The Primitive Church
“Christians today don’t have the same lived experience as the early church.” At least that’s what my seminary professor said over and over again.
His point was that the early church we read about in the book of Acts had a very different day-to-day experience from the church today. Some of those differences, like Roman persecution(!), we can be glad do not happen today. But my professor’s point was that the primitive church in the New Testament turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6) because it existed as a counter-cultural community of small groups.
Most people today think of “the Church” as a building, or all the people gathered together on Sunday. Paul, however, can speak of the Church that meets in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor 16:19). He can also mention occasions where the whole Church gathers (1 Cor 14:23; Rom 16:23), implying that smaller expressions of the Church existed.
In fact, the early church experienced supernatural exponential growth, so much so that the early church numbered to about 3000 people (Acts 2:41)! One of the practical results of this was that the church began to meet in small groups in homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42). And unless we forget, Jesus Himself focused His discipleship efforts to twelve men broadly and three men in particular. That is a small group! The simple fact is that the church in every age must rediscover the principles and priorities of the early church. A ministry of small groups is one small way that the church today can begin to regain the form and function of the early church.
Form and Function
A world of clarification. Even though the book of Acts tells us a great deal about what the early church did (function), it gives us very few explicit commands about what we should do (form). None of us expect that “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3) must rest upon us when we receive the Holy Spirit (form)! And yet all of us know that every Christian must depend on the power of the Holy Spirit (function).
The point here is that the church today does not need to slavishly reproduce the exact “forms” of the early Church in the book of Acts, but we ought to always prayerfully pursue the same “functions” of the early Church: discipleship, evangelism, prayer, worship, mission, etc.. Fortunately for us a ministry of Small Groups is a “form” of the early church that is both easily reproducible and strategically beneficial. Small groups when they function at their best also greatly help the church engage in the same functions of the early church.
Small Group Ingredients: Gospel, Community & Mission
Billy Graham, during the height of the Cold War was criticized because of his ministry. The critics claimed that the church was progressing and growing, but Graham was accused of stifling this progress and setting the church back fifty years! Philip Yancey, in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? tells us that in response, Graham said, “I am deeply ashamed. I have been trying very hard to set the church back two thousand years.”
Small groups are one way that the church today can get “back two thousand years.” Gathering with a small group of believers so that you can live on mission, practice prayer and study God’s Word may seem very simple, but it is in fact part of what made the early church so powerful.
Every small group has three indispensable ingredients: Gospel, Community and Mission. The gospel describes the centrality of the person and work of Christ, both to empower the Christian life (Romans 1:16) and as our interpretive grid when we read the Bible (Luke 24:27). Community describes the “one another’s” of Scripture, this is the people of God loving and caring for each other. Mission is the hardest thing to do, but this describes the fact that every Christian has a “missionary” identity and is called to share the gospel in word and deed.
Most Bible Studies, Men’s Groups, Women’s Group’s and other church ministries accomplish two of these three. In some cases they only accomplish one. Bible Studies, it must be said, have the common tendency to turn inward and fossilize into a holy huddle. This creates a people who fail to live on mission and a community that erects unnecessary barriers to unbelievers. At worse these Bible Studies create a self-righteous subculture that gives the impression that “Bible Knowledge” automatically translates into Christian maturity. It is hard to do all three of these things (gospel, community and mission). Doing all three of these things is difficult, it is messy and yet when all three are present it is life changing.
Small Groups at North Bay
In light of all of this we are excited to launch our Small Group ministry at North Bay! It is our prayer that the principles we talked about here will breathe fresh life into existing groups (Bible Studies, Men’s Groups and Women’s Groups), while also leading people to create totally new groups. Here are some details you will want to make note of
- Small Group Leader Training:
- Sunday, January 10th
- Right After Church – Lunch Provided – RSVP with Church
- More information found here – LINK.
- Small Group Winter Session:
- January 31 – March 21
- 8 Weeks Long – Starts the same time as our new 1 Peter sermon series
- Groups will be resourced with sermon based discussion questions
- More information found here – LINK
- Small Group Form:
- Not in a group, but would like to be?
- Fill out our Small Group Form (before January 31) and we will do our best to place you in a group – LINK
If this discussion of small groups has gotten you thinking, consider exploring some of these resources.
- Banks, Robert J. Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Historical Setting. 1st ed. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1980.
- Chester, Tim, and Steve Timmis. Everyday Church: Gospel Communications on Mission. North American ed. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012.
- Keller, Timothy. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
- Marshall, Colin, Tony Payne, and Matthias Media. The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything. Kingsford, N.S.W.: Matthias Media, 2009.
- Vanderstelt, Jeff. Saturate: Being Disciples of Jesus in the Everyday Stuff of Life. Wheaton: Crossway, 2015.
For anyone who is a gluten for punishment, feel free to read my seminary paper that addresses this subject of Small Groups (I call them “missional communities” but they essentially mean the same thing).
Photo Credit: Priscilla Du Preez – LINK