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Families in Fellowship

Lynn Reddick, Ph.D.

On any given Sunday all across the Western world you can attend large church services with friendly, smiling greeters, and have extended to you several hearty handshakes. You can file in, sit down and peruse the bulletin. Lots of good programs are on hand, something for everyone, it seems. All around you, rows and rows of people will sit and fold their hands and wait for the service to begin. The choir will sound good. So will the sermon. When its all over you can shuffle out and shake a few more hands on your way home. And that's it. All's well in Pleasantville.

Just one problem. Each week in North America and Europe alone, 53,000 people are leaving their church, never to return. Why?

For some, church life is a stagnant pool, polluted by immoral and unethical spiritual leaders as well as ecclesiastical self-kingdom builders who use and abuse people for their own ends. Other church dropouts are no longer content to be passive spectators while hired staff perform on a stage and take care of congregational ministry needs. And many churchgoers are drifting from church to church searching for a meaningful connection, a deep-rooting bond with others that grows out of intimate fellowship with God.

Fortunately, increasing numbers are no longer allured by the religious past's siren call, "Come grow with us," and are re-discovering the original meaning of church.

But First, A Bit of Church History - Why the widespread dissatisfaction with today's traditional church? How did the body of Christ become so inept and ineffective? Why, for example, after 2,000 years of missionary activity in India, is only three percent of the population Christians?

Recently, an Anglican pastor in India told me that the traditional church there has failed. Even the extensive church planting efforts of renowned mission strategist Donald McGavan have largely vanished in that nation.

With questions abounding, a historical perspective can help frame the present manner in which Christ is re-building His church. To rediscover the "ancient paths" and how we should walk in them (Jer. 6:16), one only has to look at the early years of the church.

Who were Jesus' early followers?
It is clear from the biblical record that Jesus was a Torah observant Jew who ministered as a Jewish Rabbi. He came to reform Judaism from its lifeless legalism and "fence rules" the Rabbis added to the Word of God. Rather than institute a new religion, Jesus fulfilled Judaism's Messianic expectation contained in the Torah, thus ushering in the Kingdom (or Rule) of God. Messiah called the Jewish people to "repent and believe the good news" (Mk. 1:).

He called twelve men to walk with Him, teaching them how to reinterpret and apply the Tanakh (Torah, Prophets, and Writings known as the Old Testament) through the lens of His Messianic mission. The tiny Jewish team was the forerunner of larger groups of disciples: seventy, five hundred, then thousands from fourteen nations and languages at the Feast of Pentecost. The ethnic composition changed from Jews within Judaism to include Gentiles throughout the known world, especially after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in AD 70.

Christ's Messianic Judaism prospered for several years after His resurrection and ascension. Neither Rome nor Satan could contain His new royal priesthood. People of The Way, from Pentecost onward, turned the world upside down with the Good News that the advent of the Messianic Kingdom of God had plundered the kingdom of Satan, conquering sin, hell, and death.

Where did the followers gather? What did they do after His resurrection?
Jesus set the Sabbath-day pattern by attending synagogues where ten or more adult Jewish men gathered with their families. However, there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that synagogues existed at that time as separate, public buildings. The term "synagogue" is a reference to the gatherings (ten or more men), not to the building. Howard Kee says that the New Testament references to synagogues make perfect sense if understood as meetings rather than meeting places. He writes, "From the first century CE to the time of Diocletian, synagogue was used to mean assembly; proseuchÍ was used to signify the building where the synagogue assembled. Use of proseuchÍ was avoided in Palestine in order to preclude any hint of competition with the Temple." Paul followed this practice of preaching in house "synagogues" as he proclaimed the Jewish Messiah had come (Acts 13:5).

The covenant people of God gathered in homes during the period of their greatest advancement. Robert Fitts quotes a report given in Lausanne, Switzerland by Michael Green which contrasts today's ecclesiastical world with that of the first two centuries.

Today they [church buildings] seem all-important to many Christians; their upkeep consumes the money and interest of the members, often plunges them into debt, and isolates them from those who do not go to church. Indeed, even the word has changed meaning. Church no longer means a company of people, as it did in New Testament times. These days it means a building.

Synagogue assemblies were houses of meeting/fellowship [beit kenessit], houses of study [beit midrash], and houses of prayer/worship [beit tafeliah]. Even after Christ's followers were finally expelled from Jewish synagogues where the Messianic message was rejected, they continued this Jewish pattern of meeting. "And they were continuing steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles (house of study) and in the fellowship in the breaking of the loaf (house of meeting/fellowship) and in the prayers (house of prayer/worship)(Acts 2:42, The Nestle Greek Text). Such daily gatherings were in houses and public places such as the Temple until its destruction (Acts 2:46). Early church meetings were characterized by the following:

1. Discussions of the apostles teachings, including their expositions of Torah passages 2. Distinctive gatherings using Jewish rites and customs to proclaim Jesus as Israel's Messiah 3. Fellowship meals, whether a paschal commemoration of Christ's death or an agape feast 4. Prayers 5. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit 6. Use of ministry gifts 7. Singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs 8. Teachings 9. Sharing personal revelations 10. Use of tongues and interpretations

Something Went Wrong, Dreadfully Wrong...
Into the priesthood of all believers (including women and children) crept an insidious doctrine. Beginning as an effort to protect the church from heresies, a clergy class arose that usurped authority of all others believers. What Nicolas, one of the first seven church deacons (Acts 6:5), initiated was later mixed with Greek dualism and further developed by Constantine, Emperor of Rome in AD 312, who hired clergy and built the world's first church buildings. The Hebraic idea of the sanctity of life was overshadowed by the separation of the sacred from the secular. And so the contemporary dichotomy of religious behaviour in church and a secular lifestyle during the week was born.

A professional clergy caste system compartmentalized the body of Christ, producing an isolated, infantilised laity. Thus began the 1,700 years of spectator Christianity! Perhaps this is why the risen Christ said twice that He hates the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6,15).

Christ's Re-Building Program
"I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not overcome it," Messiah said (Matt. 16:18). Three major reformations mark His re-building campaigns. First, the reformation of theology occurred in the seventeenth century with Martin Luther's emphasis on salvation by grace through faith and the centrality of scripture. Second, in the eighteenth century, the Piety Movement recaptured the importance of intimacy with God through Christ. This was a reformation of spirituality. The third reformation is currently underway: Christ is re-structuring His church, first through the cell church and finally with the house church movement. This re-structuring program finds its most prolific expression in China where, according to the U.S. Center For World Mission, more than 22,000 Chinese are coming to Christ each day and being discipled in house churches. Most of the intitiators of this unprecedented house church movement are young people, mostly ages 15 to 19.

Christ is re-building His church, fulfilling biblical prophecy by turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers (Mal. 4:5). Wolfgang Simson comments: "As God is in the business of recapturing the homes, the church turns back to its roots--back to where it came from. It literally comes home, completing the circle of church history at the end of world history."

Homeward Bound
Howard Snyder writes, "Virtually every major movement of spiritual renewal in the Christian church has been accompanied by a return to the small group and the proliferation of such groups in private homes for Bible study, prayer and discussion of the faith."

House churches are families gathering together, enjoying one another and experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit, who sets the agenda for the asking. There is open worship, open sharing, and open ministry  (1 Cor. :26), with everyone exercising their spiritual gifts  (1 Peter 4:10-11) as kings and queens in the royal priesthood  (1 Peter 2:5, 9).

Meetings are characterized by group participation  (1 Peter 4:10), edification (Eph. 4:16), worship, prayer, scripture, and often, food  (Acts 2:42). Freedom and authority are present because everyone is commissioned by Christ Himself  (Rev. 1:6; 5:10).

There is no better example of house churches changing people and nations than India. With the failure of institutional Christianity there, God is raising up house churches in a hostile political and religious environment. This new breed of Christ's followers are proactive, aggressively winning thousands to Christ in the face of threats, violence, imprisonment, and torture.

Recently I met Ramesh, a young man severely beaten by anti-Christians last year for preaching the gospel in his native India. His body bears the marks of that near-death encounter. This attack only increased his zeal, however. So far this year he has won more than 150 people to Christ who are being discipled in none other than house churches.

Our Father is doing His work in the home and invites us to get in on this global planting project as we do the following:

1. Allow the Word of God to penetrate the soil of our lives through individual and corporate study
2. Develop our spiritual life through fellowship with those who encourage us and stir our gifts
3. Learn the power of honouring and blessing God and other people
4. Sow tithes and offerings in fertile soil to spread the gospel
5. Walk with God and learn to hear His voice for ourselves
6. Obey what we hear
7. Turn our homes into centres of spiritual growth

At the "Guttermost" Part of the Earth, my wife and I visited a very poor neighbourhood in India where sewage ran in open ditches and gutters. We were taken to a secret house church meeting. Twenty-five or thirty people were huddled inside a very compact room. We sat among them on the floor. It was as if we had been transported back 2,000 years. One after another, men, women and children shared testimonies, scriptures, songs, revelations, spiritual visions, and brief teachings. In that destitute place, encouragement, comfort, prayer, and ministry needs flowed for three substantial hours.

I couldn't help but think about Pleasantville as I've known it for most of my life. Now, as one of its exiles--not because of rebuke or rebellion, but because Christ has initiated a massive re-structuring campaign in our generation--I will gladly labour to join Him.