From "The Simple/House Church Revolution" Book. The entire book can still be downloaded here.
REACH DISCIPLE GATHER EMPOWER MULTIPLY
One pastor described his first experience of gathering in a simple, house church setting:
As of midnight Saturday night... I AM FREE! No more institutional church. I am no longer on staff at my church... We want to follow God, relax, and rest in His presence... Sunday morning we slept in the first Sunday morning "sleep in" in my adult life... Then at 4:00 p.m. we went to a friend's house for a house church meeting... We played some horseshoes in the backyard before dinner. We enjoyed communion together and ate a meal together. I got my guitar out and played a few songs and then the host popped in a worship CD, passed around some song sheets and we sang a few more worship songs. One lady's dad who lives in Oklahoma had recently been diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma) and she was really upset, so we spent quite some time laying our hands on her and praying for her dad. It was a very moving time... The freedom is almost overwhelming!
This pastor’s experience is only one example of a simple, natural gathering. It is not a “model” for house church. That way of thinking is institutional in nature. Instead, we want to allow God to lead us into the myriad of ways that followers of Jesus can gather around simple devotion to him and a love for one another.
What Gatherings Are NOT
Most of us come from backgrounds where gatherings are organized as part of traditional church structures. Most church gatherings (even small groups) are organizationally-driven, programmed events. It can be a challenge for us to re-imagine gatherings that are unlike our past church experiences.
Let’s start by thinking through the New Testament and reminding ourselves that gatherings were never:
• An event to attend
• A performance to watch
• A place to go
• A place or event that is exceptionally holy
• A place to go to get spiritually fed (focus on self)
• A service to attend where there is a pastor to sit under
• An event/service that needs finances in order to happen
• A meeting to attend that demonstrates allegiance to a religious organization
• A get-together where one goes to get one’s spiritual life “super-charged”
• A service where a few people minister to a crowd of people
What we do see in Scripture are many different types of gatherings which took place frequently, naturally, and often spontaneously. They did not require a great deal of planning or preparation because they were a natural outflow as followers of Jesus connected and gathered around a love for him and each other. They took place in normal, everyday settings and they fit into the rhythm of everyday life.
Characteristics of New Testament Gatherings
Let’s reflect on what gatherings do look like in Scripture. Remember, the first church was birthed with 3,000 people coming to Christ in one day (Acts 2). Gatherings immediately sprang up in many different settings, at many different times, and with great frequency—even daily (Acts 2:46 ). The nature of these gatherings was such that they could take place anywhere and everywhere that life was happening.
Most gatherings were small. Although there were city-wide prayer meetings at times, most gatherings took place in homes where it was easy and natural to gather. Jesus himself ministered to crowds but gathered, personally, with his closest spiritual friends (the three), spent a great deal of time building relationships with his extended spiritual family (the twelve), and, to a lesser extent, with his spiritual network (the seventy). Likewise, smaller gatherings were clearly the focal point of New Testament congregating as evidenced by the churches meeting mostly in homes.
Many gatherings took place around a meal. This created a space for relationships to be built and intimacy to take place. The smaller-sized groups, along with eating together, allowed for deeper relationships to be built and honest sharing of life to take place.
Gatherings met where people already naturally congregated. Special buildings for worship, and the associated costs were completely unnecessary as worshipers met together in homes, neighborhoods, and existing public meeting places.
Gatherings were simple and did not require professionals or even special leadership. Although leaders functioned to serve the church in a variety of ways (see chapter eight), gatherings were not dependent on special leaders to take control or guide the meetings. It was understood that when Christ’s body came together every member loved one another and ministered to one another under the guidance and leadership of the Holy Spirit.
Gatherings were more fluid than structured. In fact, many gatherings took place completely spontaneously without pre-set schedules at all. Yet even regular gatherings did not have a prescribed “order of service” or a model to follow. The idea of planning and structuring a New Testament gathering was completely contrary to the understanding that Jesus is in the midst of his body when we gather and that he is fully present and actively manifesting his will and resurrected life.
As Wayne Jacobsen said:
Jesus did not leave us a model to build, but a guide to follow. We experience the life of the church not because we meet in a certain way or in a certain place, but because we learn to listen to God together and let Him teach us how to share His life. If we substitute any method or design for that process, we will end up following it instead of Him and building a counterfeit instead of the real deal.
Every Person a Minister
The reason that simple, Spirit-led gatherings could take place anytime and anywhere was because the early church completely understood the concept of every-person-ministry. This goes to the very heart of God’s church: every person filled by the Spirit of God, every person part of the priesthood of all believers, and every person essential to the expression of Christ on earth.
Gatherings reflected this reality: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:26).” This is not just a suggested model for church gatherings; this is highlighting the reality that Christ can only be most fully expressed through the participation of every person.
Frank Viola says it well: "The Lord Jesus cannot fully disclose Himself through only one member. He is far too rich. In fact, His riches are inexhaustible (Ephesians 3:8)! When every member of the Body functions in the meeting, Christ is seen. He is assembled in our midst.”
Because the early church walked in the reality of every-person-ministry, it was easy for gatherings to take place naturally, organically, and wherever believers could easily gather. They understood these premises:
• When Jesus-followers get together, Jesus is in their midst.
• When Jesus-followers get together, everyone ministers one to another through the spiritual gifts that are given to each one.
• When Jesus-followers get together, the Spirit of God, who is in the midst of the gathering, will lead.
With this understanding, gatherings can take place simply, powerfully, any time, anywhere, with whoever is able to gather.
What About Intentionality?
Doing away with organization and programs does not mean that we necessarily do away with intentionality. Jesus-followers gather. They gather because they want to, and they gather because they need to in order to stay connected to God through his family.
As we walk with Jesus and look at his life, we find that he depended on others and valued the importance of gathering regularly with others.
Types of Gatherings
Three types of gatherings seemed to be the norm in the life of Jesus as well as those who were led by the Holy Spirit in the early church times:
1. Spiritual friends. Gathering with one, two, or three others was highly valued in the New Testament and provides a unique opportunity for high level sharing and inter-relating to take place.
2. Spiritual family. Gathering regularly with an extended-family-sized group (7-20) also seemed to be a New Testament norm providing a community of believers to grow with, exercise spiritual gifts with, and share life with.
3. Spiritual network. There is also benefit in gathering with larger groups for prayer, worship, or receiving input from certain ministries within the body of Christ.
In acknowledging these three types of gatherings, this is not intended to be a model for an organization. It simply points the way for Christians to gather and connect with one another in a healthy, yet organic, way. It provides us with some guidance in seeking out a way to regularly relate with the body of Christ that is balanced and growth-producing.
Followers of Jesus become responsible themselves to find these three levels of connectedness. We do not need to provide an organization or program for this to happen. We simply need to encourage one another to live life with Jesus and gather regularly with others as he leads.
What Do We Do When We Gather?
Coming together, for Jesus-followers, is really as easy as, well, coming together. The Bible does not provide us with an outline or order of service because we are his people, coming together with his love and purposes on his heart, for his glory, and with his leading. As such, times together can involve anything and everything from eating to praying, from sharing life’s journeys to crying with each other, from studying scripture to listening in silence, from laughing together to ministering in spiritual gifts, from talking and more eating to prophesying and teaching.
When people ask this question, “what do we do when we get together?” I like to encourage them to think through two scriptures, initially, that speak to this question.
The first has already been mentioned: 1 Corinthians 14:26 says “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.”
The second is Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Notice, again, this is not an order of service, simply a broad record of what God’s people tend to do when they gather. The four elements of Acts 2:42 provide some guidelines for gatherings, but the Holy Spirit wants to be the one leading and controlling our agenda. When we get together, it is a supernatural gathering with God in our midst.
As Felicity Dale said, “If we will learn to hear and follow His promptings, we will never have a boring meeting.”
Because we have learned, in the past, to have certain people lead our gatherings, moving into Spirit-led, participatory gatherings can be a daunting endeavor. The way to learn is to do it. Make mistakes. Learn some more. Don’t give up. Every person is a minister, and when we capture that in our times together it is incredibly rewarding. The body of Christ can reflect him in wonderful and varied ways when fully unleashed to do so.