Simple missional forms of church were used in the first century – and are proving relevant today. Here are insights gleaned from the New Testament and history on these easily reproducible biblical forms. I will add to these –
1. All New Testament churches met in houses. Early Christianity was a house-church movement. The first churches that the apostle Paul specifically planted and addressed letters to were at Philippi – one in the ‘household’ (oikos) of Lydia and the other in the ‘household’ (oikos) of the jailer. The earliest church building – at Duro Europos on the banks of the Euphrates River between Syria and Iraq, was a modified house. It dates from 200 years after Jesus (235 CE). Before opposition broke out Jerusalem believers could celebrate in the temple courts, but they regularly met in homes to share the Lord’s meal, pray and fellowship. (Acts 2:42-47) All the churches that we read of in the New Testament met in houses.
2. There were multiple churches in each community. In Rome, the homes in which most lived were very small – somewhat like bedsits, with space for just a few people. In other cities, excavations reveal homes with space for 20 to 25 people – with some luxury homes in Corinth having courtyards that may have been large enough for 40-45. There were at least five house churches in Corinth (in the homes of Aquila and Priscilla, Titius Justus, Crispus, Erastus and Pheobe) and five around Colosse (in Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colosse, and in the homes of Nympha and Archippus) – and, these are just those mentioned. There were no doubt others, in other ‘relational streams’.
3. They were in close proximity to the people. Even if every church in Jerusalem met on a roof-top, an ‘upper room’ able to accommodate 80+ people – and that is unlikely, there would have been more than 100 house churches for the 5,000 believing ‘men’ (Acts 4:4) plus women and children. If each church was 10, 15, perhaps up to 20-25 people – but rarely more; there may have been 400-500 gatherings (churches) in Jerusalem alone. This meant these churches – sharing ‘the Lord’s supper’ with praise, fellowship, discussion of the apostle’s teaching, and meeting each other’s needs – were accessible to their neighbors. In those times personal space was limited, with houses crowded with extended families and open to others in the community.
4. There was a high level of participation. Paul provides a window into the house churches of Corinth: ‘When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All these must be done for the strengthening of the church’. (1 Cor 14:26) Anecdotal evidence indicates that greater numbers in church result in increased numbers of spectators – not participation. A common question asked of me is: ‘How can we get more people involved in witness – and church?’ When I ask, ‘How many attend – and how many are now involved?’ The responses display a pattern: ’30 attend – and 15 are involved’; or, ’80 attend – and 15 are involved’; or, ‘300 attend – and 15 are involved’! NT house churches fostered participation.
5. Early Christians were urbanites. First century churches were primarily urban. It is difficult to imagine the squalid and dangerous conditions. The 150,000 in Antioch, the base for Paul’s missionary journeys, lived in an area less than 5 square kilometers. With public buildings (forum, agoras, temples, etc) taking up to 40% of the city, residential sectors were crowded beyond the extreme. Water and sanitation were limited. The stench and filth of the city would have been smelt kilometers away. Open fires for cooking filled the city with smoke – and the danger of fire. Poorly constructed buildings frequently collapsed. Knowing their crucified Lord had risen from the grave gave Christians courage to risk death while serving neighbors stricken by deadly disease and plague.
6. Church was on the path of life. Church was on the path of life. Church was not a building Christians went to, nor an institution or denomination they belonged to. They were church in their cities and communities. They lived within their extended families – parents, children, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins; some as slaves, and others with servants and slaves. (35-40% of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves.) Animals (sheep, goats and donkeys) sometimes shared their homes. They mingled in their communities, aware of the needs and hurts of all, serving as ‘the body’ and ‘presence’ of Jesus’ – doing what he would do if he were physically present. (John 14:12) As church – the ‘two or three’ gathering in the name of Jesus (Matt 18:20) – they lived and witnessed on the paths of life.
7. They had natural inbuilt leadership systems. Households provided natural leadership for the home churches. Lydia would have been the natural ‘leader’ in her ‘household’ (oikos), as was the jailer, Jason, and Aquila and Priscilla in theirs. (Acts 16-18) It is only natural that Crispus facilitated the church in his home; as would Titius Justus, Pheobe and Archippus in theirs. The oikos church did not need appointed leaders. However, with many such churches in a town – Paul appointed ‘overseers’ to foster these networks. These were mature believers, not given to power-seeking – but encouragers, able to facilitate disciple making and the planting of new churches in unentered relational streams.
8. They were revolutionary conversational communities. Churches were conversational communities – eating, serving, sharing. In the early years, where synagogues welcomed them, Christians shared in Sabbath fellowship, scripture reading, and prayers. However, early churches reflected their households (oikos). As in families, their shared meals were testimony to their Saviour. Expressing gratitude for their ‘bread’ and ‘drink’ as symbols of the crucifixion of their ‘Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’, family meals were revolutionary statements. Jesus Christ who had been crucified on a Roman Cross and was now alive as evidenced by the living presence of the Holy Spirit, was their Lord and Saviour – not Caesar, who loved these titles!
9. They were ‘zero dollar’ – but ‘high cost’ church plants. Money was not spent on promotion, programs, or buildings. First century believers shared faith with friends and neighbors, inviting them to their homes; and today, simple missional communities avoid expensive programming and the purchase or rental of buildings with utilities costs, insurance, maintenance, parking, etc. The most effective church planting today is ‘zero dollar’ planting, but there is a cost! It is the sacrifice of time and energy to share faith in family and social networks – and ‘offerings’ help with the rent for someone who has lost their job, provide food for a struggling family, assist a single mum with school expenses, or support a justice mission project in their or another community!
10. Their structures were simple. Jesus cultivated his movement on four simple invitations – (1) come & see, (2) follow me, (3) come & be ‘fishermen’, (4) receive the Spirit; and his commission to ‘go and make disciples of all ethne’ – all relational streams. He did not institute a complex organizational plan or structure, rather it was experiential, relational, participatory, and Spirit anointed. He handed on a relationship with himself and the Father through the Holy Spirit. (John 14:12-13) We easily fall for the trap that the spread of the gospel needs our complex corporate-like systems for success. But neither Jesus nor Paul were enamored with such systems that elevate a few to positions of status and authority over others. They believed in the ‘priesthood of all believers’!
11. They were easily reproducible. Disciples made disciples and baptized them, and, in turn, they made disciples and baptized them! Jesus modeled a simple plan. When you find a receptive person (person of ‘peace’) – one of reputation and influence: (1) eat with that person, (2) as you eat, heal, and (3) as you heal, say, ‘The kingdom of God is near.’ (Luke 10:6, 8, 9) As the gospel is shared and takes hold in a new relational stream or social network – such as that of the Samaritan woman (John 4), or the family of Zacchaeus (Luke 19), Nympha (Col 4:15), Philemon (Phile 1, 2), or Phoebe (Rom 16:1, 2); and new disciples are fostered – a new church is gathered. Without complex systems or structures, people gather around food, the Word, prayer, service and worship.
12. There were supportive networks. Jesus chose from his ‘large crowd of disciples’ twelve that he designated apostles (Luke 6:12-19) – sent to multiply his movement. Paul, an apostle, selected and appointed ‘overseers’ in cities where numerous household (oikos) churches were being planted. The term elder was an appropriate term – for they were to be experienced Christians. Local churches were led by household leaders, but the overseer was to network – to keep the various home churches connected, to encourage them to multiply. They needed to be generous, mature encouragers. The story of Acts indicates Luke was left by Paul in Philippi, maybe to fulfill this role; and Paul wrote to Titus on Cyprus asking him to ‘appoint elders in every town’. (Titus 1:5)
13. There were no hierarchical systems. The house churches of the first century were radically counter-cultural. The hierarchies of Greco-Roman society were not reflected in the communities of believers. There was no place for a privileged upper-class kleros (clergy) of philosophers and politically powerful over an ignorant common laos (laity or idiotes) class. Jesus indicated the models of Rome and religion were not his, saying, ‘You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.’ (Matt 20:25, 26) The model for the house churches of the first century was God – ‘just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Matt 20:28)
14. Parents take responsibility for their children’s spiritual growth. There is only one reference to kids being part of New Testament church life, a natural reflection of the idea of church in homes. When believers from the Mediterranean port city of Tyre gathered to farewell Paul (the apostle) and his traveling companions, they all – men, women and children met and prayed with him on the beach. (Acts 21:5) In simple forms of church parents and households take responsibility for the spiritual development of their families. Kid’s love house churches where the spiritual instruction of families is not delegated to others, and where children, teens, and youth – cross generational and mixed ‘families’ (not only nuclear) – are the church.
15. Teens connect with the ‘big vision’ of simple churches. Early worship times involved every member, open participation, spontaneity, freedom, vibrancy, unpredictability – two-way conversation. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) was the first to mention the idea of one-way speeches or weekly sermons in early church history, observing even then that they did little to effect change in the lives of believers. Simple church is built upon conversation and involvement, exploration of the Word of God and its application to life in the context of food, fellowship and mission. More than that, the ‘big vision’ of glocal mission – planning and involvement in cutting edge projects locally, regionally and internationally (Acts 1:8) – gives teens and youth a sense of God’s heart.
16. There is no tensions over music, culture or ethnicity. Believers in Jerusalem churches shared many things in common – dress, food, drink, literature, songs and dance; but when the gospel reached into Gentile cultures, people gathered to worship Jesus as Lord and Savior – dressed differently, around very different meals and drink, reading entirely different literature, singing different songs and dancing to different music. The variety in our communities is enormous – no longer the homogeneity of the baby-boomer era when all understood the same illustrations and enjoyed the same music. Simple church provides opportunities to ensure faith is shared in relational streams in ways that people can understand and appreciate – that they can share with others.
17. They are inclusive. The transitions stories of Acts are inspiring and confronting. Although Jesus had modeled ‘the kingdom of God’ encompassing Jews and Gentiles, men and women, ‘slave and free’; and commissioned his disciples to witness to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), it was difficult to acknowledge Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17), the sexually different (Acts 8:26-40), or Romans (Acts 10:1-11:18) as fellow believers and members of church. This caused tensions across boundaries proscribed by religious Jewish policy – but in simple churches all could be included without tension. They know the neighbor who comes is a Sikh, uncle who asks questions about grace is inter-gender, the new family present are struggling migrants – and they are to be ‘the body of Jesus’ to all!
18. They are good environments to hand on faith. No one can argue about the challenge of handing on faith to next generations. Although in churches most kids ‘accept Jesus’ by 14 years of age – by their early 20s, 50-80% turn from the faith of their parents. Sociologists point out – (1) the more complex a faith, the more difficult it is to hand on, and (2) faith is always reinterpreted by recipients – so faith systems keep changing, much more that most religious people like to admit. Simple churches provide a good environment for handing on faith: a safe place in which to reinterpret faith – and importantly, a model of church that they can reproduce for their next generation friends. Participation in defining faith and handing on faith are critical factors for receiving faith!