It seems like the flashier the church gets, the less spiritual power it has. Interestingly, our research suggests that flashy is going flat. That is to say, Christians who are seeking an authentic church experience are not looking for another rock concert or coffee shop or positive message camouflaged as a sermon.
They are looking for real, raw Jesus. They are looking for the cross to do its deadly work in their life. They are looking for the Bible to pierce their heart and separate their flesh and spirit. They are looking for the iron of other Christians who can rip off the hard edges of their sin. Above all, they are looking for the biblical church. The one who proclaims and matures and loves, and nothing more. That is the church we are here to discuss.
However, let me be clear to those who might confuse this discussion with another. This church is not one of religious orthodoxy, Catholicism, or any denominational heritage. It is quite the contrary.
The first place many Christians go when they feel the failure of church modernism is back to the ritual-laden and unbiblical church traditions found throughout history.
But we’re actually calling Christians to look back even further—to the New Testament church and to the instructions for Christian gathering found in the Holy Scriptures.
Ultimately, we believe Christians are homesick for deep and committed missional community. We believe Christians are longing to be discipled and spiritually parented by mature men and women of the cross. We believe Christians are craving the unabridged and rich truths of the Bible. But most of all, we believe the absence of these very things is what’s causing millions of Christians to leave the institutional church on a search for Jesus.
But this leaves us with a critical question: Where do we find that biblical expression of church?
Well… we’re glad you’re here.
How we view biblical church
First off, there is not one “correct way” to do church. That being said, we do have a considerable amount of scripture available to us for creating biblically accurate Christian gatherings. While much of these teachings have been buried or carefully cut out of the modern church practice, we feel that an unearthing of God’s original architecture is timely.
However, I’m going to take a backward approach to this conversation. Before we dive into the depths of theology that has formed our perspective of scriptural church gathering, we would like to first present to you our general position on biblical church structure.
We believe results flow from structure. We believe spiritual maturity can be greatly promoted or prevented by structure alone. We also believe that God’s word gives us more information on structure than most churches and most pastors would like to admit.
Having said that, let me be clear: We have not perfected church nor are we directly condemning Christian churches who gather in other ways with other structures. Nonetheless, our faculty of experienced church planters, theologians, seminary professors, and pastors have studied the New Testament in regard to church structure, and in this essay, I have attempted to organize our collective theological perspective into seven positions which make up Unlearn Church’s view of a biblical church gathering.
1. We believe homes offer the best environment for a church gathering.
While a biblical church meeting can theoretically take place anywhere, we believe a house offers the most effective setting to generate the intimacy, closeness, and security required to walk out the level of love seen between church members in the New Testament. Now, many argue that the New Testament Christians met in homes purely because they couldn’t gather elsewhere. While there may be some truth to that argument, we do not believe having access to public buildings now should decrease the biblical example of home gatherings found in the Scriptures.
Furthermore, meeting in homes forces groups to be small and connected while also encouraging the sense of family that seems to be missing between Christians today. Lastly, and more practically speaking, home gatherings alleviate the financial weight of a church building. Because we already have homes available to us, the money allocated for a traditional church venue can be reinvested to other spiritual needs.
2. We believe a flourishing church generally consists of 5-15 families and/or singles.
There is no perfect or correct size for a church. However, science suggests that the human brain is not designed to be intimate with more than 5-15 people. That being said, when the majority of individuals at your church gathering are, in reality, mere strangers, this compromises and inhibits a church’s corporate ability to carry out the mutual pastoral mandates of “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:1-2) and “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16) and “have a fervent love for one another” (1 Peter 4:7-8).
Having said that, because God is always injecting new Christians into His churches, we must always be hospitable toward new parishioners. As for the mathematics, there are none. But in our experience, a church begins to feel the natural loss of intimacy around 12-15 families or 50-60 total people (including children). This loss (generally sensed by the elders) is a natural indicator that, in God’s timing, this one church should split into two. Now on the other end, what is too small? We believe anything less than three families, by and large, prohibits the sense of community seen in the Bible. For example, if two out of three families are sick one Sunday, then the church cannot gather. Again, there are no mathematics. These are purely benchmarks to be discerned by each individual church.
3. We believe every church should be shepherded by at least one biblically-qualified elder.
In an ideal situation, each church would have two or more qualified elders (1st Timothy 3:2-7). These are married men (with children) who are appointed by the congregation and are responsible for pastoring the flock through spiritual formation (1 Peter 5:1-5). That being said, if a church is planted and there is nobody who meets the qualifications of an elder, an elder from another local church might temporarily oversee the gathering until one can be raised up or appointed (Titus 1:5-9).
4. We believe every member has a role in the church meeting.
The idea of a single pastor preaching or an elected worship band singing or a certain staff member who does the praying doesn’t come from the Bible. The Bible actually encourages the opposite. In 1st Corinthians 14:26-40, Paul encourages an orderly, yet every-member-functioning church gathering. He instructs us to each bring teachings, psalms, personal revelations, and to allow two or three prophets to speak (Prophet: Those who have the gift of speaking to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.) (1 Corinthians 14:3).
Paul even commands the other prophets to judge the words spoken by another prophet to discern if they are true and aligned with the Word of God (1 Corinthians 14:29-32). Each church will have to form their own arrangement and timing for how this portion of their meeting is to be accomplished.
Ultimately, a biblical church meeting allows for the Holy Spirit to organically prompt members of the congregation and allow those members to carry out these promptings with the order and boundaries of scriptural doctrine.
In the end, the church gathering in the Bible is less like a conference with inactive spectators and more like an organized and engaging meeting where everyone can, at some level, contribute, share, and pray.
5. We believe church gatherings should be of high commitment and occur every Sunday.
Because institutional churchgoers have recognized the mundane reality of audience Christianity, they have very little motivating them to attend the weekly show. After all, why go when you can simply listen to the podcast or simulcast in the comfort of your own home? As we mentioned above, the structure of biblical church is contributor-centric while the structure of the institutional church is consumer-centric. Francis Chan eloquently said, “Church should be less like going to the movies and more like going to the gym.”
The New Testament tells us the early church not only met regularly (Acts 2:46-47) but they were commanded by the author of Hebrews to “not forsake the gathering of themselves” (Hebrews 10:25), even in the face of very real persecution. In today’s culture, it seems that most people only attend church if they don’t have a cold, clocked eight hours of sleep the night before, the kids are orderly, and they have nothing better to do. This is contrary to the way we are instructed to view the church meeting in the Bible.
Instead, we are to view the church gathering with high priority, a place where God has personal work for each of us to accomplish, and a time to be equipped and edified by others for the week’s upcoming ministry. In addition to commitment, many Christians wonder why Sunday and not Wednesday night or Saturday morning? The short answer is this: Because Christ resurrected on the first day of the week (Sunday), the early church memorialized that day by both gathering together (Acts 20:7) and adopting that as their Sabbath. Because Jesus was their rest and not the law (Hebrews 4:9-10), many scholars believe Sunday became a way to differentiate themselves from the Jews while still honoring the essence of the Ten Commandments instruction for observing Sabbath.
6. We believe in giving to elders but not in fixed salaries.
Fixed salaries are a well-intended, non-sinful, yet extra-biblical idea never seen or instructed in the Scriptures. Furthermore, while the tithe is biblical, it is not Christian. Tithing was a command to ancient Israel regarding funding for the Levites, festivals, and the poor. Never do you see Christians tithing in the New Testament. When Christ died on the cross He fulfilled the law and also ended the ceremonial codes (including tithe) (Colossians 2:14-15, 16-17). This is also why we don’t see the early church sacrificing bulls and asking priests to make atonement for their sins.
Christians are now called to cheerful generosity. Not simply to the poor and to the needs of others but also toward the elders who oversee their church gathering. In 1st Timothy 5:17-19, Paul warns Christians to “not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” For those who don’t know, a muzzle is a device that prevents an animal from eating while it’s working. In other words, Paul is cautioning Christians against enjoying the spiritual fruitfulness of an elder in their life without contributing to his needs. To answer the obvious question, no, in a house church you do not receive a tax write off when you make a donation. Instead, you get the blessing of giving without receiving anything in return.
7. We believe the church gathering is intended to edify Christians, not to evangelize the lost.
In the Bible, evangelism and the church gathering are shown as separate endeavors. While organic guests should never be asked to leave (1 Corinthians 14:23-24), many churches have gone far beyond biblical hospitality toward seekers and have encouraged their congregations to regularly invite unbelievers to the church meeting (2 Corinthians 6:14).
As a result, many Christians have habitually outsourced their spiritual responsibility to preach the Gospel, and instead, reduced their role to merely inviting non-believers to their church where a “professional” pastor can preach it for them.
In the New Testament, evangelism is always shown occurring outside of the gathering of the saints and conversion is generally followed by immediate baptism. Even the Great Commission commands us to “Go therefore and make disciples…” implying that preaching the Gospel is viewed as an outward work. That being said, biblical church embraces the Holy Spirit-led guests in the gathering but it does not turn the church meeting into an outreach event for unbelievers.
What does a biblical house church gathering look like?
Because house churches are autonomous and not connected to any denomination, it’s common to see a wide variety in the way each of them gathers. At our house church, for example, we rotate houses every eight weeks. That means a small church kit of dishes, hymnals, songbooks, and chairs will live at the host family’s home during that time.
We gather at 10 am each Sunday and have a general time of fellowship until 10:30. At that point, the man of the house will ask the families to take a seat and within a few minutes, he will open the church meeting with prayer. After that, he may prompt the body to share any revelations, prayer requests, praise reports, or teachings. Then, the Holy Spirit takes the lead.
Over the next 60-90 minutes, with our children sitting at our feet, we sing songs together, pray for one another, have complex dialogue regarding scripture shared during a teaching, and often times celebrate or even cry. Around noon, we wrap up the meeting by partaking in communion together, followed up by a few minutes of announcements (birthdays, upcoming vacations that would cause a family to be absent, etc.) and then we close the meeting with prayer.
But the best is yet to come. For the next three hours, we enjoy a potluck meal and fellowship with one another. From private conversations in other rooms and group discussions about life to playing basketball or chasing the kids around the backyard, this is the time that builds the loving bond between us.
Around 3 pm, after everyone has helped clean, people begin to leave. But still, the fellowship doesn’t end. Because we’re so connected, families work hard to schedule meals, date nights, homeschool parties, bible studies, or coffee dates with one another throughout the week. Even more, we strive to live out the Great Commission in our own life—having organic conversations with others about Jesus, helping unchurched Christians find their way back home, and trying to have a spiritual impact on our surrounding community.
So where do you begin?
First, let me preface this with one word, patience. The process of unlearning church is generally longer than we expect. Many of us have been submerged in the depths of extra-biblical practice for so long, that we must discipline ourselves to replace the lies we believe about church with truth from God’s word. Secondly, we must not forget this journey is a spiritual journey. The revelation of God’s wisdom on these matters does not come like a fire hose but as a slow-moving stream.
A book can easily be filled with the wisdom on how to navigate these waters, but our number one suggestion is this: Unless you feel God directly calling you out of the institutional church, stay where you are until you have somewhere else to go. Finding or planting a biblical church can be a several-months-long journey. It is a journey worth every minute, but speed and isolation are not advised elements of the process.
To start, we recommend reading more articles here at Unlearn Church, subscribing to our weekly podcast, enrolling in our Relearn Church program, and begin diligently praying that God would reveal to you what His Word already says about His glorious church.