The researchers are warning us that the number of Christians still attending traditional, legacy-type weekend churches as their only expression of faith is rapidly declining. Followers of Jesus in the US who do not attend a local traditional church will grow from 30% to approximately 70% in the next twenty years.
Alternative, organic fellowship forms (house churches/simple churches/restaurant churches/park churches/apartment churches/office churches/pub churches) currently home to 5% of US Christians will grow to make up 30% – 35%; another 30% – 35% will live out their faith in the fields of media, arts and culture; with the remaining Christians attending non-traditional forms of church living out a family-based spiritual life.
The participants in this revolution are not anti-Church! In fact, their desire to return to more of a First Century New Testament Christian model makes these experimenters and journeyers some of the more pro-Church people around.
Welcome to your journey to Church: Simple and Regional.
The Problem of Wineskins
As early as the mid-1970s, this whole idea of doing church differently had begun. With books like The Problem of Wineskins by Howard Snyder, many were becoming more and more adamant that the classic small group of believers meeting in homes around a meal was the backbone of New Testament church life, and that this modality needed to be restored to church life today.
It was also during that this time that some were introducing what they were calling, the Jethro II Principle. It refers to the counsel given by Jethro to Moses, his son-in-law, in order to help facilitate the gathering of Israel in different-sized groupings for maximum administration and care.
In Exodus 18:21, Jethro gives counsel to Moses to administrate the people of God in groups of tens, groups of fifties, groups of hundreds, and groups of thousands. It is also interesting that Jesus Himself used some of these ranks in Mark 6:40, when feeding the five thousand.
Over the years, experimenting with these different-sized groups some rather startling conclusions were discovered. Mainly, that each group carries a different dynamic, and unique outcome.
Groups of Tens
The word eser is the Hebrew word for the number ten and represents the smallest division into which Moses put the people of God for the purposes of wise administration. This is the group where everyone talks.
These small groups are home-based, intergenerational meetings, where we share our lives on a regular basis, make our needs known to each other, and bear each other’s burdens. This dynamic is experienced through a weekly meeting in our homes around the joy of a shared common meal and the restored richness of the Lord’s Supper, Acts 2:46.
These groups are not cell groups, or even just Home Groups. They are real churches, complete and autonomous. They have leaders; they receive offerings for missions, the poor, and needy. They evangelize the lost, baptize the converts, dedicate the babies, marry the wed, bury the dead, and obviously celebrate communion. These smaller groups are not just extensions of the “mothership” legacy church that has a central campus around which all life swirls. They are the church.
Some Even Call This Simple Church
By “simple church,” we mean a way of doing and being church that is so simple that any believer would respond by saying, “I could do that!”
By “simple church,” we mean the kind of church that is described in the New Testament. Not constrained by structure but by the needs of the extended family, and a desire to extend the Kingdom of God.
By “simple church,” we mean a church that listens to God, follows His leading and obeys His commands.
By “simple church,” we mean spiritual parents raising spiritual sons and daughters to establish their own families.
And by “simple church,” we do not mean a lower quality of church life. Just the opposite! No structure or format can guarantee quality. Smaller, participatory, family-like environments are ideally suited for today’s culture and will assist greatly is helping people to become passionate disciples of Jesus Christ.
All of this requires a new kind of training for a new kind of church. Years of sitting in traditional church has not prepared us to do church in the manner described in the New Testament.
We have been taught to come, to sit, to watch, and to listen to what others have prepared. (Someone described it as “sit, soak and sour.”) This is Spectator Church. And is no way to train believers to be priests.
By contrast, the church described in the Bible invites us to engage in a kind of Participatory Church, where everybody talks, laughs, eats, worships, in an atmosphere where all learn, all minister, and all grow.
Apart from the intimacy of lovers, there are few human actions that bind people to one-another more closely than what the Romans called, a convivium, their word for a banquet that literally means “living together.” Defenses are dropped, and believers feel grateful to be with friends around the meal. We argue and discuss and quarrel and tease and laugh.
From the marriage feast of Cana, to the Last Supper, to His post-resurrection breakfast on the shore of the lake, Jesus loved to eat and drink with His friends. He used the imagery of the banquet for the Eucharist in which He leaves us His abiding presence. Jesus, Himself, was even known as someone who came, “eating and drinking” Matthew 11:19.
“Shared meals construct and sustain human relationships. Inviting someone to share a meal powerfully symbolizes solidarity. Indeed, the word companionship comes from the Latin cum + panis, meaning, “breading together.” Meals are social realites of great importance.
Because meals express the very texture of human associations, they often exhibit social boundaries that divide human communities. We make decisions about not only what we will eat but with whom we will eat. Patterns of table-sharing reveal a great deal about the way of life, and the norms and commitments of a particular community. This kind of meal is summarized in two words: Eating and Blessing.
Both activities are designed to “spur one another to love and good deeds.” Both of these prophetic acts are designed to strengthen, edify, and encourage the church.
Eating the Lord’s Supper: “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad (exuberant joy) and sincere (uncluttered simplicity) hearts,” Acts 2:46. Church takes place best around the table. The meal is the time to talk about what God is doing in our lives. It’s the time to remember Jesus, I Corinthians 11:24. Some Eating/Blessing principles might include:
1. Tell how God blessed you in the last week.
2. Tell what you are learning from God’s word.
3. Tell how God used a brother or sister to encourage you.
4. Tell about God sightings.
5. Tell Holy Ghost stories.
6. “Forget none of His benefits” Psalm 103:1,2.
As you bless God, then you continue speaking blessings to one another over, through, and in the meal. Blessing others about their God-given identity (who they are) and about their destiny (what God created them to do). Toasting one another by sharing how Jesus is seen in them. Endeavor to strengthen one another through the meal.
Consider blessing one another in the following ways:
1. Friends to friends.
2. Husbands to wives.
3. Wives to husbands.
4. Parents to children.
5. Every believer to every other believer.
6. Use passages of Scripture, Colossians 3:16.
7. Use all types of prayer.
8. Use song, Ephesians 5:19.
9. Use prophecy, 1 Corinthians 14:3.
10. Use the laying on of hands.
11. Do all at the direction of the Spirit.
Ultimately, The goal of New Testament Church gathering is the building up of one another through mutual edification. That is the main reason we gather. Not worship, not evangelism and not teaching. The main reason the church gathers is for the mutual edification of one another.
In Hebrews 10:24, to really spur/motivate one another to love and good deeds requires forethought and sincere preparation katanoeo, which means “thinking deeply about each other.” One must learn to listen to God on their behalf in order to bless, edify, and encourage them. This is the stated New Testament purpose of church!
Again, only two activities are necessary: Eating and Blessing. Other things may flow out of these acts of Eating and Blessing, but this is the starting place.
The worship of an early Christian house church was centered on the table. They didn’t all sit facing forward like in the typical church building we think of today. Rather, they were at someone’s table, and the center of their activity was the fellowship/communal meal.
In this size group of the Law of Anyone/Everyone comes into play. The law works like this. Whenever everyone in the group can no longer do what anyone in the group can do the dynamic changes. So, if you bring a component into a small group that cannot allow full participation by everyone in that small group, you are no longer honoring the dynamic of small groups and are trying to make it something else.
Here we have to learn to discipline ourselves and resist the importation of those larger-group components to the small group. This smaller-type gathering around a meal is not the only meeting we will have as believers. There will be much time and much energy for all kinds of other types of meetings, but in this one we honor the potential of everyone potentially sharing, and everyone potentially participating.
This is done as we learn to honor the DNA of this smaller group where we all can eat and we all can bless.
As people start blessing each other while they are eating; even the newer ones to the group will begin to catch the principle of blessing. And as they watch others do this and then learn to listen to the Lord for themselves about others, they quickly give their blessings to strengthen and encourage each other in the Lord.
The Lord’s Supper originated at the “last supper,” Luke 22:7-38, which itself was a Passover feast. Have you ever looked up the word “feast” in the dictionary? A feast is an elaborate meal, a banquet, associated with abundant heaps of food. So it was with the Passover feast.
Luke wrote that at the last “supper,” 22:20, Jesus took the cup and said that it was “the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you.” The Greek word Luke used for “supper” is from the root noun deipnon. It means “dinner, supper, the main meal toward evening.” It can also mean “formal dinner, banquet.” This same word is used in Luke 14:15-24, where the NIV renders it a “great banquet,”14:16.
Jesus passed the cup around after the supper, Luke 22:20, He had already taken the bread and said, “This is My body and will be given up for you,” while the supper was in progress, 22:19; Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22. The point to be observed is that the newly initiated Lord’s Supper occurred in the midst of a full banquet, a full meal.
The Passover meal was transformed into something new: the Lord’s meal. Would the Twelve have deduced from this that the Lord’s Supper was somehow no longer to be a true meal?
Since the Lord’s Supper seems to be the full meal, perhaps a rethinking of the focus of the Supper is in order. Typically, people focus exclusively on the death of Christ during the snack-style memorial. Everyone is quiet and somber, with heads bowed. Often an organ is being softly played in the background. This is based in part on Jesus’ command to “do this in remembrance of Me,” Luke 22:19. A funeral atmosphere would seem to be in order.
Dining with others is, in the Bible, symbolic of fellowship and acceptance. Thus Jesus said to the church in Laodicea that, “if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in a sup with him, and he with Me.”
How often should we come to the Lord’s Table? I Corinthians 11:18 onward mentions, “When you come together as a church,” and launches into directives concerning the Lord’s Supper. This clearly indicates that every time the church gathered, it celebrated the Lord’s Supper.
All of this stuff about eating, about the table, about the Lord’s Supper comes as a warning from a riveting comment I heard years ago, that any gathering of believers without celebrating the Lord’s Supper was a “torso service.”
Amazingly, the single purpose given for a church meeting occurs in Acts 20:7. It says, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” The phrase “to break bread” is, in Greek, a telic infinitive, denoting a goal or purpose. Why did the church come together on the first day of the week? In order to observe the Lord’s Supper, (see also, I Corinthians 11:33.
Thus, it seems the primary objective for the weekly gathering of the saints is to break bread. This allows God’s people to enjoy fellowship, to mutually encourage and exhort each other, to share prayer requests, to tell what God is doing in their lives, to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, to be reminded of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, to remind Jesus of His promise to return, and to be made into one body through the one loaf. This truth bears repeating.
The primary activity seems to be that the church is to engage in a gathering where they consistently are experiencing the “finding of Christ” in the meal.
All else is secondary to this and is therefore optional. This means that we do not assemble weekly to hold a worship service, nor to hear preaching, nor to have a praise meeting, nor for an evangelistic outreach, nor for any other reason. All of these other types of meetings can happen, but the core gathering of the church if around this concept of Christ in the meal.
Evangelism will happen around this kind of “open” table. In the Lord’s Supper the followers of Jesus Christ are called to practice eating as He ate, to be a people of gratitude and generosity, of openness and acceptance, and this becomes extremely attractive to those of our friends we invite to these meals.
We are summoned to be small communities of amazingly diverse people who allow themselves to be formed by one Lord into one body around one common table. The lost will see this, the world will take notice and come. because when our table is less than the fullness of Christ’s invitation, we eat and drink judgment, (I Corinthians 11:29).
Groups of Fifties
The Hebrew word missim is the number fifty, again taken directly from Exodus 18:21, and is the second administrative grouping of the people of God. This is the group where everyone worships.
It possibly represents one of the best ways, if understood geographically, to gather several smaller groups together in a given area for the effective expression of cooperation and participation. These groups are not meant to replace the whole body, but rather make possible a type of meeting in which all ages, including children, can participate.
The central principle behind this meeting seems to be best defined as “spirit of prophecy,” Revelation 19:10. Even before the advent of the Holy Spirit, when prophecy rested on a choice few, Moses yearned and longed for the coming day of maturity when all God’s people would become ministers and speak on God’s behalf. “Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them,” Numbers 11:29.
Here are some distinctions of the missim group;
This gathering is based upon the full priesthood of all believers with mutual edification and mutual upbuilding for the purpose of personal strengthening, similar to the model that is found in I Corinthians 14:26.
This gathering is centered on interactive and creative worship through prayers, songs, dance, mime, drama, art, exhortation, etc., Ephesians 5:19.
In this gathering, even the children might have a “song,” with these meetings not having to be led by a set worship team of musicians or singers.
When the word worship is mentioned, please keep in mind that it is not referring to just singing songs with lyrics and music.
Worship must become more than the music that fills our meetings, or only the musicians or composers or singers will be released. What about the artists, the poets, the mimes, the stand-up comics, the actors or even the chefs and the inventors?
In this gathering, each one could have an appropriate word to share, and the reading of the Scripture and the sharing of truth could be both planned and/or spontaneous.
And in these gatherings all of these relational contexts can be fulfilled.
- Love one another, John 13:34, 35.
- Be devoted to one another, Romans 12:10.
- Honor one another above yourselves, Romans 12:10.
- Live in harmony with one another, Romans 12:16.
- Stop passing judgment on one another, Romans 14:13.
- Edify one another, Romans 14:19.
- Instruct (admonish) one another, Romans 15:14.
- Accept one another, Romans 15:7.
- Have concern for one another, I Corinthians 12:25.
- Carry one another’s burdens, Galatians 6:2.
- Forgive one another, Ephesians 4:32.
- Submit to one another, Ephesians 5:21.
- Agree with one another, Philippians 4:2.
- Teach one another, Colossians 3:16.
- Encourage one another, I Thessalonians 4:18.
- Build each other up, I Thessalonians 5:11.
- Live in peace with one another, I Thessalonians 5:13.
- Be kind to each other, I Thessalonians 5:15.
- Spur one another to good deeds, Hebrews 10:24.
- Confess sins to one another, James 5:16.
- Offer hospitality to one another, I Peter 4:9.
- Serve each other, I Peter 4:10.
- Show humility to one another, I Peter 5:5.
- Have fellowship with one another, I John 1:7.
This expression can be done by gathering several smaller house churches into a larger setting, a bigger home, a large backyard, park, beach, and celebrating a child-like party with believers who already enjoy a weekly gathering in their homes literally as often as the time, energy and weather permits.
Groups of Hundreds
Mea, the word for a number of hundreds in Hebrew, once again shows the prudent administrative potential available as a group reaches this size. This is a gathering with a larger expression than that of tens or fifties. This is the group where everyone listens and learns.
This is where group dynamics have to shift. If everyone in a group cannot potentially do what a single member does, the group dynamic changes. The larger the group meeting then, regardless of the actual size, requires a different set of dynamics to make that meeting the most meaningful.
In these larger meetings the emphasis is on the direction of church in the Region or the network of churches in the Region, Acts 13:15-41; I Timothy 4:13. In these larger gatherings, the gifting of the apostolic and prophetic leaders is essential. The regional apostolic team cast the vision for the benefit and the equipping of the whole region.
These larger meetings are not usually led by a single leader, but by regional teams, generally formed by the collaboration of the local Ephesians 4 ministries in the region.
Apostolic/Prophetic leaders, as hinted in I Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 2:20, tend to be very successful in linking those Christians within a geographic region, a distinct locale, or a specific county.
Each meeting then, has its own optimum style and works to release a certain size-directed effect or dynamic. Experimenting with these or hybrids, or combinations, or mixtures of these meetings, really does catch the heart of God for doing church differently.
The Ten-sized group meeting best allows for the church to keep its foundation as relationship-centered. A Fifty-sized group meeting best allows for a gift-centered emphasis. And a Hundred-sized group meeting best allows for a vision-centered emphasis.
The small group is about home, about fellowship, and the dynamic of family. It feels like the family where everyone matters, and everyone is a part. Any time it feels bigger than that (that sense of family) it automatically shifts into more the gift-centered dynamic where the multiple input of others must be facilitated as the size grows. Many times the shift is so automatic it moves on its own Q & A format, and can no longer linger in the home-style, face-to-face fellowship that a family enjoys around a meal.
Actually, all of these different kinds of meetings are more about how they each feel, and how that dynamic changes as numbers go up or down. You literally have to sense the way the group is going, and the shifts, rather than concentrate on a fixed ratio or size. You will also know through the regional network the timing and/or the need for the smaller, the larger, the medium-sized groupings. Even the frequency of these gatherings comes out of the needs of the growing Regional Church rather than just a preset schedule.
As gatherings continue to grow in size, they automatically require more of a strategic adjustment moving away from the individual-focus of the small group, shifting into the gift-focus of the medium-sized group, or to more of an apostolic/vision-focus as the team facilitates the larger-sized gathering.
Different sized-gatherings, different venues, and different dynamics all play a part in what we continue to refer to as doing church differently in the third millennium.
Welcome to Church: Simple and Regional.
Some parts adapted from Permission Granted to Do Church Differently in the 21st Century by Graham Cooke and Gary Goodell. Special thanks to Tony and Felicity Dale, for their insight information on Simple Church.