When we examine the New Testament, the first glaring difference between the first century concept and our modern concept of ‘church,’ is that to the early believers the term ‘church’ never referred to a building. The early believers had no ‘church buildings,’ and yet, they shook the Roman Empire with the gospel. They thrived, flourished and had exponential growth of church plants…all without having a single building program or permanent facility.
In the NT account of the expansion of the Christian faith, we are looking at the infancy of the movement. It is easy to explain away the lack of cathedrals and religious monuments, mainly because Christianity was an illegal religion and believers were not allowed to construct buildings for worship within the Roman Empire. But the model they were forced to use brings up several questions: Did their lack of permanent facilities actually enhance their outreach by decentralizing their gatherings? Was the explosion of outreach linked with their inability, both legally and financially, to create the monuments which glorify man? If they had focused upon centralized locations, would the movement have experienced the rapid growth we see in the book of Acts? These questions hurt…but they force us to honestly evaluate what we call church, and how we do church.
When we contrast the mindset of what church is in the New Testament to the church in America we see a stark contrast. I will use straightforward words here. The American church suffers from the idolatry of facilities, monuments to man and a humanistic axiom that ‘bigger is better.’ We have huge facilities with huge numbers of bench warmers. Our congregations are filled with those coming to watch church. We applaud multi-site streaming media, which lifts up the chief man as if he alone has a word from God, while we complain about complacency.
The NT Church had simple men (Acts 4:13) and unnamed men (Acts 8:4; 11:19-21) operating from their gifts and callings in an explosion of outreach. They exalted the content of the message and only sought to exalt one person…the Lord Jesus Christ. Their method was simple, their message was clear and their ministry involved a team. And they were successful apart from permanent or elaborate facilities.
Are our physical facilities hindering us from doing God’s mission? Do they have to? Can we take advantage of what we have and transform it into a proper role to enhance, rather than inhibit outreach? Can we free our congregations from the bondage of unnecessary debt? Can we have the spiritual courage and biblical backbone to get off the egotistical parade of facility competition and ornate waste? For the sake of our neighbors who are going into a dark and hopeless eternity without Christ, I pray we can.
Our answer is not in demanding or forbidding house church with tunneled vision limitations. Neither is the answer in rejecting or forbidding the freedom to build facilities in a free country. (Both of these extremes shows lack of maturity.) Let us enjoy our freedoms and our facilities. However, let us honestly seek to make a difference by simplifying and biblifying (my word) our view and practice of church. If church is not a building, that means a house church can be just as dead and useless as a mega church. We can miss the mark as easy with no buildings as we can with ornate ones.
Therefore, the real issue is not about where we meet but what we build and reproduce in believers. Let us be free to use whatever means helps us accomplish the call to make disciples and send them out to make more disciples, and to plant churches and have them plant more churches!
More to come…