Scrap the Services
This is a personal reflection on a radical way to do church. It's the priorities I had in the church which I led but it's not supposed to be a blueprint for anyone else - but it might give you a few ideas!
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The Great Commission
The Great Commandments
The Great Community
When I was 30 years old, Diane and I moved to Cambridge and I embarked upon 6 years of scientific research in the University. At first we lived in the city and attended a local church. Eventually we moved to a new house in north Cambridge and the church we went to was no longer local! We were looking for ways to reach the people in north Cambridge with the gospel and after a while started a meeting in our home. Because we were radical, we didn't want to call it a church and even struggled giving it a name - we simply called it the new fellowship. Our aim was not to plant a church - it was more to be the people of God, preach the gospel and reach a community. The group grew quite quickly and our Sunday meetings became too large for our home - we moved to a school and eventually a community centre for these meetings. We always retained our weekly home meetings on weekdays. After a few years we recognised that we were a church and called ourselves Arbury Community Church reflecting our commitment to community and to Arbury - a major part of our mission field in north Cambridge. I was the main leader of this group for 34 years (1983-2017). This article describes some of the radical principles which were important to us during that time.
The Great Commission
Matt 28:16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Making disciples is the whole process from meeting people, telling them about Jesus, their coming to faith in Jesus, being baptised, being filled with the Holy Spirit, being taught the message, and eventually becoming mature disciples themselves who can reproduce the process. We have always been concerned to find ways of achieving these stages.
- Meeting people - For believers embedded in a local community, there is always plenty of opportunity to meet local people in the normal course of life. We also organised various activities designed to meet people, provide friendship and help and sometimes to more explicitly explain the gospel message. Here are some of the activities which we organised:
Ladies coffee mornings, mums and toddler groups, children's holiday clubs, school assemblies, youth clubs, home groups, senior citizen home groups, men's breakfasts, Alpha courses, English lessons, outreach events with guest speakers, international evenings, teenage outreach in parks, teenage events, 5-a-side football competitions, barbeques, involvement in a local Carnival, carol singing, Christmas performances, door-to-door visiting, personal delivery of information leaflets to a large area with invitation, testimony etc.
- Telling about Jesus - The aim of all of these community activities was to find opportunities to explain the good news about Jesus and give testimony to the people of north Cambridge. This may be through personal conversation or through a talk or other type of presentation.
- Coming to faith - The best thing we can do for another human being is bring them to salvation through Jesus Christ. The essential steps are repentance from sin, believing in Jesus as personal saviour, deciding to serve him as Lord and follow him for the rest of your life.
- Baptising - We frequently arranged water baptism for people who came to faith in Jesus and for others who had neglected to be baptised or who felt that the method or timing of a previous baptism had been inappropriate. We baptised by total immersion and the requirements were that they repented of sin, had faith in Jesus as their saviour and had decided to follow him - we insisted that they were able to give a convincing testimony regarding their faith. There was no age requirement but we were particularly careful when baptising young people to ensure that they had their own faith and that there was no pressure from parents. We baptised wherever there was suitable water such as swimming pools, the sea and occasionally baptism tanks in other church buildings.
- The Holy Spirit - We always encouraged new believers to receive the Holy Spirit. He is the one who gives power so that we can be witnesses and disciple makers.
- Teaching - One of the things I did in the early days of our fellowship was to write a Bible study course for new Christians covering what we considered were the essential things to believe. Many new believers found it helpful to do this course one-to-one with a more mature Christian. We always tried to make sure that we had substantial Bible based teaching in our Sunday meetings and supplemented this with Bible study in our home groups. We also ran courses on other subjects such as marriage preparation, Bible survey, Christian counselling, apologetics etc. All this teaching was aimed at following through the words of Jesus in the great commission.
- Mature disciples - As well as teaching, the whole experience of belonging to a Christian community with its opportunities for participation and interaction contribute to the maturing process. A mature disciple is also filled with the Holy Spirit, developing their relationship with God through personal prayer and Bible study, is operating in the gifts that God has given them and is making more disciples!
of all nations
- At an early stage, we were pleased to make close connections with churches in India and Kenya. This provided an opportunity for us to visit and encourage with preaching, teaching and friendship. We often went with small teams and this enabled a rich experience of mission work for our team members with many opportunities for disciple development. We also benefitted from occasional visits here by our friends abroad. We also supported a number of full-time overseas missionaries in various countries.
The Great Commandments
Mark 12:28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
It's often said that Christianity is about relationships - not religion. These two commandments sum this up very well.
Love the Lord your God
- Important ways to show love are through what you do and what you say. To show that we love God we need to be obedient to him and his laws - this is a constant issue for Christians in everyday life. We can also express our love for him through our words and devotion - this is why a significant part of our time spent together and in private was in prayer, worship, praise, and song.
Love your neighbour
- A few years ago, a couple who were planning on planting a new church asked me if I had any advice. Maybe they expected some deep church planting ideas - however my advice was very simple: "Be friendly".
- The church as a Christian community is so important and we were concerned that there were good friendships and relationships with genuine care and concern for each other. This, of course, is very obvious to those outside and a very attractive feature of any church. It also shows itself in support, care, kindness and generosity for each other and for anyone else.
The Great Community
Acts 2:42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
This has always been one of my guiding passages. It's a sort of checklist of the important activities in the church at the very beginning just after they were baptised in the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
Devoted to teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers
- These were clearly the big four to which the believes devoted themselves. Although there was teaching and visibility in the temple area, most of what went on in the early church would have been in homes. In fact homes were the main meeting points for churches for the first few hundred years. House churches are normal!
- Fellowship - The word used here is the Greek word koinonia which means partnership, participation, communion, contribution, sharing etc. It gives the impression that everybody was involved. Participation was always very important to us and was reflected in what was done in our meetings and even the seating arrangement!
- Breaking of bread - We used to share bread and wine (or juice!) together every week in our midweek home meetings as a natural part of our prayer and worship. We saw this as a way of remembering that Jesus died for us and that his body was broken and his blood shed - he asked us to remember him in this way. We broke bread on Sundays only occasionally because we perceived these as guest meetings and did not want to do anything which excluded guests - when we did, we were careful to explain everything and make sure that everybody felt welcome even if they were not participating in this part of the meeting. The same applied if we had unbelievers at our midweek meetings.
Wonders and signs
- It's obvious reading the book of Acts that the early church continued to see miracles and healings as normal part of their outreach and church life continuing the work of Jesus. There is no reason why things should be any different for us today. In our church we often gave opportunity for prayer for healing and generally believed that God is able to answer prayer and make changes in this world today. Nothing is impossible with God.
Things in common - giving and distributing
- This is very challenging part of life in the early church and it is more fully described later in Acts (Acts 4:32, 34-35) and is clearly following the teaching and practice of Jesus (Matt 19:21, Luke 12:33, 19:8, John 12:4-6, 13:29). While we were unable to reflect this fully, we were very careful about money. We did not ask for money or have collections in our meetings - this was because we were sensitive to guests and concerned that our gospel was free. The only exception was on a few occasions when we took gifts from the church to Kenya or India. We taught New Testament principles of generous giving from time to time as it naturally arose in our teaching programme. People gave through bank transfer and we had an inconspicuous box at the back of church for those who wanted to give cash etc.
- The money was used for hiring premises and to carry out the various activities above which we offered free of charge. We also used the money for obviously charitable purposes helping poor and needy people in the church or elsewhere and supporting other Christian work. I resolved not to be involved with the management of finances and was never a trustee of our charitable trust. I did not see the bank statements and had no idea who was giving to our church - this was to prevent any bias or favouritism in my pastoral work.
- I was also supported working full-time for God for many years but on the understanding that I should not be paid if the money was not there, that we would ask God not the people for money if funds were low and that I would get a job and earn money if necessary. I was concerned to receive no more than the national average wage. Thankfully, God provided in this way and I was supported for 28 years until I was 65 when I received my state pension! After that, I continued full-time for a few years but without church income.
- Eating together is a sign of friendship and unity all over the world in many different cultures. It is an important part of church life. Even chatting over a cup or tea or coffee is significant. As well as light refreshments at our meetings, we also used to have monthly shared meals together on Sundays and often had meals together at our homegroups. Some of our outreach activities involved food.
- In the early church, eating together is linked with breaking of bread in the same way that Jesus introduced breaking of bread at a meal shortly before he was arrested.
Favour with the people - the Lord added to their number
- There is much rejoicing in heaven over every sinner that repents and of course we were also delighted when people came to faith in Jesus. I guess in Jerusalem there would be larger crowds listening to the apostles and more home groups!
- One of the things that used to exasperate the other leaders in our church was my own lack of commitment to the institution of our church. I was genuinely not concerned about church growth or even the continuing existence of our church! My emphasis was on kingdom growth. Jesus told us to make disciples but he said that he would build his church (Matt 16:18)! Of course I was committed to the people who were the church - it was the organisation and institution that I saw as temporary. This meant that I spent little time talking about or promoting the church - we had no permanent building and minimum equipment and administration. The emphasis was on the things of God. Clearly local churches are important and Paul and the risen Christ wrote to local churches (Rev 2:1). Those churches, of course, are no longer there - they served their purpose! Churches are for a time and place to serve the kingdom of God. There need be no trace of past local churches here on earth - just saved souls in eternity! That's where the treasure is!
Here are three core dimensions to our beliefs.
- Our church was independent and non-denominational although we did loosly belong to a network of similar churches. We were free to establish our own beliefs and we simply used the Bible as our textbook believing it to be the inspired word of God. The Bible is a truly wonderful book unfolding God's laws, his truths and his complete plan from creation to the end of the age. It has everything we need for our salvation and how we should live.
- Evangelical Christians believe that you are "saved" or "born again" when you repent of your sins and believe in Jesus Christ as your saviour. There is emphasis on the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross as he died in our place and carried the penalty of our sins. We also ask Jesus to come into our lives and be our Lord. I became a Christian in this way in my first week as an undergraduate at University and it has been the bedrock of my Christian faith. It has also been an essential part of my preaching and evangelism all my life. (John 1:12-13, 3:3, 17, 14:23, Mark 1:15, Acts 3:19, 16:30-31, 17:30, Rom 3:23-24, 5:8, 6:23, 1 Peter 2:24-25, 3:18, Rev 3:20)
- Charismatic Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is active in believers today exactly as he was in the early church. Jesus is still baptising people in the Holy Spirit as he did on the day of Pentecost and they are still speaking in tongues and experiencing the many supernatural gifts described in the New Testament. This is reflected in an active experience of God overflowing into joyful praise and worship. The Holy Spirit gives power to be witnesses and to develop love and many other fruits of the Holy Spirit. (Matt 3:11, John 7:39, 14:17, 15:26-27, 16:7, 13, Acts 1:5, 8, 2:4, 33, 38, 8:15-16, 17, 10:44-45, 46-47, 19:2, 6-7, 1 Cor 12:4, 8-10, Gal 5:22-23)
- Jesus baptised me in the Holy Spirit just one year after I became a Christian - another student explained things to me, prayed for me and laid hands on me. It was such a significant step in my Christian life with so many positive spin-offs that I have always encouraged others to be baptised in the Holy Spirit. I was very pleased to lead a happy, clappy church which believed in the power of the Holy Spirit!
You can see the statement of belief which we had on our church website here...
For me, one of the most important things about church was participation. I read that when the early believers met together, each one had gifts and a contribution to make. We wanted our church to be as near to this as possible.
Scrap the services
- When our fellowship began, some of the people referred to our Sunday meetings as "services". One of the other leaders asked me whether this was a suitable description. This made me think about the word "service" for a church meeting. I realised that this was not really a biblical word and that the impression of a service is a programme that is run. I began to think that the whole of the Christian world had been hijacked by services! I wanted our events to be "meetings" where people could meet together and participate rather than a service. After all, you wouldn't call a home meeting a service. After that, I scrapped the word service and only used it for weddings and funerals! This also influenced how we did our meetings, what we said and even how we sat!
- So when does the meeting begin and end? - A meeting begins when the first two people meet at an event! So the chatting and drinking coffee or tea is a very important part of the meeting often where significant conversations take place - this is not before the meeting - it is the meeting! The same is true towards the end of the meeting. Your words will betray how you really consider these things.
- How do you sit? - I had a simple rule for seating arrangements. Participation is maximum when people can see as many other faces as possible. In a small housegroup, people naturally sit around in a sort of circle - this enables everyone to easily see the face of everyone else and allows plenty of interaction and participation. Even in a larger meeting, we aimed to sit in such a way that you can see as many other faces as possible. Again a circular type arrangement is very good but there may need to be some compromises. The traditional church arrangement with all people facing the front is deadly for participation because you only see the backs of the heads of the people in front of you and you only see the faces of the people on stage - this is concert style, lecture style or cathedral style seating. You'll be surprised how changing the seating can change the whole feel of a meeting! This link illustrates some possible seating arrangements here...
- Participation and contributions - We always thought that it was good to allow people to freely participate in parts of our meetings. This is easier in smaller home meetings but it is also possible in larger meetings. It is important to recognise and appreciate the gifts of everybody in the church. People can contribute with a testimony, a short word, a Bible passage with comment, a song, a revelation, a prophecy, a tongue, an interpretation etc. You may find that one of these contributions makes a bigger impact than anything else in the meeting!
- Letting go! - Allowing participation and contributions in meetings poses a number of challenges for church leaders! You may have people who talk too much with long contributions, people may say things that you simply don't agree with etc! Church leaders are often keen to maintain a tight control of their meetings and it is risky allowing people to bring unscripted contributions! You may be concerned about the impression being given to your church members or visitors if your meeting appears a little chaotic! This is a good test to see if leaders are insecure, threatened or fearful! Of course you may minimise the risk by checking on contributions before they are given but this can be stifling. The truth is that if you really believe that your church is the body of Christ with many different gifts, you may need to let go and let God have his way!
- Protecting the flock - It is the church leader's job to protect the flock from unhelpful, inappropriate or harmful contributions. This may mean bringing some kind of judgement. This should only be necessary publicly if you think the contribution may be harmful to others and you wish to immediately address the issue and undo the harm. Otherwise you may simply speak privately to the person making the contribution later in the meeting and as far as possible it should be seen as helpful feedback. Unfortunately there is a risk of offence and this is all part of the challenge of leadership!
- Praise and worship - Like many other churches, we used to enjoy praising and worshipping God. We had a simple band with minimum equipment. We saw the band as support for worship assisting with singing. Although our band was good, we did not strive for musical excellence - it is not a performance! Singing does not have high profile in the New Testament. There are no musicians or worship leaders mentioned among the various gifts in the New Testament - we are simply to worship God in spirit and truth and address one another in psalms and hymn and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all our hearts (Matt 26:30, John 4:23-24, Acts 16:25, 1 Cor 14:15, 26, Eph 5:19, Col 3:16, James 5:13). We used to mix our songs of praise and worship with contributions from the people. The leader was not necessarily a musician - the aim was to be flexible and Spirit-led, not music-led.
- Our church was led by a team of male elders (or overseers) which seems to be the model and teaching in the New Testament (Acts 14:23, 20:17, 28-31, 1 Tim 3:1-7, 5:17, Tit 1:5-9, James 5:14, 1 Peter 5:1-5). Our team had a leading elder who was able to carry the vision of the church. We also had a larger group of men and women who we called the advisory group and these met with the elders from time to time. We also recognised and appreciated the five ministries apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers both within our church and as visitors. A good balance of these ministries makes for a balanced church (Eph 4:11-13).
Written June 2020