A Different Kind of Church
For 300 years, the church was an underground sect. The Romans converted Pagan temples to Christian churches, Pagan holidays to Christian holidays and Pagan priests to Christian priests. They wanted to convert the whole world to Christianity and establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. The church, which had been so heavily persecuted, now became the persecutor and set about killing anyone who disagreed with it. The early church owned few buildings. There was no concept of full time paid clergy in the New Testament. Every Christian had a ministry. Those called to pastoral ministry had skills and abilities in administration, teaching, leadership, encouragement and caring. The first churches were probably modelled on Jewish synagogues where people met for prayer and teaching several times a week and ate meals together, usually in the synagogue but, if it was a small group or had no money, in eachother's homes. They met for teaching, encouragement and mutual edification.
I believe the church is the gathering of the people. The word ekklesia means a gathering or an assembly. The word can refer to any kind of gathering. In the words of the song, 'We are gathering together unto him, unto him shall the gathering of the people be, we are gathering together unto him.' The book of Hebrews says, 'Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the day approaching.'(Hebrews 10:25.) I would find it very difficult to understand this verse in the way that Jeremy Myers understands it. He describes it as the gathering together of all Christians as being in God, whether they are together or apart. The Greek word means synagogue. The verse is describing the kind of meeting the early church would have. I accept that Matthew 18:18-20 is in the context of a person who has sinned being restored into the church. Nevertheless, it is still generally true that Jesus, although he is present all the time, is especially present when 2 or 3 Christians are praying together or even just spending time together.
Richard Jacobson, in his book Unchurching, says that we are unable to find a physical structure and form to the Biblical church because it didn't have one. On a site like this, it would be easy to become obsessed with some aspects of the South American cell church movement, believing that the cell church is some sort of Biblical Pattern (I must use honorary capital letters.) It is not a Biblical Pattern for our church that we need, it is the understanding of the principles which led to the establishment of that Biblical Pattern. We can become pre-occupied with the question of whether the first Christians lived in a big house together or had their money in one shared bank account, and we forget why they did it, if it happened that way. There was a fantastic generosity among the people, so much so that they sold their houses and gave money to anyone who had need, of which there would have been much genuine need in 1st century Palestine. There was incredibly close fellowship. We need their generosity and their fellowship, not a big house and a shared bank account. In the 21st century, it would be so easy to become obsessed with the South American cell church movement, sell our buildings and meet in eachother's homes, in the belief that this is a Biblical Pattern that will solve all our church's problems. It isn't. We need to understand the spirit behind these things. Richard Jacobson has no definite plan for how the revised New Testament church ought to be organised and Jeremy Myers seems to arrive at two possible ideas. One model is to divide the church into cells, meeting in cafes and bars, on the beach, or in people's homes every week and having big meetings several times a year in a building that is rented for a short period. This has the greatest impact in the community, provides greater intimacy and fellowship among believers, costs less money and wastes less time maintaining church buildings. If a church with a building did everything Jeremy Myers said, it would become a community centre (or a Jesus Centre in this church.) The church could be sold to an organisation which provides free educational classes and other services to the community and a hall could be rented to the church once a week. It is possible for 2 or 3 churches to consolidate and share the same building. The building can be rented to community groups. Local businesses might benefit from a building with good parking and a central location. These are practical arrangements. Let's not get too excited about whether cell groups are better than Jesus Centres or community centres. Where we meet is not as important as how or why we meet.
If Jesus followed the pattern of Jewish Rabbis at the time, he would have read a Scripture in the Synagogue and explained it in detail, while answering questions or responding to objections or comments. Teaching was not a monologue. This was interactive discussion that would look more like a Bible study than a modern day sermon. The goal was to explain clearly what the Scriptures meant and how they should be applied to daily life. Acts 2:42. Teaching was done in the homes of believers, accompanied by a meal and a prayer. Someone read the Scriptures in Hebrew, someone interpreted them in Greek. The Greek word used for Paul's long sermon in Acts 20 means dialog. This also would have been an interactive discussion. 2Tim 3:4. Sound doctrine is more accurately translated as healthy teaching. Healthy teaching encourages love, service and action in the world around us. Healthy teaching results in action. Some Christians spend enormous amounts of time studying the Bible but lives are not changed, generosity is not practiced, care is not given, forgiveness is not offered. We should spend less time studying the Bible and listening to sermons and more time loving others in practical ways. Knowledge is like a drug. We may become addicted to knowledge. There are circumstances where monologue teaching is the best approach (I do it when I write a book or an article.) We should not think of it as the Biblical pattern. Pastors should spend less of their time preaching and this would free up the church to spend more time practicing what was preached in their lives, in the community and around the world. That does not mean pastors should stop teaching. They should simply encourage the congregation to spend more time out in the community, applying what they have learnt. Imagine if the church were helping at a battered women's refuge and the pastor preached a sermon on helping the poor and the needy on the way there, before reflecting on anything that might have happened on the way back. This wouldn't be an additional activity during the week but the actual Sunday morning service. Jesus' method of teaching was to have 12 disciples who were his apprentices. I would compare this to nurse training, where the trainee has to perform tasks as part of their daily job and the more experienced nurse assesses their ability to perform those tasks. The disciples watched what Jesus did, asked questions, and were appointed to do similar work themselves. Jesus' formal times of instruction were on the way to or from ministry. On the way there, they would be told how to love and serve others, on the way back, they would discuss and be debriefed about what had happened. Luke 9:1-10. The disciples are sent out to put into practice what they have learnt. Luke 10:1-16. Jesus provides further instruction about casting out demons. Mat 17:14-21. I would add to this that if Christians have very close fellowship, they're very likely to learn from one another and to follow eachother's example. I could ask my youth worker or my pastor about any subject, even girls, and they'd tell me what they thought. I sometimes find myself making a cup of coffee the way my pastor used to do it. A group of 12 people, who spend a long time together, will learn much from eachother by just spending time together. One of the problems with young people in trouble at school is that they tend to look up to the school thug as their father figure. We need Christian father figures. As one new Christian in the west end of Newcastle said, who couldn't read, 'I don't read the books, I read the people.' Jesus taught the disciples many things, he also spent time with them so that they could learn to follow his example. When Jeremy Myers was a pastor, he used to tell people, 'If you can only get to church once a week I would prefer you go to a small gathering, not the Sunday morning service.' It is much easier for teaching to become a dialogue in a small house group or for close relationships to be formed.
I wonder if Jeremy Myers has never seen evangelism done really well. He has certainly seen it done really badly. Pestering the church's neighbours by putting CDs under their car windscreen wipers, until someone writes in to complain about it, is evangelism at its very worse. Consider your motives for evangelism. Are you preaching the gospel to people because you're concerned that they don't know anything about it, or do you simply want them to join your church? In England, it's very likely that you're preaching to people who have no Christian family, no Christian friends and have never been to church in their lives. Are you preaching the gospel because you want people to be saved? Street evangelism is good because it reaches more people. The majority of people have a very narrow circle of friends but pass hundreds of people every day on the streets. When you evangelise a complete stranger on a street corner, you are invading their space. Be polite. One woman on an evangelism team used to ask people, 'Can you spare me a few minutes of your time?' This is a very wise thing to say. Look for someone who doesn't look as if they're stressed out or in a hurry and ask for permission to begin a conversation. I have heard the debate about whether street evangelism is less effective than friendship evangelism over and over again for decades. The two don't have to be mutually exclusive. The best street evangelists are the ones who know how to make friends with people. Have deep conversations with those who seem interested. Contact them afterwards. Keep in touch. One evangelist said that you had a window of 24 hours, following a good conversation, to invite someone to a meeting. He would go evangelising on a Saturday afternoon and invite people to his household meeting on a Saturday night. Everything good you say about friendship evangelism can be equally true about evangelising a complete stranger on a street corner. You just need to do it in the right way.
The vision that some people have for their church is simply for it to become bigger and more powerful. This contradicts the example of Christ who was a humble, suffering servant and was eventually martyred. Jesus lost hundreds of converts. Why do we want our church to grow so rapidly and so much? Is it because we see ourselves as some new age political power? Why did someone in the Jesus Fellowship Church write a letter to the Prime Minister saying 'we are praying for a revival that will change our society?' There are problems with books about the cell church movement that expect very rapid growth. I accept that in Hillhall (near Belfast) the church was growing very rapidly and planned to increase from 2 cells to 4 in the next year. Hillhall was a place where the majority of people understood the gospel but didn't know how to put it into practice. They could talk the talk but couldn't walk the walk. People in Newcastle wouldn't consider themselves Christians at all and wouldn't even understand the fundamentals. Rapid growth happens in places where there seems to be more of a spiritual dynamic, like Africa, South America or the United States. It isn't necessarilly the true measure of success. The ability to gather crowds is not a sign that God is blessing your ministry. Growth is certainly related to evangelism but many people can evangelise for years and see only modest results. I used to think that if Christians prayed hard enough and evangelised hard enough, we could cause a revival anywhere we wanted to. This is not so. Some pastors quote the growth figures from South American books and expect to see the same results in their cell groups. This often leads to frustration, and to people abandoning the cell church idea altogether. Exponential growth causes us to focus on numbers rather than on people. The church becomes a business vying for greater market share. We need to focus on people, how we might help and encourage them, and what God is teaching us through them. Focusing on evangelism and numerical growth leads to new converts being neglected. It is very common for a church to double in size in two years and then collapse again. This is sometimes because of the spiritual forces around us. Most people who became Christians in my old church, when it was growing rapidly, were teenagers. No one can hold on to teenagers. Teenagers fall in love with everything. They have a friend in the army, so they want to join the army. They have a friend in the church, so they want to join the church. If they genuinely find Jesus, they will genuinely find a boyfriend or girlfriend who expects sex. They may be lost from the church for several decades, if they are under this sort of pressure. We need to maintain close friendships with these people and assure them that the way back to the church is always open. In the Jesus Fellowship most of the people who became Christians in large numbers were Roma, who eventually returned to Eastern Europe. God did a mighty work among a group of people but they never really became part of the English church. I remember watching some of the Roma people singing hymns around a bonfire. I would have loved to join in. They were singing hymns in their own language. I couldn't join in. One English Christian I met had belonged to the Jesus Fellowship at this time and left because he felt neglected. 'It was all about the Roma.' One person said, during Mission England in the 1980s, 'Compared to evangelism, everything else a church does is like moving the furniture around when the building is on fire.' I strongly disagree with this. Lots of other things a church does are essential if we do not want the fruit of our evangelism to be lost or to go rotten on the tree.
(1) Jeremy Myers' notes for a book he intended to write that became 5 books. Available on the internet for free.
(2) Has the Church Reached its Cell Buy Date? Encounters on the Edge. Church Army. The Sheffield Centre. No 3.
(3) Unchurching. Christianity Without Churchianity. Richard Jacobson.