In my mid-20's, I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia to being a degree in New Testament studies and work under the direction of Gordon Fee, the author of the some of the best commentaries from the last fifty years. I had been working for a TOUCH Outreach Ministries, which promoted the Cell Church model and encouraged churches to embrace a New Testament model of church life based on scriptures that talk about how the early church met from "house to house" (Acts 2:42-46, 5:42, 20:20). In those days, I assumed that the goal was to find the secret ingredients to life in the first century church and to determine how those secrets have been forgotten by the church. I thought my studies would tell me about all the things we need to do today that they did back then which would fix the church.
The more read about the early church, the more I discover what I did not expect to find. (This is usually the case with good research.) For instance, I found that all the research demonstrates that they met in homes, but I also found that we must be realistic about the fact that they had no other place to meet. The early church was a movement with no social standing. In fact, it was considered a cult that undermined the mores of the majority culture. Where else would they have met but in homes?
In addition, the research demonstrates that it was a movement of small groups. Although some argue that they met in mid-size groups of 20-40 that met in homes of the more wealthy Christians—and I'm sure this occurred in some locations— archeological research has demonstrated that most homes could only handle 10-15 people. But here's what I did not expect to find: There is little information about what actually transpired in these small group meetings. Those who want to get specific about what actually happened in these groups are speaking from silence. For instance, many argue that there was only small group house churches and that there was no preaching or teaching in larger gatherings. How can we actually know this? Jesus taught in larger groups. And it seems that Paul did also when he taught all night in Ephesus (Acts 20:7). But there is a lot that we just don't know. I've found that people often project their preferred model of church life back upon the early church and therefore fill in the blanks.
While the New Testament, first century history, and archeology reveal that early Christians met in small groups in homes, we cannot claim with honesty that this somehow provides us with a secret ingredient? Is the call to Christian community a prophetic challenge to the modern church that sits in rows and listens to a preacher? Of course. But if we are looking for a New Testament small group model or house church approach or apostolic movement strategy that will unlock the secrets of God, then we are asking questions that cannot be answered. Instead, I think that there is something much more significant about the first century church that we need to hear and heed. I summarize 5 crucial lessons here:
1. They ate together. The early church was not centered around a Bible study. A meal was crucial to their life together. People connect, talk and share life over meals. And I might add that the Lord's Supper or Communion meal was a part of this. So the presence of Christ was woven into the common meal.
The question for today: How might a common meal transform our small group meetings?
2. They experienced repetition of contact. This is a sociological way of talking about how social capital is build through multiple, but short, interactions with one another. Today we often talk about the importance of the small group meeting and some even meet for up to three hours. But the group members don't interact outside of the formal meetings. Deep connections also require interactions outside of the formal meetings. (Btw-I make this conclusion based on facts about how people interacted in the culture and how people lived in close proximity to one another.)
Question for us: In today's culture that has limited repetition of contact, how can we build it into our lives?
3. Their church experience was public. Today we think in terms of insider church experiences and outsider ministry. Things like prayer, worship, Bible study, Communion, etc. we do with one another as insider activities. Outsiders cannot see what we are doing. Then we have outsider activities like evangelism, outreach to the poor and social justice projects. But this insider/outsider line was non-existent in the first century. For instance, as they met in homes with windows that had no glass panes and were built adjacent to other homes with a streets only six feet wide, a house church meeting would have been on public display.
Question we must ask: How can we let outsiders see our life with God and with one another so that our lives are a witness?
4. They experienced a lot of failure. The first century church was far from some kind of perfect model for us to follow. Just read 1 Corinthians. We are talking about real people with real problems. Small groups are messy. There is no ideal way to do church that is going to eliminate this reality. And we need to quit talking about church as if we will suddenly find the secret. I've looked and the more I look into the life of the early church, the more I see how much we share in common.
Question for today: How do we create space for people to deal with reality instead of trying to get beyond reality and attain some kind of higher-plain of spirituality?
5. They expected to meet with God when they gathered. They had a tangible reality of the life of the Spirit. This was not some kind of escapist spirituality that often gets equated with extremes of modern-day charismatic experiences. The early church depended upon the living presence of Jesus in their midst who would speak, heal, and touch lives.
We must ask: How can we slow down and make room so that we can train our ears to hear God as we meet?
6. There is actually one more. But it deserves a post all on its own.
This post is fleshing out the summary presentation Small Groups in the Four Eras of the Church.
Picture Credit: Paolo Margari via Compfight