In Acts 20:20, the apostle Paul declares to members of the church at Ephesus, “I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house” (NKJV). The early church followed Jesus’ pattern of discipleship and spiritual family life. They broke bread from house to house and had larger corporate meetings.
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
God’s people gathered at the temple and met in small groups in homes. They followed Jesus’ pattern of discipleship and spiritual family life. They broke bread from house to house and had larger corporate meetings. They began to minister to one another and to pre-Christians on an individual basis, and the Lord kept adding to the church daily!
Acts 2:42-47 gives the keys for healthy church growth: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching; they experienced fellowship by eating together; they strengthened their relationships by praying together; they lived a lifestyle of generosity; they lived in unity with each other; they practiced the joy of simplicity. And it happened in homes!
Peter met at Cornelius’s house with his family and friends. There was a very natural flow of evangelism that took place as Cornelius invited those with whom he was in relationship to hear all that Peter had to say (see Acts 10:22-48).
Some of the early church met in the house of Mary, John Mark’s mother, and experienced small-group life as they prayed together (see Acts 12:12). The believers in Philippi met in homes—Lydia’s, for example (see Acts 16:30-34; Acts 16:15,40).
The letter that Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome was written to believers in Jesus Christ who met in peoples’ homes. In his letter to the Romans, Paul indicates that one of these groups met in the home of Priscilla and Aquila: “Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home” (Rom. 16:3-5).
Paul also sent his greetings to the household of Aristobulus and the household of Narcissus (see Rom. 16:10-11). When Paul wrote to his friend Philemon, he expressed his greetings to the church in his house “and to our sister Apphia, and to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church that meets in your house” (Philem. 1:2). It is quite evident that the early church met in small groups in homes. And much of the entire known world was evangelized and discipled in small groups in homes within a few short years after Christ’s death and resurrection.
According to church history, it was in A.D. 323, almost 300 years after the birth of the church, when Christians first met in a church building. We probably should ask ourselves this question: Has our focus on buildings and church programs caused us to lose the simplicity and the power experienced by the New Testament church?
Around A.D. 312, Constantine, the emperor of Rome, greatly influenced how Christianity was perceived when his conversion to Christianity legitimized Christianity. Where once it was risky and life threatening to be a Christian, now it became the in thing to do, and Christians could profess their faith without fearing persecution. Everyone seemed to want to “come to Christ.” The structure shifted to accommodate this change.
Before this, the spiritual life of Christians drawing from the Spirit in each other was the spark that motivated Christianity. When Christianity was widely accepted, the relational aspects of church life faltered. In its place was the new notion that all could be a part of the in crowd by joining an organization.
The small-group lifestyle and power of ministry that was taking place in people’s homes and being multiplied across the earth was replaced by respectable groups that met in edifices dedicated to the glory of God. In effect, ministry was taken out of the hands of the average believer and placed in the hands of the state-sanctioned leaders. A few elite church leaders now led the masses.
In light of this, down through the ages, the church more or less lost the New Testament component of meeting in small groups and placed more of an emphasis on the church as it meets in large buildings. Although “temple ministry” is beneficial for corporate worship, teaching and celebration, perhaps the Lord wants us to get back to seeing the church as people, not as a place where believers meet. Our homes, places of business, schools and other circles of contact provide excellent places for the church to also meet in smaller groups as we infiltrate our spheres of influence with the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit has been trying to get ministry back into the hands of average believers ever since.
I believe God wants to build His church through New Testament discipling (or mentoring) relationships. The Bible calls us “living stones” in 1 Peter 2:5. Each believer has been made alive through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord builds us together with other Christians into a type of spiritual house or community.
Each living stone can only touch a small group of other believers at one time. These believers can be knit together in small groups through relationships. Ten people who are of one mind and heart can have a tremendous impact on the kingdom of darkness. The devil would like to get us alone, to isolate us, leaving us without the support of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In small groups, we can interact meaningfully with a few other people through encouragement, prayer and practical service. As each small group obeys our Lord Jesus, the entire church will have a powerful effect on our communities as we minister together with the “living stones” the Lord has placed in our lives.
Larry Kreider, What Every Small Group Leader Should Know (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010).