They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer…Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:42, 46-47).
How did the early church meet, and how can their example inform how we meet today? Over the next several blogs, I want to point you to some passages in Scripture that hint at how the apostles organized the very first churches and suggest ways that can apply to small groups today.
For example, read Acts 2:42, 46-47. How many kinds of meetings do you see?
There are two.
First, there was the meeting in the Temple. The Temple courts could accommodate a gathering of the whole church—hundreds, even thousands, of people. As Keener says, “Large crowds could gather for the apostles’ teaching and prayer (3:1) in the temple courts; this one temple to the true God probably provided the only suitable urban venue for a ‘megachurch’ in the ancient Mediterranean world” (Acts, p. 173). Believers could hear the apostles teach, while unbelievers coming to worship at the Temple would listen to it, too. Hence, Roger Gehring adds that the large temple gathering also emphasized “missionary proclamation” (Gehring, House Church and Mission, p. 83).
Second, there were meetings from house to house. Of course, these were smaller gatherings. Archeologists have estimated that a larger ancient house could host thirty to fifty people (Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth, p. 183). If that number was typical of Jerusalem homes, the new believers must have met in multiple house churches. As Keener confirms, “these large meetings were supplemented by more familiar settings resembling small/cell groups or house churches, perhaps chosen organically by neighborhoods or (often) by finding homes larger enough to gather several families for meals” (Keener, Acts, p. 174; Gehring, House Church, p. 83). We know of at least one house church hosted by John Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12), but there must have been many more.
This two-meeting pattern was not unique to Jerusalem.
Wherever the apostles evangelized, they would plant house churches. Once a house became too crowded, they would add another home to meet in, and that’s how churches multiplied in each city (Malherbe, Social Aspects, p. 70).
However, there would also be times when the believers would need to meet all together. You see that hinted in Paul when he refers to times when “the whole church assembles together” (1 Cor 14:23) or says that Gaius was “host to me and to the whole church” (Rom 16:23). If there were times when the “whole church” met together, that implies there were other times when they met in smaller groups, i.e., house churches (cf. Banks, Community, p. 32). Dunn comments, “it probably means that ‘the whole church’ was able to meet only at less frequent intervals…presumably for special celebrations and meetings” (Dunn, Romans 9-16, p. 911).
The point is that even outside of Jerusalem, churches met in smaller and larger gatherings. Seeing that can give us a new perspective on the relationship between a traditional church and a small group.
Most traditional churches realize that a typical Sunday morning service doesn’t provide enough opportunities for discipleship, sharing, or developing deep friendships. It is very easy to stay anonymous and lonely in a big church. To deal with that problem, people are encouraged to meet during the week in smaller groups, often in a home. Those are the settings where many of us have made lasting friendships and where we’ve developed most as followers of Jesus. Speaking from experience, I still keep up with people I met in small groups decades ago.
However, there is a problem of perception—or of expectation. While small groups are encouraged, they’re not considered to be churches. In the popular mindset, “church” happens in the official building on Sunday morning, and whatever a small group is, it’s considered something less-than-church. Consequently, small groups aren’t encouraged to operate according to the New Testament pattern. They’ll study and socialize but miss the opportunity and blessing to function fully as the Body of Christ in those settings.
Because of that gap, there can often be a struggle between advocates of “house churches” and “institutional churches.” But does there really need to be? What if we shifted our perspective? What if we began thinking of both types of gatherings as meetings of the church?
In the next blogs, I want to focus on what small groups can be. With some minor changes, your home meeting can function (and should function!) as a New Testament house church, filling spiritual needs that a larger Sunday morning service cannot.
I know from experience that making those changes can vitalize your group’s walk with Christ, gifting for ministry, and sense of living in a community.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.
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