“Could you share about how you’ve seen this work go from groups to New Testament churches?”
Before we started this ministry, we researched the existing conventional churches in the UPG we wanted to reach; the part we investigated had a population of 1 million. We wanted to join with whatever conventional church were reaching Muslims. We found 22 churches. Some of them were not registered; some of them didn’t have buildings; they each had from 15 to 100 believers. We expected to find that some of them were effective at reaching local Muslims. But we really didn’t find any conventional churches reaching local Muslims.
The best we found were three out of the 22 churches, each of which had added an average of three believers from a Muslim background during the previous 10 years. All the other churches were isolated castles. The only attendees in the churches were from other people groups who had moved into the area from more Christian areas, most churches were either not from the majority UPG, or their families had converted 30 years previously. I was disappointed to find that none of the conventional churches were effective in reaching the local population. Most did not even try, because they were afraid their churches would be burned.
We found that the three churches getting a little bit of fruit from the majority population, were all non-registered churches. None of them had buildings. We discovered that one of the more effective factors in this UPG was to not have a building. If local people had to enter a church building, that was a great obstacle to making disciples. Not having a church building is exactly the opposite of every conventional church in our country. We discovered that community leaders were shamed if any local person participated in a formal church. But many community leaders tolerated unofficial gatherings of people discussing the Bible, especially if they were small and not noticed. That was an odd thing to discover, but it was one of our big takeaways.
I teach the Bible in seminaries; I often teach the Gospels and Acts. I’ve done a lot of research on the early church in the Bible and we’ve tried to follow the patterns in Acts. Our biblical research and feedback from the field has helped us sharpen our “church without walls.” We discovered that churches didn’t have buildings for the first 200 years, and we discovered other patterns.
What is a “church”?
When most Bible teachers describe church as local, they mean in one building, but you can’t find that emphasis on one building in the Bible. The word normally translated as “church” was ekklēsia, which meant “gathering.” Ekklēsia was used for a gathering of the followers of Jesus, and was also used for a mob that gathered. It was a flexible term that could have various meanings. Local ekklēsia was described in the Bible in three ways: First, small groups of believers gathering in homes are called ekklēsia. Sometimes small believer groups gathered in homes but the word ekklēsia wasn’t used, they didn’t always use this word. We read in the Bible that sometimes people who had not yet believed joined the gathering.
Second, there were collective gatherings of all the linked small groups in a city or small region. These collectives consisted of many gatherings in homes, yet they were also called one church; for example, the one church of Rome. Each of the small house gatherings in and around the city of Rome were house churches, yet they also shared an identity as the one church of Rome. Individual believers belonged to both a house church and a city church. We assume that the city church collective was not just for cities; it could also describe a small region collective.
In the well-researched book House Church and Mission, Roger Gehring quotes all the earlier writers on this topic. It describes how the house church structure supported the advance of the gospel, and linked in city collectives. At the time of the New Testament, both Rome and Corinth (for example) had five or more gatherings in homes that we read about. These were house churches, each meeting in a different home. So by local churches, do we mean house churches? Or do we mean the one local church in Rome (all the linked house churches in that area)? Because the church of Rome was a collective of several house churches. The word ekklēsia flexibly referred to both kinds of local churches in the Bible. We’re most familiar with the city church in Corinth, because at that time the church was still small enough for most of the believers to meet in one very large house.
Gathering all the believers in a city church in one place soon became impossible. For example, Acts 4:4 mentions 5,000 men. These were heads of households, so when we include the wives and children, and other relatives and servants who lived in the homes of these 5,000 men, we estimate 15,000 or 20,000 believers. How many house churches existed at that time? House Church and Mission describes research on the architecture of the day. The largest room of most houses were about the size of a small bedroom today, though the wealthier homes had larger rooms and courtyards. From Gehring’s research, we estimate 15-20 people on average for each house church. Let’s use the round numbers of 20 people per house church and 20,000 believers. That means they would have had 1,000 house churches in Jerusalem by Acts 4:4, in just the first three years of the Jerusalem movement. And much more growth had occurred by Acts 21. So who led these 1000 house churches? The 12 apostles had oversight, but it would have been impossible for them to lead even 100 of the 1000 house churches. At least 900 house churches must have been led by new believers, under the oversight of the elders of the city church.
I have heard people state that there are no movements in the Bible, that all gatherings must be led by mature believers. But clearly their claims are not based on the Bible. I try not to say too bluntly, “Really? Haven’t you ever thought about what you are you’re reading in the Bible? There had to be a movement of at least 1000 believer groups in just three years in Jerusalem!” And biblical evidence points to six movements of more than 1000 believers in different areas in the biblical period. We can’t read the biblical evidence any other way. Our understanding about ekklēsia/church has to be robust enough to accommodate all the biblical data. One of the clearest observations about ekklēsia in the book of Acts is its expansive organic nature. It keeps growing and adding new branches and structures to accommodate the growth and to link new growth to the previous growth in ekklēsia as an expanding organic system. Biblical church is both located in homes and is also the house churches linked together as city church (or small region) collectives.
The word ekklēsia is also used of wide region church: the church of Judea, Samaria, Galatia, and Macedonia. These were provinces, and we can not imagine all the believers in a province ever gathering together. They were not “local” in the face-to-face sense, but neither where they universal in the broad conceptual sense. They shared an identity with other believers in their province. This is the third size we see in this organically expanding linked church system. To put it as simply as possible, church in the New Testament was a combination of small, city (small region) church, and wide region collectives of believers, who saw themselves linked to the other ekklēsia units (whether big or small), as brothers and sisters. This was a church without walls, that kept expanding.
What about leaders? There was one team of elders over the entire city church of 20,000 in Jerusalem. And there must have been 1,000 unnamed leaders of each house church. But the 12 became overwhelmed by the time of Acts 6. They were not able to keep up with leadership demands, which kept expanding with expansion of the church. So when widow’s needs pushed them and conflicts emerged, they added a second kind of leadership team to handle a certain sector of ministry. This second leadership team, composed of men selected based on their spiritual qualifications, handled practical, relational, and spiritual issues in the widows’ ministry sector. The church would have included hundreds of widows at that time.
As a second example, we read of the Ephesian elders, who similarly would have overseen all the linked house churches in the Ephesus area. We know that believers in that area burned many magic books in a mass renewal. The value was estimated to be 50,000 days wages: about 10 million US dollars when converted to the currency of 2021. So 10,000 believers is a reasonable estimate in the Ephesus area. The Ephesian elders would have had oversight over roughly 500 small group leaders.
Summary of biblical data
Our understanding of ekklēsia must accommodate all the biblical data concerning the fast expanding system of linked house churches, city church collectives of all small groups (and we put small region church in this category), and wide region collectives.
1) The nature of church in Acts is to expand rapidly and this yielded thousands of believers during Paul’s lifetime in many different regions. Nowadays many use the term movement to describe segments which grow to over 1000 believers.
2) Much of face-to-face church life happened in informal house churches. They had no church buildings for 200 years, so we know the settled church-building-based ministry of today was not seen in the first two centuries. But believers gathering in their home groups likely knew other believers and visited other believer groups, and supported one another as brothers and sisters. We see indications of this type of one-another relational ministry in Romans 16 and Colossians 4.
3) When a city church grew, its members shared a common identity, even though as it expanded they did not meet face to face in one place. They met face to face with a smaller group.
4) Many house churches must have been led by new believers in the fast-expanding early church.
5) A team of elders oversees the collective of all the house churches linked under each city church (and this likely included elders overseeing small-region churches in rural areas).
6) In spite of the common practice today, we don’t find any biblical examples of a church of any size being led by one pastor-elder, though we can imagine that some small house churches were led by one person.
7) A team of elders was established for each city church (or small-region church) before a year had passed after the first preaching of the gospel in the area. Acts 14:23 gives clear evidence for this. They appointed elders for them in every church (a universal pattern) while returning on their second missionary journey. A team of elders was established for every church from among those new believers who were most qualified. The selection of elders was not delayed beyond one year of the church being started. The more mature Ephesian church, that had been established longer, was cautioned not to select new believers for elders (1 Tim. 3:6), but we do not see this caution in the list of elder qualifications for the more troubled church in Crete (Titus 1). So they must have picked the most mature elders available, in areas where people were coming to Christ for the first time in an unreached area. The apostolic team selected the most qualified people available in a region to oversee the church, but they picked a team of elders who could help each other grow.
Applying biblical patterns among modern UPGs
Most of the small groups in UPG contexts that are 99% Islamic average only five believers. When small believer groups get larger than eight, they face more security risks in their communities. But these new believers gladly share the gospel with others, who then want to join groups. So they start new groups instead of allowing them to join existing groups that would become too large. When these linked small groups multiply in three or more generations of groups, we call 10 linked groups a Cluster Church (like a small City Church). That’s where we pick elders. Each small group has a leader, the most mature among the five believers who gather. Small group leaders don’t have to meet elder qualifications, but we want our Cluster Church leaders to qualify as biblical elders.
All the group leaders in a Cluster meet together in a leaders’ group. They study the biblical passages for selecting elders: 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and Acts 6 for comparison. The group leaders then decide which of them meet the qualifications as elders to lead the Cluster. We want there to be at least three elders over the Cluster, because teams of elders are what we see in the Bible, but sometimes there are only two elders over a cluster, or there may be five. We don’t want just one shepherd over a Cluster church, because we don’t find that in the Bible.
Are the patterns of the church in the first 200 years just ancient history superseded by church traditions since then? Or do these patterns guide us to develop a model that adapts to each context today? We believe Paul set patterns that should be imitated. That doesn’t mean there will never be an exception to the pattern of teams of elders, but we don’t find any in Paul’s day. We want to focus on replicating the patterns as well as possible. Some people say: “They can’t possibly be qualified to be elders yet!” Who will tell Paul that what he was doing wasn’t biblical? He selected elders in every church, in less than a year after they heard the gospel.
We don’t realize the powerful hold our own church experience has on our view of church. We don’t realize that church traditions have developed, and when they fit with biblical patterns, that is good, but there may be other ways to fit biblical patterns. One biblical pattern is to set up teams of leaders in the first year where the church is expanding. This is much safer than having just one pastor. Because if there are three elders, every one of them has weaknesses and strengths. They can help minimize each other’s weaknesses, and help each other grow in mutual accountability. I’m passionate about this issue. This is a big issue in movements: how to keep creating new teams of leaders as the gospel expands the church, and how to help those elders continue to mature.
The early role of leaders who want to get to a movement is all about evangelism, about getting to the first groups. But once the system is expanding, the greater focus shifts to developing teams of leaders over all the linked group clusters, and over the small-region churches. Over the small regions, we also need teams of elders selected from among the cluster elders. And some of these need to serve at the next wider level; we need teams of elders over wide-region church too. This chain of linked teams of elders constitutes the organic structure of this expanding ekklēsia system. If we want to get to a movement, and see it multiply movements, we need to keep working on developing teams of elders.