The Jesus Principle: small is beautiful
By Paul Walker
Last Summer we were having a Barbeque at my house, and one of the guests was a friend of my oldest daughter who happened to be an intern at the local Megachurch down the road. We happen to have one of the few Megachurches in the UK just down the road from us – just my luck, eh?
I don’t know why I bothered, but I decided to tackle him about ecclesiology – most specifically whether whacking up a £3 million building for 3000 Christians per service was really following in the steps of what Jesus intended for his followers. ‘Ah’, he assured me ‘Jesus spoke to crowds’, quoting the Sermon on the Mount as an example. ‘So that means you should be pulling Christians from a thirty mile radius to a slick Sunday show rather than planting local communities of disciples where they live?’ was my immediate retort. His insistence of re-quoting the Sermon on the Mount made me realise I was on a hiding to nothing on the occasion…
Turning to the pages of the New Testament convinced us that Jesus modelled relationships with people. Although Jesus occasionally did speak to large crowds (Matthew 5.1, John 6.2), there are many occasions when he sent crowds away or sought to avoid being swept along by the crowd (Mark 4.35, 5.37, 7.24; Luke 5.15-16; John 6.15, 6.22, 11.54). Rather than attempting to create a mass movement of followers, Jesus purposely chose a small group of disciples with whom he would spend the majority of his three year public ministry (Matthew 4.18-22, Mark 4.13-16). It is apparent that a larger group of followers attached themselves to Jesus, and some were specially appointed and anointed for mission (Luke 10.1), but Jesus seemed to focus on the core of twelve, indeed from within the twelve, he especially invested himself in an inner-core of Peter, James and John (Mark 5.37, Mark 9.2, Mark 14.33).
Reflecting on the gospel narratives, and looking closely at the patterns of the proto-church that are presented in Acts and the rest of the New Testament, suggests that the dominant biblical paradigm for ‘church’ is relationships. Although we do not have a clear New Testament description of what happened when the Christians came together collectively, it would appear that the gatherings were small (typically hosted within the inner courtyard of a house) and were based around the sharing of food, the exercise of spiritual gifts and times of prayer.
Fundamentally, according to David Bosch, the New Testament church was encouraged by St Paul to exist for the world, not for itself. He writes ‘the church is always and only a preliminary community, en route to its self-surrender unto the kingdom of God’. Perhaps the most tragic result of the settlement of the Church under Constantinian Christendom was the growth of an understanding that the Church was an end in itself, with a divine mandate to exist and propagate as an institution. Inevitably, this led to a diminution of the key role of relationships within the Church, and the rapid growth of institutionalism.
From my reflection on the New Testament, there seemed to be little reason to think that a weekly meeting in a church building was either necessary or desirable, and would actually have the effect of draining energy and resources that should be directed into relationships, and then outwards into mission.
As Neil Cole writes, “When you imagine the amount of resources, energy and time invested in a service held only one day a week, it is remarkable. With all the importance placed on this event, you would expect there to be a lot of scriptural directives to make sure people get it right. But if you search all of the New Testament looking for the commands or injunctions having to do with this important weekly event, you will find them sadly missing. Instead you will find verses, chapters, and entire books that speak to how we are to live together as a spiritual family.”
Food for though, eh?
Paul Walker is the Vicar of an Anglican Church in the UK and Mission Adviser to the Diocese of Bradford. He’s a part-time Ma student in Emerging Church and Mission, a husband and parent to five children.