BLOG 9.20.12: IF THE CHURCH IS TO BE THE CHURCH, WHAT SIZE?
In my previous Blog I discussed the possibility of being really lonely and anonymous in the church. The inevitable question then follows: Is there a size and a form of the church in which such anonymity and loneliness are not possible? I am a bit reluctant to offer dogmatic answers to such a question, given the enormous diversity of church expressions, … but I will risk one: The primary form of the church must be small, i.e., two or three or a dozen—small enough so that every one knows everyone else’s name and face and story. (It is such a form that offers us some understanding of why house churches are the cutting-edge of the church’s missionary growth in the world today.)
When we look seriously at the purpose of the church in the mind and heart of God, it is to be not only the incarnation of the gospel of the kingdom of God, but it is also to be the demonstration of God’s new creation in the human community. It is to create, in Christ, the human community as it was intended to be in its origins. It is to the human community in the embrace of the Trinitarian community in its fullest expression of intimacy, relationships, caring, grace, self-giving love, mutuality, … and (to jump ahead) to be the visible community where the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) are lived out visibly and authentically. This is not possible in large impersonal assemblies.
If the New Testament documents are to be our guide here, then beginning with the form the church took immediately after Pentecost we note that the excited new believers did evidently did gather at the temple in Jerusalem and could have been taught and oriented to their new faith by public teaching, … but please note (Acts 2:42-47) that while they continued in worship of some kind at the temple, they broke bread together and shared their new faith and their lives and possessions as they met in homes. It is hardly possible to sit around a table for long, with its limited number of participants, and not share stories of faith and the struggles, conflicts, joys, doubts, and daily experiences that go along with such stories.
Another clue we can use to extrapolate the size and form of the church comes from the Acts account of the founding of the church in Ephesus (Acts 19-20), which is one of the most helpful to us. It began with twelve disciples of John the Baptist whom Paul met at the synagogue. Paul gave them the rest of the story and they were powerfully convinced and converted. It would seem that Paul continued to teach them in the temple (a public assembly) until they were declared persona non grata at the temple, and so rented a lecture hall to continue public teaching. But the real clue comes in Acts 20 when Paul reminds them how he taught them publicly, and from house to house.
One could be anonymous and lonely In a large public meeting, … but hardly so in house gatherings where shared faith and life are inescapable.
So the primary form of the church would be small. A secondary form would be public assemblies for teaching purposes. It is conceivable that taking on institutional form for some mutual purpose might be useful for a time, but such are only a third form and should be so constituted so that they could easily be liquidated when their usefulness is over.
That’s enough for starts. The primary form of the church should be small enough so that no one can be lonely or anonymous. It is where all of the one another exhortations of the New Testament are possible.