I grew up in a small country town in central Alabama. My family and I were part of a small congregation of about 30 people. While certainly imperfect, the family of Christians there loved the LORD and I knew they loved me. As a child, I had Bible class teachers who put a lot of effort into teaching us, and I learned a lot about GOD and spiritual matters. Among the most important lessons I was taught, I learned a deep, unwavering commitment to follow what the Bible says.
When I graduated high school I moved away from that town to Montgomery. However, I have continued to live by this guiding principle. The more I have studied my Bible, however, I have realized that there were some subjects where what I was taught wasn't exactly what the Bible said. My personal studies led me to some different conclusions.
These discoveries led me to adopt a mantra of "question everything"—not for the purpose of arguing or finding fault, but to try and ensure a proper understanding of Scripture. I wanted to have the same attitude as the Bereans mentioned in Acts 17:11.
By early 2009 I had become very frustrated over what I perceived to be significant problems with the church, including:
- The significant percentage of Christians I knew who appeared:
- Apathetic and without zeal for GOD.
- To interact with one another more like acquaintances than family.
- Only minimally interested and involved in evangelism.
- Families were weak and failing at alarming rates.
- Many congregations were shrinking instead of growing.
- Division was widespread both between congregations and within them.
- An insufficient number of strong leaders.
- Teaching which was overly-focused on the "externals" rather than the heart.
Studying the New Testament Church
Seeing these problems and strongly desiring to make a difference, I began an in-depth personal Bible study on the first century church. I knew that the solutions to these (and all other) problems would be contained in the Bible, and my thinking was, "If we want to reap results similar to the first century church, then we need to imitate the first century church as closely as possible."
I began my study by looking from Acts through Revelation at every recorded example where the New Testament (NT) church assembled. This revealed some very interesting, and somewhat startling facts:
- There is relatively little detail given regarding the first century church's assemblies, both in terms of frequency as well as what was done during those gatherings.
- Similarly, there are few instructions given regarding how church assemblies are to be conducted.
- There is not a single "complete picture" of a first century church assembly that is like what is common among churches today. In other words, there is no single text that reads something like, "And the church assembled on Sunday to sing, pray, observe the Lord's Supper, contribute to a treasury and hear a sermon." Instead, it appears that the majority of the church gatherings for which we have a NT record were for a single purpose, such as to pray for imprisoned apostles (Acts 12:12).
- I did not find the activities of a public assembly specifically described as "worship." This surprised me because it was different than what I had been taught my entire life. I'd always heard it said that there are "five acts of worship"—giving, praying, singing, observing the Lord’s Supper and preaching.
This initial study left me with numerous additional questions, some of which I have wondered for years and others that occurred to me while reviewing my findings. For example:
- If the NT doesn't specifically describe singing, praying, giving, listening to sermons and partaking of the Lord's Supper as "acts of worship," then what does it mean to worship? What did the word "worship" mean as the Spirit used it?
- Why didn't GOD give a clearly-defined picture within a single series of verses of what He expects the church to do when we assemble? Why was He so specific in the old covenant regarding public assemblies and so general regarding assemblies in the new covenant?
- How closely do we line up to the first century church in terms of where we assemble and how our assemblies are handled?
I began looking at each of these questions one by one. I realized that a proper understanding of the biblical concept of worship is critical to Christian life—and to understanding the Bible. I realized that I had misunderstood worship as being only certain activities performed during public church meetings when, in reality, it is as broad as life (see Rom. 12:1-2). I closely examined each aspect of modern church assemblies in light of what is revealed about the first century church. I concluded that substantial changes were needed in order for us to better align ourselves with the example of the first century church and to overcome the problems mentioned previously.
Changing Church Culture—A Spiritual Reboot
A key truth that I have discovered over the course of my studies is: When there is much disagreement over a specific subject, it is likely that we've missed the root cause several steps back. I strongly feel this is true about Christendom today and specifically regarding the NT church. Let me use an example to illustrate: There are massive ongoing discussions all over the world about how churches should use "the Lord's money" from their treasuries. While the debate rages over this point, the fundamental issue of NT giving seems to go completely overlooked and that's where the problem originated. If we were truly following the NT example of when and why to take up collections, there would be no debate about "the Lord's money."
Sadly, despite the passionate denials of so many, tradition reigns in the vast majority of established congregations. To put it kindly, we are in great danger of becoming the very thing Jesus contended with during His ministry—modern-day Pharisees. As you'll recall, the Pharisees had elevated their traditions to the same level and even above Scripture (see Matt. 15:1-9). It was these individuals that consistently drew Jesus's strongest rebukes. If you think this isn't really an issue, try suggesting a change to some long-held method of doing things in your congregation, such as changing the name on the sign of your church building. See what response you get from the masses.
Religious tradition is not inherently bad; I do think human religious tradition is inherently dangerous, however. Many traditions are wonderful; yet, many others have become antiquated and ineffective. And sadly, over time we become so comfortable with our traditions that we lose focus on doing those things that are both scriptural and effective. That's what has happened in many congregations. As the years pass and new generations arise, what was once universally acknowledged as "one way" of doing something all too often becomes viewed as "GOD's way."
After much time and prayer, in late 2009 I recommended the following changes to the elders of our congregation at the time in hopes of helping us be more like the NT church and, as a result, more effective in the LORD's work:
- Sell the church building and assemble in members' homes in smaller groups. The concept of the church owning property is not found in the NT. The oldest known church building is from the third century A.D. and was actually constructed as part of a house. Church buildings and property create a major ongoing expense that reduces the congregation's ability to help others and support the preaching of the gospel.
- Sit facing one another during our assemblies as opposed to all facing forward in one direction. This would create a more warm, intimate, family-like atmosphere, which I believe was present with healthy apostolic congregations.
- Replace the leader-audience assembly structure with one of shared discussion and participation, much like modern Bible classes (with Scriptural male leadership).
- Eliminate the role and expenses associated with a full-time preacher. I see a big difference between a biblical evangelist—someone who preaches the gospel to the lost, perhaps being financially supported to do so as Paul was—and our modern-day "pulpit preacher" who, in many congregations, is a "hired" person that delivers two sermons, a Bible class and a bulletin article each week, with little-to-no dedicated focus on evangelism, often while receiving a rather comfortable salary. Our congregation already had a number of able men who were already serving as teachers and leading Bible studies. (Note that I fully support having church-paid evangelists who actively evangelize.)
- Eliminate weekly "just-in-case contributions." Take up collections when there is a need. Identify the need. Meet the need. Repeat. When we read all of 1 Cor. 16 and 2 Cor. 6-9, instead of just 1 Cor. 16:1-2, we see this exactly what the Corinthians did. The idea to support the needy Judean brethren originated with the Corinthian Christians—not as a mandate by Paul or GOD.
- Make the Lord's Supper the centerpiece of our Sunday assemblies, both in terms of time and focus.
- Eliminate self-imposed time restraints on our assemblies.
- Eliminate the obligatory invitation and call for a response following every assembly. It seems that, all-too-often, we have traded Jesus' instruction to "go" for a general invitation to the lost to "come in." (And then we wonder why it doesn't work.)
- Dedicate time for focused prayer—no more "opening" and "closing" prayers, but time for prayer. Solicit prayer requests before praying and help people develop greater intimacy with GOD through prayer.
- Dedicate time to discussing individuals' weekly evangelistic efforts.
- Assemble once on Sunday without artificial time constraints, as opposed to two fixed one-hour meetings. Two assemblies per Sunday, in most situations, is unnecessary and, I would argue, ineffective.
- Fellowship regularly. Early Christians ate together regularly (see Acts 2:42-47). There is something special about regularly sharing a meal with fellow Christians.
- Be known by no other name than Christians.
- Be flexible and move assembly times and locations when necessary.
After lengthy discussions with the elders, they disagreed that these changes were needed or that they would prove helpful. My wife Holly and I, however, viewed these changes as necessary and, for this and other reasons, decided it was best to start a new congregation meeting in our home. Our prayer has been, and continues to be, that GOD will lead us to walk in pure and authentic Christianity after the example of the early church and to help us share what we have discovered with as many people as possible.
For more information about our congregation and journey, download a copy of Tim Harris' e-book House Church Reflections here.