Review: “One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite & Multiservice Church Models” by Jonathan Leeman

I’ve occasionally listened to Jonathan Leeman’s Pastors’ Talk podcast, and he seems to be a likable guy (although perhaps given at times to overly provocative rhetoric). And I would agree with many of the author’s concerns about the exegetical assumptions made by some proponents of multisite churches, and the problems with some forms of the multisite model. I, too, am passionate about seeking the most biblical ways of faithfully being the church. One of our church’s core commitments is that we’ll first seek biblical principles of doing church, and then try to determine how best to apply the biblical principles in our context. So I’m intrigued by this kind of book, and somewhat inclined to read it sympathetically.

But, even if I were convinced by Leeman’s arguments, I find the manner in which he has written to be extremely troubling. He doesn’t just describe problems with multiple church services or sites, or explain the reasons why he believes single-location-and-time churches to be healthier and more faithful to scriptural principles. No, Leeman insists that those who don’t except his narrow definition of a church “repudiate the Bible’s definition of a church [emphasis in original].” [I read the ebook version, so I won’t be able to reference specific page numbers.] He doesn’t merely note the unintended danger of pursuing a model of church that may differ from the scriptural design; no, he boldly declares that multisite pastors (and Presbyterian pastors, for that matter) are “picking a fight with Jesus!” I think we should all agree to table this kind of heated rhetoric except for cases where people are knowingly and intentionally defying Christ. We can be more nuanced, and much more humble, about the dangers of unintentionally slipping into unbiblical models of church life. Is Leeman’s argument so convincing that to differ from his conclusions would be to fight Jesus? We’ll see below.

Unfortunately, the author doesn’t get around to actually making his case until the second chapter of a three-chapter book. Before getting to where Leeman even attempts to establish his basic premise, we first read through a fairly lengthy introduction and first chapter (constituting almost half of the main body of the book). And that’s a problem. If the fundamental question is truly a lexical issue (the meaning of the word ekklesia), one would think he would want to get to that discussion as quickly as possible, and then follow with his applications and implications. Instead we’re given extensive criticisms of multisite and multiservice models, and arguments for a single-service-and-location model—all firmly based on a premise the author has yet to establish. What this amounts to is a whole lot of question begging. Leeman is assuming his conclusion before he has made the case for his conclusion. This is classic circular reasoning. It’s like trying to begin the construction of a house before laying the foundation. It can certainly be rhetorically effective, but for all the wrong reasons. This is unfairly stacking the deck, prejudicing the reader toward your conclusion before you’ve actually made your case.

Compounding the problem is the way he describes other models of being the church. Apparently those who would differ with the author view the church primarily as either the building, the Sunday morning performance, or the church leadership. They sever their concept of church from the gathering of the church. He does briefly acknowledge that some of these churches are more biblical than others. But these aren’t the ones he describes. No, he gives us descriptions guaranteed to push the buttons of those of us with misgivings about multisite megachurches: churches that beam video of one rockstar pastor to other locations; churches that adopt church models with little or no theological reflection; churches that emphasize passive access via online streaming and apps at the expense of actually gathering; etc., etc. Why doesn’t he describe multisite churches that have a team of pastor/teachers? Why doesn’t he describe a church much like his own church—except one that has two services on Sunday morning rather than just one—and then show how this sole difference can adversely affect the church? I can’t presume to say. The way he’s written this introduction may certainly be more persuasive to some. It’s also unfair, uncharitable and prejudicial.

So just what exactly is Leeman’s claim? The author’s basic premise is that the word ekklesia (commonly translated “church” in the New Testament) is by definition an “assembly.” And since this meaning of a singular “assembly” is so core to the meaning of ekklesia or church, then that one, single assembly or gathering of believers narrowly defines what constitutes a local church. So a “church” that, for example, has services that meet Sunday mornings at 9:00 and 11:00 would actually constitute two distinct assemblies, or two churches, and it would therefore be inaccurate—even unbiblical—to think of these multiple services or multiple sites as collectively constituting a single local ekklesia or church. So let’s examine the author’s evidence for this claim.

We quickly run into a significant problem for the author because, as he admits, trusted lexicons such as BDAG explicitly contradict his premise! He even shows that this contradictory definition of ekklesia (contradictory to his view, that is) is found in a lexicon from 1794, so this isn’t some new interpretation intended to justify multisite churches. If he can find little or no support from standard lexicons, this should certainly give one pause before accepting Leeman’s narrow definition of ekklesia.

Leeman also undermines his own argument by acknowledging that the biblical understanding of ekklesia transcends the narrow concept of one specific gathering. When a church body meets together and then leaves the meeting place, they don’t stop being the ekklesia, they don’t stop being a church. If someone gathers regularly with the assembly, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re part of the church; and if someone is unable to gather with the assembly, it doesn’t mean they are no longer part of the ekklesia. In fact, Jack may attend the assembly much more regularly than Jill, and yet Jill be part of the ekklesia and Jack not. This shows that there’s something more primary to the meaning of ekklesia than the physical gathering itself. There’s an essential aspect to what we mean by church that is more fundamental than attending a specific assembly. There is a core criterion for who is part of a church that is more principal than attending an assembly. If this is true, it would be inaccurate for us to make a singular assembly the sine qua non of what it means to be a church the way Leeman is doing.

Now, it is very true that the ekklesia is an assembly that actually assembles or gathers. I can’t think of anyone who would disagree with this. But the fact that the church regularly gathers simply does not require that it gather in only one gathering at one place and one time. It doesn’t matter how many times or in how many different ways the author states this; you can state something over and over again, but it doesn’t establish your premise. The word ekklesia undeniably has a much broader and more primary meaning than a single physical assembly or gathering. This is confirmed by the lexicons with which the author struggled. This means there is no lexical basis for insisting that a church can only meet in one place at one time.

Another problem for Leeman is the way the New Testament authors used the word ekklesia. There are too many places where New Testament usage contradicts his narrow definition. In Acts 12:5 we’re told that the church (singular) in Jerusalem was praying for Peter while he was imprisoned. As we read through the following verses, it’s clear that the church was praying for Peter at multiple locations. Peter goes to one location after he’s freed by the angel, he sends a report to James and some others at a different location, and then goes on himself to yet another location. This is the church not only existing, but functioning in ministry simultaneously in different locations.

1 Corinthians 11:18 speaks of when they would gather together or assemble “as a church.” Now if, as Leeman argues, the definition of ekklesia is fundamentally grounded in the idea of one specific, physical gathering of the people, then this sentence becomes so redundant as to be essentially meaningless. It would be saying: “when you assemble as an assembly,” or “when you gather as as a group of people who gather.” But the way Scripture is actually worded—“when you gather together as a church“—shows that there is something much deeper to the meaning of church than merely the idea of assembling, something closer to: “when you gather together as a community of believers.”

We even see this distinction where it’s clear from the text that the whole church is gathering together. In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul describes a scenario “if the whole church gathers together.” (See also Acts 14:27.) But to be able to speak of the whole church gathering together means the church has an identity as the church that is independent of any particular gathering. It already exists as the church before it gathers together. Yes, it’s true that the church is to gather regularly. Again, no one disputes this. But we know this because of clear biblical instruction unambiguously telling us to do so (Hebrews 10:25), and because of the consistent model of the New Testament church. We’re not required to base this necessary aspect of the life of the church on an artificially truncated definition of ekklesia that isn’t supported by the lexicons or New Testament usage.

Leeman actually admits much of this. But, he insists, the word ekklesia is still inextricably tied to the idea of a single assembly in one place at one time. He seems to be saying, “Yes, ekklesia has a much broader meaning in the New Testament than one specific assembling of people—but it still must always mean one specific assembling of people!” Hopefully he can understand why many of us will find this contradictory and confusing. And, again, he repeats this claim throughout the book but never actually establishes a basis for it lexically or scripturally. But he does take his peculiar understanding of assembly and then use it as a standard by which to evaluate all other churches. So he concludes at different points in the book that a multisite or multi-service church is “an assembly that never assembles.” This is blatantly circular reasoning, assuming his unique definition of assembling to then conclude these churches don’t assemble!

Sadly, there are many other examples of poor reasoning, and even faulty exegesis, in the book. He admits that the classical meaning for ekklesia isn’t directly relevant to the New Testament usage, but strangely continues to inappropriately refer back to it. He badly misconstrues the editors of BDAG, seems to imply the lexicographers who disagree with him do so because of denominational presuppositions, and assumes scholarly support for his case when it is decidedly missing. He speculatively imports the idea of “place” into the meaning of ekklesia, and then uses this as an established fact to support other arguments. (This is like claiming that “place” is intrinsic to the meaning of “family” because families need to live some place!)

Leeman spends a great deal of time in chapter 1 exploring the church assembly as a kind of embassy of the kingdom of heaven, what he calls the “geography” of the kingdom. I don’t know of any church leaders who would disagree with this, but is the church uniquely an embassy of the kingdom? Would not a faithful Christian household also be a manifestation of Christ’s kingdom? Does not faithfully living out a genuine Christ-like life in the workplace, school or neighborhood, proclaiming the gospel of Christ when we have the opportunity, does this not make the rule of Christ visible? I’m not arguing there is nothing special about the gathered church, or that it doesn’t beautifully manifest, enact, and make visible the kingdom. But Leeman seems to be assuming the gathered church—and only the gathered church—does this, but he never gets around to explaining why, or why this would somehow necessitate a church meeting in only one place at one time.

A key passage for Leeman is Jesus’ participation in the church discipline process in Matthew 18. Jesus’ presence gives authority to the gathered church to make decisions involving issues such as church discipline. Leeman admits that in a church with multiple services Jesus would also be present in each service and would authorize each service in the same way. But, Leeman asserts, Jesus’ presence and authorization somehow make it an ontological, inescapable reality that these multiple meetings are actually separate churches. And he repeatedly asserts this. Of course, he never actually establishes why this must be so, but he is very confident in his assertions. It’s almost as if saying something over and over again somehow establishes it as a logical conclusion.

This insisted emphasis also leads him to a strangely reductionistic understanding of the church:

A church is a church ultimately because of the authority of Christ and his declaration that he would identify himself with gatherings: “I’m there in the gathering of two or three in my name.” That was his decision, not ours. Consider, therefore, what a church gathering is: it’s a group of people bowed in submission to something. To what? To Christ. Their physical togetherness, then, testifies to his lordship.

Does Leeman really believe this to be an adequate explanation of what constitutes a church? If so, maybe he would agree with those who say periodically hanging out with a few other believers at Starbucks is their church! My guess is Leeman would see much more than this as essential to the church qua church. But then that would mean he’s using an artificially restricted understanding of church to make his point when he knows the reality is actually more complex. Either way, this is a big problem.

The book is loaded with all kinds of strange assertions, far more than I could list in a review. He claims:

You can no more be a multisite church than you can be a multisite body.

But what of the body of Christ? Is not the universal church the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:4, 15-16; Colossians 1:18; etc.), and isn’t the universal body of Christ by necessity a multisite body? And how can we even currently have a universal ekklesia if inherent in the meaning of the word is a one-place-and-time assembly? Leeman seems to think this a spiritual, not literal, assembly of the universal church. If that’s the case, then why can’t this mandatory assembly of the local church also be spiritual and not literal? How can we get away with making one assembly spiritual while demanding the other must be literal? (Ironically, he accuses others of special pleading.)

In another place he writes:

Which brings us back to the multisite and multiservice models. Here’s the biggest problem, as I’ll seek to show in this book: They’re not in the Bible. At all. And that means they work against, not with, Jesus’s disciple-making plan.

Notice he identifies this as “the biggest problem” with these models. They’re not in the Bible. Of course, neither is the children’s ministry check-in desk he mentioned just a few paragraphs before this—or children’s classes, at all, for that matter. Neither is the church usher he mentioned before that. Neither are church platforms or pulpits or youth groups or church choirs, etc., etc. Does that mean when Leeman was taking his daughter to her Sunday School class, he was working against, not with, Jesus’ disciple-making plan? Of course not, and it would be absurd to make such an accusation, just as it is for Leeman to make the accusation he does regarding multisite and multiservice churches. (It’s hard for me to understand how Leeman could not have been aware of just how unfair this rhetoric is, but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

But this is even more of a problem. Leeman repeatedly makes a big deal out of an inability to find multisite churches in the New Testament. Fair enough. For the record, I would also challenge the exegetical overreach of those who try. There simply isn’t clear indication in Scripture that any church at that time met regularly in multiple locations in the same town. [I’ve written about this before.] There’s also nothing in Scripture, contra Leeman, precluding such a church model. But here’s the point that Leeman seems to be missing (and probably some multisite proponents, as well): They’re under no pressure to find examples of multisite churches in Scripture, anymore than Leeman has to find biblical references to a children’s ministry check-in desk. As long as they’re not arguing that this model is normative for the church, but simply a faithful way to be the church, they don’t have to find a specific biblical example.

Leeman, on the other hand, is arguing not that these church models are extra-biblical, but that they are unambiguously unbiblical. And this puts the burden of proof on him to show this scripturally. So when he repeatedly makes the snide observation that he doesn’t find any multisite churches in the Bible, not only is this hypocritical, but he is badly turning the issue completely upside down. The accusation is his, and the burden of proof is his to show how their model is incompatible with biblical principles of the church. He either needs to show where Scripture would rule out a multisite (or multiservice) model, or he needs to trace a very clear pattern of the churches obviously and intentionally meeting in only one place at one time. I’m neither endorsing nor defending multisite churches, but this author has simply not made his case.

I know this review is growing quite long, but there’s one more thing I have to mention because I think it’s important. In his third chapter, Leeman describes a problem of a megachurch starting a new campus at a different location without considering the existing churches in that area. This problem is a very real one. Of course, everything he says about multisite churches starting new campuses could also be said of single-service, single-location churches planting new churches. But here’s my point. Leeman is contending for the idea that every service should be a separate church. If you need to start another service, then you should plant another church. Ironically, something else we never see in Scripture is anyone planting a church in a community where a church already exists. Never. Not once. Instead, we see a consistent pattern of there being one church in each city. Regardless of whether they met in one location or multiple house churches—they existed as one church in each city. We never see any deviation from this pattern in Scripture. We never see multiple churches in one city. Leeman fails to acknowledge that it’s the existence of many different churches in each city that create the environment for the very problem he decries. And adding more churches in each town would seem to exacerbate the problem, not alleviate it. If we could somehow return to what we do see in Scripture—one church in each city—even if this required a multisite church in each city, it would actually solve the problem he rightfully laments.

The author of this book makes some very bold claims about the essential meaning of the word ekklesia (and therefore the meaning of the church), claims that aren’t supported by the lexicons, claims that aren’t consistent with the way the New Testament uses the word, and claims the author fails to conclusively establish logically or theologically. Instead he relies on specious and fallacious arguments while accusing those who disagree of repudiating the Bible and fighting Jesus. This is not just a book with which I disagree. In fact, there are occasional nuggets scattered throughout the book I would strongly affirm. But it is so poorly reasoned and so extreme in its denunciations of anyone who would dare to disagree, I cannot recommend this book.

Can churches be too big?

architecture-building-chapel-532720Let’s begin with an obvious caveat: the size of a church doesn’t guarantee a church’s health. There are healthy large churches and unhealthy large churches, and there are healthy small churches and unhealthy small churches. Scripture doesn’t dictate a specific size for local churches. This isn’t an issue of obedience to an explicit biblical command, but instead one of seeking wisdom in how to best live out the purposes and intended life of the church. With that said, can the size of a church adversely affect its health? Is there an optimal size for churches? And, if so, why?

When we consider almost 2,000 years of church history, extremely large churches are a new phenomenon. There have been large churches before, of course (such as Metropolitan Tabernacle in London), but these have been noteworthy because they were so unusual, obvious exceptions to the rule. Throughout most of church history, a church of 300-400 people would have been considered a large church. It’s only been since the 1980s that we’ve seen the proliferation of what we now call megachurches. But, surprising to some, megachurches are still the exception to the rule today. One recent report found that 95 percent of churches surveyed have weekly attendances under 350, and 88 percent have attendances under 200. This compares well with other surveys of church sizes. In contrast, less than 1 percent of churches would be classified as megachurches (having at least 2,000 people in weekly attendance).

In his book The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien asks why the experience of less than one percent of churches has somehow become the standard by which we evaluate the other 99+ percent of all churches and pastors? Pastor and writer Karl Vaters notes that speakers at church conferences are almost always from very large churches, and he questions just how encouraging and helpful this is to virtually all the pastors attending these conferences, most of whom pastor churches with attendances under 200. We saw in the previous post that the early churches were gatherings of 60-150 people. Throughout history the vast majority of churches were less than 200 people, and still are today. What if it’s so rare to “break the 200 barrier” because the church wasn’t really designed to be any larger? What if the reason churches stubbornly resist growing beyond 200 people is that it’s somehow hardwired into the church’s DNA not to? What if extremely large churches are actually the abnormality? As Karl Vaters asks in his book Small Church Essentials, “What if by trying to fix a problem that isn’t a problem, we’re actually working against a strategy that God wants us to enact?”

O’Brien challenges us: “Until we stop measuring our success in terms of numerical size and growth, we may be unable to accurately analyze the faithfulness of our ministry.” And this gets to the deeper issue. What is healthiest for the church? When are we most faithfully being the church God intends us to be? Certainly, we want to continually see people coming to faith in Christ. The church should be ever growing, but this doesn’t mean every local congregation should just continue to grow larger and larger. Vaters helpfully notes that there’s no biblical mandate for churches to grow larger. We don’t see any place in Scripture where Jesus or his apostles told a local church they needed to get bigger.

But is there anything inherently unhealthy about a church growing too large? Now, let me hasten to say again that many very large churches are good, healthy churches. Please don’t write in the comment section about huge churches you’ve been a part of that were wonderful and healthy. I know these exist because I’ve been a part of some, too! I was trained for pastoral ministry in a very large church (around 1,600 in weekly attendance), and I’ve served in leadership in very large churches. And many small churches are unhealthy. This is not an invitation for small churches to dismiss their own dysfunction by condemning large churches. The question isn’t whether a very large church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very large churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church.

audience-backlit-band-154147Are there unique problems for large churches? Yes, there are. Some may not be insurmountable, but they’re perpetual. The more dramatic a church’s growth, the more this growth becomes part of the church’s identity, how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves. There will be a natural tendency to begin advancing and promoting the perceived success and image of the church, rather than the mission of Christ. The more the focus is on one key pastor, preaching weekly to thousands of people—especially if his preaching is also streamed to other sites—the more the pastor gains celebrity status, whether wanted or not. It’s difficult to resist taking advantage of this name recognition to draw even more people to the church, thus making the pastor even more of a celebrity and making the church seem even more successful. The more power, acclaim, money and influence a church and its leaders have, the more the danger these things will be abused. This abuse isn’t inevitable, but it’s a very real threat that puts the church constantly in peril.

Some problems are unavoidable for really large churches. Even if you resist making your pastor into a regional or national celebrity, there is no way that regularly preaching to huge crowds of people (and maybe having your face projected onto 20 ft screens) won’t cause people to see you differently. Some friends of mine became part of a newly planted church many years ago. The church was still fairly small, and they became good friends with the pastor. A few years later, the church had grown extremely large. Whenever they would speak with the pastor, others would ask with an awed voice, “Wow, you know ______________?” Seeing the pastor as some kind of rock star—even if only within the context of that one congregation—is almost impossible to avoid when a church gets very large. It’s a radically different perception when everyone in the church knows their pastors personally. That removes the mystique and allows for more genuine ministry to occur.

The biblical picture of the church seems to be one where the people know each other and they personally know their pastoral leaders. They not only participate in the life of the church, they participate to some extent in the weekly church meeting. We’re called to encourage one another, exhort one another and to use our spiritual gifts to build up one another. In Scripture, the teaching we see happening in the church gathering is interactive, with the people responding and asking questions. A church can grow to the point where this kind of life is stunted and obstructed. Instead the congregation becomes a passive audience. Vaters makes a telling observation: “. . . if I walk into a large church, I know what’s expected of me; I will be an audience. Aside from singing along (if I know the songs), I will be a watcher and listener, not an active participant . . .” Many do become involved in ministries in really big churches, but this isn’t the reality for most. The vast majority of people attending megachurches attend once a week (at most) and have little interaction with anyone there. They come in, sit, enjoy the service, then get up and leave. They are a passive audience. If they stop attending, few if any will notice. This doesn’t fit well with the biblical descriptions of the church gathering together.

In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church, atheist Matt Casper questions evangelical pastor Jim Henderson about the way many Christians do church:

Think about it: How do schools sell themselves? By class size. The lower the student/teacher ratio is, the smaller the class size, the better the education. It’s because you get more interaction with “the expert,” and more interaction with your classmates.

Why do churches seem to do just the opposite? Why is a church deemed successful by its size rather than its ability to truly teach its people?

I think these are incredibly perceptive questions. Casper asks in another chapter: “Maybe if the church weren’t so huge, there’d be a better chance to really connect with people. Is this what it’s all about, Jim? Is contemporary Christianity driven by the ‘bigger is better’ maxim?”

Many of us know all too well that the larger the audience, the more we have to make sure the service flows smoothly and professionally. The energy on Sunday morning becomes focused all on “the show.” It even feels like going to a show. [I first heard this comparison from Dan Kimball.] If the operation is a professional one, then parking will be fairly easy. I’ll follow the crowd into the theater where someone will give me a program and show me where to sit. I may say a casual hello to a person or two as I move past to take my seat, but then I just look around and wait for the show to start. Then the lights dim, the professionals come out on the stage, and the show begins. If it’s a good one, I may laugh and cry and be moved. But then the people leave the stage, the house lights come on, and I get up and leave. It’s not that I don’t get anything of benefit. But I’m a passive observer. I’m part of the “audience.” I’m anonymous. I may even prefer it that way. But it’s not the church gathering that the New Testament describes, and it’s not accomplishing a lot of what the church gathering is supposed to be accomplishing.

It’s interesting that many megachurches are now trying to utilize smaller venues. This is often motivated by logistical issues. Communities are now much less accepting of massive church campuses. Neighbors are more likely to protest and resist church expansion. So, many churches are moving to multiple, smaller locations. (And I haven’t even begun to address the problem of pastoral burnout and the many who are under so much stress they’re ready to chuck it all and walk away.)

nicole-honeywill-dGxOgeXAXm8-unsplashThis helps us answer the question: “What’s the alternative?” It’s actually not that complicated. Instead of hoarding so much of our resources to build one massive empire, why don’t we become a resource? Instead of driving ourselves to build a church of 4,000, why don’t we release others to plant 20 churches of 200 (churches that can be much better connected to and serve a specific neighborhood, and that can provide an environment for spiritual life and ministry that is much more organic and authentic)? Why don’t we decentralize our leadership and have churches that are pastored and taught by teams of pastors (as modeled in Scripture) instead of one over-utilized rock-star pastor? Why not have churches small enough that the people can know their pastors, be discipled by them personally and be able to observe up close their examples of living faithful Christian lives? Maybe we shouldn’t just assume that bigger is better (no matter how much we may personally enjoy it), but take some time to prayerfully consider: “What will make us most effective at being the kind of church the Scriptures describe?”

Some have unfairly condemned everything about megachurches. That’s unfortunate. There are many people serving in large churches seeking to be as faithful as they can be to the ministries God has called them to, and people are being loved and reached and blessed. We need to acknowledge that. Because of this overly harsh criticism, when others present careful, balanced critiques of large churches, they still feel the need to add a disclaimer: ‘. . . not that there’s anything wrong with being a megachurch!’ I think this goes too far the other way. We need to honor each other and the ministry taking place, while still challenging each other to be willing to relinquish any way of doing church that’s out of synch with the biblical model and purposes of the church (even if it might seem very successful).

So can a church be too small? We’ll look at that next.

Just how big were the early house churches?

andre-francois-mckenzie-rz2YF0vBsvA-unsplashTo begin with, you should know that my first pastoral ministry was in the mid-90s when I co-pastored a house church for three years. This was a dynamic time of setting aside church traditions and looking to Scripture alone to see what it means to be the church. At the time, I fit naturally into the house church “movement.” Along the way, we experienced a lot of the joys and benefits of meeting simply in a home, but also the challenges and limitations. We eventually merged with another local fellowship (which had a building), and not too long after this I moved to another city to pursue more in-depth pastoral training.

All of us who were sympathetic to the house church model were drawn to the example of the early churches. In the first few centuries after Christ’s resurrection the early Christians turned the world upside down with the gospel message. Somehow they were able to spread the faith throughout vast geographical areas, establish thriving churches, and train multiple generations of pastoral leaders, all without any need of a church building. Instead, these believers met in ordinary homes (which we invariably understood to be small groups of 10-20 people—maybe as many as 30—sitting in something similar to a typical living room today).

Now fast-forward to just a few months ago. We have a group of leaders and potential leaders in our church who meet together monthly and discuss church leadership issues. We had been reading together a thought-provoking book titled Jim and Casper Go to Church. One of the authors, Jim Henderson, is an evangelical pastor, and the other, Matt Casper, is an atheist (or at least was when the book was published). In the book, the two authors attend various churches together and then discuss their perceptions of the churches they visited. It’s an intriguing book, and it stimulated some great discussion and reflection among our team.

The authors visited traditional churches, megachurches, emerging churches . . . and a house church. In the chapter on this house church, the warm, simple fellowship they described triggered some interest in our leaders. Some found this way of doing church appealing, and I felt the need for some follow-up. I hadn’t really thought much about house churches for years, so this prompted some new research on my part.

While doing this research, I ran across a name I vaguely remembered from my house church days. Steve Atkerson has been working with house churches for over 25 years. He is, himself, an elder and pastor/teacher, and he writes and assists others as part of the New Testament Restoration Fellowship. Atkerson has drawn together some fascinating information regarding the early church.

First, he points out that an early church would typically meet in the home of one of their wealthy members. We see evidence of this already in the New Testament with Lydia, who was a merchant of expensive purple cloth (Acts 16:14-15); Priscilla and Aquila (1 Corinthians 16:19) who owned a lucrative tent-making business (Acts 18:1-3); Philemon (Philemon 1-2), who was wealthy enough to own at least one slave; and Gaius, in whose home the whole church of Corinth met (Romans 16:23). This makes perfect sense, of course. Why wouldn’t they meet in one of the larger homes?

Atkerson then takes time to explain the typical home in which these churches were meeting. A house owned by a wealthy person in Roman culture would have been much different than our familiar suburban homes in the West. These homes had shops or storefronts in the front with a hall leading back to a large atrium. Off this atrium would have been a business office, kitchen and dining room. Beyond the atrium was an even larger courtyard surrounded by bedrooms and other living areas. These households included servants and/or slaves, and so would have already been fairly large by our standards. A typical day would find people coming and going down the hall, through the atrium, into the business office, and then back out again. These houses would have been much more public than what we’re accustomed to.

Atrium of a villa in Pompei archeological siteNow it gets even more interesting. The early house churches met in the mostly-covered atrium area of the house. In the smaller Roman villas, these areas would have seated 50-60 people. In larger homes, they could have seated as many as 150. What does that mean for us? It means that when we’re imagining an early house church it’s not accurate for us to picture 10-20 people scrunched together in a living room. Instead we need to think of an open area with anywhere from 60-150 people gathered for worship. (They even had something called an “impluvium” in the center of the atrium under an opening in the roof. The impluvium captured rainwater, stored it for use around the house, helped to cool the house in hot weather—and likely served as an early baptistry!)

This is the setting for the churches described throughout most of the book of Acts, and it was to churches meeting in these kinds of spaces that the letters to the churches were written. Obviously, this is quite different from the typical Western house church today. Atkerson (who remember has worked with house churches and house church leaders for over 25 years) contrasts the micro-house churches of today with the Roman atrium-sized house churches of the early church. Ironically, meeting in a modern-sized home may actually hinder a fellowship from following the early church model! (And Atkerson notes that when the early Christians went to their house churches, they didn’t have to find a place to park their cars and risk becoming a weekly irritant to the neighbors.)

So, other than the actual size of the early church gatherings, how big should a church be? Does it make any difference? What are the advantages and disadvantages of mega-churches, micro-churches, and mid-sized churches (i.e. Roman atrium-sized churches)? We’ll look at this next.

If you’re interested in checking out the references for this historical data, you can see Steve Atkerson’s articles here and here.