They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer (Acts 2:42).
Many Christians meet in small groups (or cell groups). However, small groups are not thought of as church meetings. That, even though, for the first few centuries of Christianity, until Constantine, believers met exclusively in homes, and the New Testament instructions about church life presume a household setting. That was the “meeting of the church.” Should you change your perspective and start thinking of them in that way? I think it would benefit everyone if you did. Your small group can begin to function as a church, too, and reap all the benefits of that. But how do you do that?
In Acts 2:42, you see four components of an early Christian meeting. That’s not exhaustive. The first component is to be devoted to the apostles’ teaching.
Most small groups already do this. They gather together and read through a popular Christian book or Sunday school curriculum or study straight out of the Bible.
Of course, the New Testament practice was somewhat different since no printing presses or Bibles existed. Studying the Torah was limited to people who could afford it, which Christian slaves certainly could not. So most instruction was given orally. In the early church, people listened to Jesus teach and preach (which He often did in homes, around the dinner table), and later listened to the apostles.
Think of Paul. In the early stages of a new mission, after converting a household, Paul would do intensive teaching for the rest of the time he would be in the city—on average, about four months. He would teach the new believers for hours. For example, in Troas, the believers met in an apartment (called insula) to eat supper together, and Paul taught long into the night. He preached for so long that a boy named Eutychus, who sat on the windowsill (no doubt to get fresh air in the cramped and unsanitary apartments), nodded off to sleep and fell to his death. Then Paul ran down to him, raised him from the dead, and returned to the apartment to keep teaching (cf. Acts 20:7-12). (Eutychus wasn’t getting out of the sermon that easily!)
But eventually, Paul moved on to the next city and left the young church to function on its own. The responsibility of teaching fell to the group. The Holy Spirit gave gifts to believers, and teachers were raised up to edify the assembly.
What did that teaching look like?
Not what you think.
We’re used to the Reformation tradition of listening to a monologue sermon. In the New Testament, teaching was highly interactive, filled with questions and interruptions (cf. Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach; Viola and Barna, Pagan Christianity, ch. 4). Although the overseer of the house church had to be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2), anyone could potentially contribute to the meeting—“each one” could have “a hymn, a teaching, a revelation…” (1 Cor 14:26). Additionally, older women would teach younger women (Titus 2:4-6). And people who spoke might receive correction, such as how Aquila and Priscilla brought Apollo to their house church to help him clarify some of his doctrines (cf. Acts 18:26; cf. Rom 16:3-5). Teaching was more like engaging in a conversation than listening to a lecture (cf. Jeremy Thomson, Preaching as Dialogue).
How would that work in practice in your small group?
Chances are, you’re already doing it. You get together and discuss the Bible. There might be a leading teacher, but everyone gets involved by asking questions and offering insights. But if you’re not used to that setting, here are suggestions.
Stuart Murray is an Anabaptist scholar who was influential in my adopting an interactive approach to preaching (see here). He advocates moving away from “mono-voiced” teaching to “multivoiced” teaching and offers the example of how one congregation practiced what they called “dwelling in the word.” The congregation would reflect upon a Scripture passage together and invite anyone to respond before the sermon was preached (Murray, The Naked Anabaptist, p. 67). In that model, you have both discussion and a modern sermon.
Tim Nichols, a Free Grace theologian, explained that in his house church, the elders choose a Scripture passage to study and send to everyone in the church, giving them time to meditate upon it before discussing it together.
I’ve been in meetings where anyone was free to share whatever message God may have placed on their hearts, whether based on a common text of Scripture or not.
Whatever you do, the sharing should always be orderly and edifying for the group (cf. 1 Cor 14:26). You’ll have to take turns, hear people out, listen quietly, try not to interrupt, and, occasionally, take someone aside to correct their theology. Otherwise, you have the Biblical freedom to try new things.
Admittedly, practicing multivoiced teaching in a large gathering is difficult (though possible). You can still have some interaction, but it will be limited. It’s much easier to do orderly sharing in a house church setting.
In sum, if you want to transform your small group into a New Testament house church, then add multivoiced teaching to your meeting. You will be edified!
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.