Back in November of last year I published an article with the title, ‘Who are the Church?’* My purpose was to emphasise that the church is not a ‘physical’ building of bricks or stones, but a ‘spiritual’ building of God’s people, enlivened by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8; 6:63; Romans 8:11); it is a ‘holy temple in the Lord (Ephesians 2:21)’.
The true church of Jesus, the Spirit-powered (1 Corinthians 2:4, 5; Acts 1:8), Christ-centred church, is unlike many churches we find today. Numerous denominations claim they are the true church of Jesus, but they do not follow the pattern set by the early church fathers (2 Thessalonians 3:6-9). The New Testament churches were on the whole, small groups of believers who met together in their homes (Acts 16:40; Philemon 1:2) to break bread, worship and to praise the Lord. They shared things in common (Hebrews 13:16; 1 Timothy 6:18, 19).
They lived distinctively differently to their neighbours by being obedient to Jesus (John 15:14; Galatians 6:2), with the priority of making disciples as He commanded them (Matthew 28:18-20). They did so by taking opportunities of presenting the gospel to friends, family and neighbours, and by living Godly lives (Romans 12:1). I would call them ‘organic’ churches. They were similar, and yet they were composed of different people, and they would take opportunities for starting other similar churches; a bit like daffodil bulbs producing more bulbs every season. As season follows season, more and more daffodils fill the waysides, and the light (Matthew 5:14-16 ) of their loveliness is seen.
By contrast today in the UK, many churches are building-based. Their members meet regularly on Sundays, and for prayer and bible study on set days during the week. Usually there is a single pastor/minister who is assisted by deacons, and between them they lead the church and conduct meetings. These churches are affiliated to, or are members of an association of churches that subscribes to particular statements of faiths, creeds and confessions. Separate to these there are free churches which are usually self-governing, independent bible-based assemblies, but they too, are building-based.
These static, almost entrenched churches in their dogmas, primarily focus on serving one another, but of late an increasing number have become involved in social outreach by setting up food banks and helping those in need, such as the homeless in local communities. They have been opening up their buildings for community functions, things like playgroups, keep fit sessions, art and floral exhibitions etc.. This more outward, less self-centred movement could have a positive outcome, because the churches may re-examine their role to discover they are falling short of what Jesus commanded, i.e., to make disciples who will ‘make disciples of all the nations’.
‘And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and in earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).”’
Smaller, less formal, house churches have the advantage of not having to maintain buildings, and between them they can share the duties of instruction in the Word, the breaking of bread, caring for one another and outreach on the streets. They all get to know each other intimately, so as to appreciate individual needs and for the giving of their loving support (John 13:34).
The disadvantages of small churches include not having a full range of skills and gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-11) that are normally available in larger churches. They may not have knowledgable and able teachers (1 Timothy 3:2) of the Word, and they may depend more heavily on one, or perhaps two of their members for leading and shepherding them (1 Timothy 3:1-14).
If they are to multiply they must have the desire (Romans 10:1; 1 Timothy 2:8) to reach out to the community, perhaps by leaflet distribution, advertising in public places and via the World Wide Web. They must encourage people to sample what is on offer by inviting them to Bible study sessions and their worship meetings. When they grow too large to meet in a house they must split to form new churches.
We then come to a point where some will say they need an umbrella organisation, giving them a hub for linking them together and a structure with terms of reference and guidance. What must be avoided is an authoritative body that approves and sanctions the membership of participating churches. Each church must maintain its independence and operate within the authority of the Bible and be guided by it alone – yes, and with the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14, 15). Each church must be independent and accountable to Christ alone, who is its Head.
Could these small ‘organic’ churches be the way forward? Could this be what God has planned for our times? In China, such churches are growing exponentially, and disciples are making disciples as Jesus has commanded. Even in the USA, the Simple Church Movement *** is growing in numbers.
And now in the UK there is a commendable website that tells of the Simple Church ** movement and the making of disciples.****
* Who are the Church?
** Simple Church
*** Simple Church Movement in the USA
**** Making Disciples! by Frederick Serjeant
China’s underground churches head for cover as crackdown closes in