Life Together First Century Style

This is a description by a Bible scholar/historian concerning what typically would be the “gathering together” of early believers. I don’t know about you, but it kind of puts in perspective the whole idea about “church meetings,” programs and questions like “What do we do with the kids.”

The worship of an early Christian house church probably centered around the dinner table. They don’t necessarily all sit facing forward like in a church building that we think of today but rather they’re in someone’s dining room and the center of their activity really is the fellowship meal or the communal meal. The term communion actually comes from this experience of the dining fellowship…. We need to remember that dining is one of the hallmarks of early Christian practice almost from the very beginning. All the gospel traditions tend to portray Jesus at the dinner table as a very important part of his activity. Paul’s confrontation with Peter at Antioch is over dining, and when we look at the context of the letters, especially First Corinthians, the role of dining in fellowship is central to all of their religious understanding and practices.

“We also know that all other aspects of worship that we think of as going with early Christian practice probably happened around the dinner table as well. Paul refers to one person having a song and another person bringing a prayer. Everyone is contributing to the banquet whether it’s in the form of food or in the form of their piety and worship. They all bring it to the table…. Some of them bring prophecies or charismatic gifts, and these too form some of the concerns that Paul deals with in some of the letters. Sometimes charismatic gifts also produce tension within Paul’s communities. We hear at times of Paul having to discipline people or suggest that the congregation discipline people by kicking them out of the fellowship dinner because he doesn’t like the ethical behavior of some people. We hear of questions of dining with pagans and going to dinner parties where the meat might not be of a suitable sort, so there’s all kinds of questions that come up in the context of this house church environment in Paul’s letters.”

Taken from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/congregations.html

Love vs. Organization

By Hal Miller

In a recent dialogue about the issue of leadership, authority and organization, Frank Viola, author of Rethinking the Wineskin and Who is Your Covering? [NOTE: these two volumes are out of print, but they have been revised and combined in the newer book, “Reimagining Church]. observed, “I know a number of groups that have ‘tried’ to employ the New Testament model of leadership, especially in the 1970’s when this sort of thing was quite popular among charismatics, and many of them have found that it didn’t work.  Consequently, today, when New Testament church principles are brought to their attention, their response is usually: ‘Oh yea, we’ve already been through all that and it just doesn’t work.’”

In a related conversation, Robert Banks, recognized authority on home based churches,  said, “It does trouble me that, proportionally, [organization] comes up so often when, biblically speaking, it is not as central as certain other issues. For example, how often [do we discuss] what Paul says is the most central, enduring obligation we have in church, that is to ‘love’ one another?”

Keeping the Focus

I have concluded that these two comments are closely related to each other. Like Robert Banks, I’ve come increasingly to think that our penchant for wanting to get the organizational problem “right” represents a missed focus. The apostles’ admonition to the churches is, in general, “figure out how to love each other,” not “figure out how to get your organization right.”

Getting your organization right (and I would include here discussions of spiritual authority, church government, apostolic succession, papal infallibility, and a raft of other topics which depend on your denominational heritage) simply isn’t that important compared with figuring out how to love each other.

More importantly, those get-the-organization-right concerns end up sapping the energy that should go into worrying how to concretely love, and blurring the focus that we should give to learning to serve each other. That’s not a necessary thing, but it is a reality.

I suspect that this is one of the underlying reasons for the failures Frank Viola and others observe. Many champions of so-called “New Testament models” have been so focused on getting the organization right that they have missed the fact that a church unfocused on loving simply isn’t one. It isn’t one even if it exactly replicates some putative “New Testament model” of government or church organization. And churches that aren’t [focused on loving] don’t usually work for long.

In considering issues of organization, I believe two things need to be considered at the outset:

#1: What actual “cash value” will any conclusions have for the core business of the church, that is, loving? In other words, if we happen to get the organizational problem right, what good does it do us in our core mission?

#2: What do we lose if we fail to get the organizational problem right? This is more than just the same question flipped ’round. Here, the issue is: if I worry myself thoroughly about loving, and continue in the same pathetic, unbiblical, corrupt church government that I always have, what have I lost? Not in abstract terms, but concretely and specifically, as I’m walking with these others in my home church.

I resonate with Robert Banks. Discussions of organization are often discussions misplaced. I wonder whether that misplacement is one of the core reasons behind Viola’s observation that many (or most) of those who tried to get the organizational problem right in previous decades flopped. In my view, we’re better off trying to figure out how to love God and one another. That’s certainly a harder problem. But if we keep getting drawn, like bugs to a light bulb, into other issues like getting the organization right, we’ll be able to give our children a completely untouched field of exploration—learning how to love.

A Practical Example

When our family was in England earlier this month, we spent some time with a church in the East End of London. Organizationally, they’re quite a mish-mash— lots of home-church values; a paid guy who does some pastor stuff; no elders exactly but a set of leadership teams; nominal charismatic worship; age integrated church life . . . you get the idea? In other words, in a simple-minded way, they’ve tried to learn whatever they could from whomever they could. And they ended up with an organization that would make any good purist retch and run away.

But they’re quite wonderful people having the time of their lives trying to love God and each other. What were they learning? They were working through Ephesians trying to figure out what it meant for them that God’s purpose in the church was shown in Jews and Gentiles being one Body.

Now the East End is the underbelly of London. It’s largely immigrant which in their case means Pakistani, Indian, and sub-Saharan African. In that polyglot kind of world, being one body, Jew and Gentile, translated pretty directly into learning to love a collection of people very different from yourself.

And their opinion was that in the East End, church labels had come to mean nothing. Pentecostal and Evangelical and (even!) Anglican churches were walking more or less happily along with their little mongrel band learning to be one body, Jew and Gentile. God’s purpose — one body—loving—was pretty evident both between the people of this church and between them and the other churches around them.  It was pretty exciting. Those of us in the US are at least a generation away from that. We have that sense of walking together, often, at the grassroots level, from one Christian to another, but it seldom extends to whole churches. Here in America, churches are still too worried about getting something or other right to give their energy and focus to loving. End of story. The relevance is pretty clear to me, but you should draw your own conclusions.

At the time of this article, Hal Miller was a part of Salem Community Church in Salem, Massachusetts <http://www.home-church.org/>. These remarks were excerpted from comments made in an online discussion taken from the House Church Discussion List (HCDL).

 

The Vine – a regular reunion and meet-up

I am going to describe one image of what a gathering of The Vine might look like. I would like your response as well as some of your ideas.

It would happen on a semi-regular basis — every month or two. It would be for the Summit network and other communities to come together to deepen relationships and for “Kingdom collaboration.” Each Vine gathering would happen in three general pieces that people would participate in as they felt led or were able.

I imagine a “family dinner” sometime late Saturday afternoon, say at 4:00 or 5:00. The meal is simple — soup, salad & bread. It is set up around long tables so all who are in attendance are sitting at the same table. It includes communion, that is the breaking of bread at the beginning of the meal and the passing of the cup as we finish the meal. The goal of the gathering is to enjoy one another’s company, share our experiences and, of course, to eat.

We finish the meal and clean up. When that’s done — aiming for 5:30 or 6:00 — we shift gears for celebration, including music. This can be anything from raucous & rambunctious to mellow & folksy. This part may even feel a  little “churchy” but only because there are those who may be dropping in after the meal looking for something that feels familiar or a place where they can sit in the back and “observe” until they can feel comfortable.

After the music, some kind of teaching. Bible. Laying the foundation. Done at about 7:00 or so. After that, the third section of the time would be for interaction; direction determined in advance by prayer but flexible as the Lord leads. This time is for Spirit-led ministry or worship; unscripted; perhaps facilitated. The focus would be on meeting the Lord. It would be great to have this time drawn from the word and aimed at some sort of application. It could be prayer or music or discussion or personal ministry or all of the above or something else entirely.

Done when we’re done. 8 or 8:30? If the Spirit is working among us, 11 or 12… People would be free to slip out at any time during the afternoon and evening as needed (think families with kids, etc.). 

Other thoughts: The Vine is a fellowship that is intended to inspire and encourage people to develop deep relationship with Jesus and to take an active role in advancing the kingdom. I would like to see house churches planted from this gathering. I would like to see people trained in personal prayer ministry. I would like to see it as a launching place for various kinds of community ministry. In short, I would like to see this be a place where people can be equipped and released into kingdom work wherever they are. And a place where ministries could be encouraged, supported and share accountability.Since it’s on a Saturday night, it may be that people who come to The Vine are working with Sunday morning churches–that’s OK.

So, that’s what I see at this point. What it really ends up looking like is anyone’s guess. Keep praying. What do you see? What does your heart yearn for. What might The Vine look like to you? Let’s visualize together.

PS- There are a couple of places that we could do this. I have talked to the folks at Worldview Center, and they are open to having us.

Building community in Jesus

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