Ohio law. The group had been publishing a magazine called Xenos Magazine, and they decided to call the new corporation Xenos Christian Fellowship. The name Xenos is derived from a Greek word whose primary use in the New Testament denotes sojourners in a foreign land, a biblical description of Christians whose ultimate home is in heaven. A secondary usage of the word xenos denotes "one who provides hospitality."
From the beginning, Xenos has strived to reach not only unchurched people, but anti-church people—those who are determined to stay away from more traditional churches. This is why Xenos reaches out with the message of Christ in an unconventional, contemporary, informal setting. Visitors from other churches are often confused and even startled by how different Xenos meetings are from other churches. We don't feel we are trying to be strange as an end in itself, but for reasons that arise out of our unique calling.
As the home Bible studies, or "home churches" multiplied and spread throughout the city, they became increasingly successful at reaching not only students, but also people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Xenos leaders increasingly sensed the potential of a self-replicating house-church movement for reaching the lost. The leadership team in each house church sets as its goal from the beginning to raise up new leadership and plant a new home church.
In addition to home groups, McCallum and DeLashmutt each led a Central Teaching. Central Teachings were labeled "central" because clusters of home groups would share space at these lectures. One Central Teaching was comprised mainly of students, the other mainly adults.
During the 1980s, the church also developed a fairly elaborate system of coursework intended to support home church leaders in their efforts to raise up qualified new leaders. Every quarter, hundreds of people would take courses, most of which met for two- to three-hour sessions every Wednesday evening. The courses generally charged tuition of $30 to $50, assigned homework, and gave graded quizzes and tests. Students had to pass a minimum list of courses in order to qualify as a home church leader.
Between 1980 and 1984, the number of participants in home churches doubled every 18 months. By then, the total number of participants had reached 2,050. Concurrently the number of lay leaders rose from 50 in 1980 to more than 200 in 1984. The two Central Teachings grew accordingly. We added a third Central Teaching in 1986, a fourth in 1988.
A Different Decade
By 1991, Xenos had grown to more than 3,500 people. Because of the hundreds of children now involved, the "Warehouse" no longer could meet the group's needs. The elders made the decision that the church needed to build a facility to house the increasingly complicated ministry of the church.
As the church searched for a suitable site that would not limit future growth, the membership had to face several grave issues, including our longtime tradition of weak financial giving to the local church. Although Xenos members had a strong ethic of self-sacrifice, giving had never been strong. Xenos meetings never passed the plate, but merely referred to a box in the rear where people could leave donations. Our annual budget was barely over $1 million with attendance of 3500! To the displeasure of some, the leaders began taking formal collections, and organized a pledge system and a fiscal support team to take the lead in fiscal matters. Today the church gives nearly five times per capita what they did then.
During the early 90's Xenos underwent internal upheaval, eventually resulting in our first large-scale church division. The causes for the division were complicated, involving some interpersonal conflict. But the differences also included important issues of substance. Many members came to distrust some elders, who were taking the church in new directions but were unable to reach their goals, such as erecting the new facility. Some members interpreted this failure as a sign that God's power had departed from the leadership of the church. The introduction of new features like formal pledges and collections were also seen by some as a sellout of the original Xenos vision.
In addition to these problems, the leadership of the church was divided over issues of doctrine and practice. A group of leaders and counselors in the church were increasingly involved in victim advocacy, including recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, occult ritual sexual abuse, and an emphasis on the emotional lives of Christians against what was pejoratively called a "functional approach" to Christian living. Some leaders were calling for an approach to Christian leadership that the elders felt would exclude leaders' ability to call for a high level of commitment even when some members felt marginalized by such calls. During a colloquium scheduled by the elders to voice views on these issues, the different sides in the dispute wrote papers and debated their views. A large meeting of the whole church followed where leaders and elders presented their areas of agreement and disagreement. But none of these measures resulted in a resolution to the growing conflict over the future vision for the church.
This dispute also correlated with the rise of the so-called Toronto blessing. Some Xenos members were caught up in related area conferences and urged other members to join in. Xenos elders decided this revival reflected extremist views and practices that had no place in Xenos Fellowship, and went on record publicly with their criticisms to the dismay of many members.
To add to the confusion, Xenos elders picked this time to completely reorganize the church. Home fellowship groups were diversified and the ministry was divided into five divisions. Full-time administrators were hired to take over the bulk of administrative burden. Such sudden change added to the impression that the leaders of the church were lurching away from the church's historic approach, where everything was handled in an informal and rather disorganized way.
As dissent in the church reached a crescendo in 1993, there were calls for founder, Dennis McCallum, to resign. He and the other elders met to discuss whether they were somehow in the wrong for their direction, or whether the problem was more the result of a negative attitude toward human leadership in general.
Finally, the elders decided to "have it out" with the dissident group in the church. At a meeting of all church leaders and their spouses (about 500 people) they announced there would be a debate on the suitability of our current elders to lead the church. They urged everyone to bring their suspicions and complaints out in public, and after three hours of debate, the group would vote on whether to keep or remove each existing elder. Instead, the debate began at 9:00 A.M. and lasted until 5:00 P.M. without a break. After heated exchanges, complete with accusations and counter-accusations, the leaders voted. All existing elders were retained by margins of not less than 85%. Two-thirds majority had been required to pass.
After the referendum, Xenos elders decided to authorize McCallum to set in writing his vision for the church. After revisions by the rest of the elders, they presented the paper to a meeting of the combined leadership and called for a vote of affirmation from the majority. The paper established a Servant Team with new restrictions and requirements for leaders in the church. The paper was affirmed by 85 percent of the 350 leaders and staff, much to the dismay of a vocal minority.
People began to leave. During 1993 and 1994, more than 1,400 people left the church. The church, now down to 2,100 in attendance, went through a period of recovery as members sought to recover our earlier focus as a cell-based church. Within two years, the church again began to grow, and today about 5000 people attend our meetings. The changes in the Servant Team have proven to be a great success, and today, the team numbers more than 800 members.
Notwithstanding the chaos of those years, we find ourselves today happy with the organization and tone of the church, and we feel we are headed for a great future. We succeeded in erecting our facility in 1997, and have seen excellent growth and morale in the church as a result.