Start to build differently
When we examine Church traditions and structures that many of us have known since childhood, they are found wanting. It is not that the Church we know is insincere or wrong, but rather that it has mislaid something along its journey.
Much of today’s Church is congregational in shape, with strong institutional traditions combined with powerful branding. We’ve spent too long erecting buildings and focusing on gathering crowds. We have been taught that healthy things grow, and we have believed a narrative that says we need to get more people into our gatherings. Many Church leaders have become obsessed with building bigger crowds. The real truth is that healthy things reproduce.
There are glimpses of exceptions, but mostly the Church today does not look like the Church that we read about in the book of Acts. How did we get to where we are now, and how can we pull things back?
A brief look at history shows us that in the first and second centuries, the Christian faith had exploded, creating multiple communities across many locations, and by the third century, six million Christians lived in the Roman Empire alone. It is widely understood that in and around AD 300, Constantine noted the growing popularity of Christianity. He adopted the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek as a symbol to be used on the shields of his warriors and extended toleration to all Christians. During the reign of Constantine, Christianity was legalised by the Roman Empire, and would later become its official religion. In circa AD 326 Helena (Constantine’s mother) made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to find the relics of Christ’s cross at the crucifixion site. Helena was instrumental in helping Constantine ‘take over’ Christianity. In AD 337 crucifixion was banned and Constantine was baptised just before he died.
At the end of the third century AD, the Church, which had initially gathered in homes, started to meet in dedicated buildings. From there, history reveals that pagan temples were converted into places of Christian worship, the Church becoming centralised and audience focused. This theatre-style design has remained as the predominant church format until this day.
By using purpose-built buildings and placing order and liturgy there, the very DNA of the Church was changed. The vibrant, disruptive and passionate Church that had emerged from the lives of the first-century Christians, and the message of Jesus, was now being subdued into a contained mechanism instead of a vibrant activist movement. The spiritual warfare element here reflects the fact that the enemy did not have the power to destroy the Church, but was able to disrupt and seduce it. There was a change in thinking about God’s Church – as an organisation, rather than as an organism.
Since the third century many things have differed from church to church – theological interpretation, worship styles, building formats, etc – but a cathedral structure, congregational gatherings and a programme-based design has remained constant over the last seventeen centuries.
Throughout the history of Christianity there has been an unhelpful shift from being a radical political and spiritual movement to being seduced by a theatre-based model that craves crowds and applause.
So, how can we rediscover the passion and power that was clearly part of the early Church, 2,000 years ago? I like the contrast between the two words organisation and organism. Organisations are about being ordered; they are about creating structures through which individuals cooperate systematically to conduct a specific business. An organism, however, speaks about the various ingredients and processes of life, about being mutually dependent and essential to life.
What would a church that resembled an organism look like? I believe first and foremost it would be indigenous. We would see a total connectedness between faith, family, work and every other sphere of life. For too long we have divided the world neatly into two. One part is sacred, which involves all things Church, such as worship, Bible studies, fellowship, ‘Christian work’, etc. The rest of life has been described as ‘secular’. This sacred and secular divide immobilises the Church in its mission to the world. In Psalm 24 we read, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it’ (NIV). Our faith is relevant in our household, neighbourhood, workplace and fellowship. The word ‘indigenous’ is all about living or occurring naturally; it’s not about importing, but more about the native and innate. A visual picture of an indigenous church could be that of the contrast between that of a plantation and a forest.
Within the plantation, everything is controlled and sterile. Although plantations can often appear large and productive, there is very little spontaneous life. Security is in the order and routine. Within the forest, many different species exist together, working in harmony and being interdependent. Growth is spontaneous, unfenced and not controlled by humankind. The difference between that which is man-made and that which is naturally produced is evident all around us; we can see a clear contrast between humanity’s order and God’s order. Are we building plantations or growing forests?
I’m not trying for a moment to suggest that we should stop our congregational gatherings and all go back to a first-century model. Let’s face it, that’s not practical; lots of people enjoy the various congregational gatherings and styles. In recent years, multimedia-led gatherings, with professional bands and motivational speakers, have been successful in attracting large numbers of people. Although they tend not to shout about it, the more traditional, liturgical gatherings have also gathered large numbers; they offer something solid and timeless for those who are lost. What I am saying is that we need to be honest – these expressions are great, but they are not our home. Yes, it’s an opportunity for God’s people to pray together, praise together and hear from the Bible, but is it Church? I don’t think it really is.
I ask this in the context of leading a unity movement that contains, on the whole, more than eighty congregational models of Church, and for the record I’m committed to seeing these expressions grow and flourish. However, we don’t see this in the New Testament, and to make it our focus and to call it ‘Church’ is misleading.
We all know in our heads and hearts that, in the context of the New Testament, the Church refers to the people, the individuals who belong to Jesus and who are called to be in a relationship with Him and each other. Church can refer to all the followers of Jesus everywhere, or just those believers in a certain location. My challenge is this: although we know this in our heads and may even believe it in our hearts, what do we actually do about it? Are our actions rooted in this principle, or are we running away with building something else?
The Greek word ekklesia, which is often translated ‘Church’, is a combination of two Greek words: the Greek word kaleo (which means ‘to call’) and ek, meaning ‘out’ or ‘out of’. Therefore, ekklesiae can be translated as ‘called-out ones’. I think this describes us really well, as the called-out ones!
Alyson and I have been on an ‘indigenous’ journey since 1998, and accompanied by many, many friends and family, we are privileged to be able to lead a movement. When we founded Jubilee, our vision was to see people develop a meaningful faith in every sphere of their lives and be empowered to make a transforming contribution to society.
In 2014, we heard from God that we needed to expand and connect our journey with more of those who are outside any Christian gathering or context. Alyson felt God clearly say to her, ‘Give them something to eat.’ Food is a great connector. Eating together cements relationships and grows communities. It’s interesting that the first-century Christian community was built around food and that food played an important role in the life of Jesus and His disciples!
As a result of God’s speaking to Alyson, Manna Community was born. Manna Community CIC is all about supporting people on life’s journey. We have a number of buildings – one café-style, workshops and counselling rooms, among other things – and we supply a range of services and provide events too. Manna’s vision is to facilitate a space for meeting the broad range of needs within the local community: physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual. By creating a professional café culture that can act as a context for meeting, we have been able to reach out to the community. Reaching out can mean a number of things. It can mean gathering those together who have suffered loss, providing food and comfort and bereavement counselling. It can mean taking young people who have fallen out of school and helping them to find hope and purpose through alternative training opportunities. It can mean offering mentoring to business leaders. Or it can simply mean providing a Christmas lunch to the local children’s services. However it happens, it always looks like community and hope.
As Manna Community has grown in influence and reach, it has been important for us to ensure we are identified as a Christian group. We understood the need to articulate what we believe, and to be able to state this clearly, while avoiding the usual pitfalls of jargon and theology. It wasn’t easy, and it took a few months, but this is what we believe God wanted us to say:
Here at Manna Community, what we do is very much motivated by our faith. It not only shapes the way we work, but it changes the entire way we live.
Quite simply, we believe that our lives are being transformed through a conversation that started over 2,000 years ago. It’s a conversation that began in the first century with a man called Jesus. Because of Jesus, we can understand more about God, and more about our relationship with God.
The life and actions of Jesus inspire us and compel us to live and work as He did. Particularly the fact that His unconditional love for humanity was the motivation behind everything He did.
At Manna Community we’re all still having the conversation that Jesus started, we’re still being transformed, and we’re still discovering our place in the world.
Today, Jesus remains the most influential and talked-about person in history. If you’d like to talk with us further about who Jesus is, and how you can learn more about Him, we’d love to meet with you.
This statement identifies Jesus as the central character in our faith, and it clearly opens up the conversation to those around us. Nelson Mandela said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ How we communicate our faith and how we celebrate our faith are crucial to how engaged we will be with a watching world.
I believe that through Manna Community, and groups like it, we are undergoing a restoration, or rediscovery; we are slowly uncovering what has been hidden, overlaid and forgotten. We are restoring the principal structure of the Church – an indigenous Church that demonstrates Christ to the world by demonstrating the qualities of Jesus.
In Acts 2:42-47 we read about ‘The Fellowship of the Believers’ in some detail. It’s only six verses, but it’s packed with a wide range of activities and attitudes that are the hallmark of the early Church.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Marcel Proust once said, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’
Built on the principle that all Christians are ministers, we should actively seek to develop each disciple into the likeness of Christ. This is where love, community, relationships and ministry spring up naturally and powerfully. Discipleship starts the moment we meet someone. The life of the Church is in people, not in buildings or programmes. The primary building blocks of the Church are its people, and the Church should be a kingdom organism that grows people and reproduces. The Church is a dynamic, organic, spiritual being that can only be lived out in the lives of believers in community.
The first-century Church and the twenty-first-century Church are completely different in shape and focus. It really is time for us to take a fresh look at what we currently know as ‘church’ and to uncover what has been lost and hidden.
The kingdom of God advances at the speed of relationships, and as leaders our role is to provide contexts for those who are connected with us to grow and flourish. As Christians there are two clear elements to our call: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-39).
We reproduce what we are. It really is that simple. I know that it’s not possible to go back and change the beginning, but we can start where we are and we can try to change the ending.
Be honest with yourself: are you building a machine, or a movement?
Call to action
The Church is a collective of all those who declare to follow Christ, who have committed to be like Christ and are distinctive in the world because of Christ. This section offers some reflections and activities to help you take the lid off your church gathering, and rediscover what it really means to be Church.
- Think about what your gathering could start to look like if it changed from a congregation to a conversation. Spend time in prayer asking God to help you look at your church community in new and creative ways. In John 18:37 we read that ‘Everyone who is of the truth listens to [Christ’s] voice.’ What opportunities are there within your gatherings to listen to the voice of Christ? Do you need to make space and time for your church community to rest in His presence and hear His voice?
- Does your church gathering mostly all face the same way, listening to the same thing at the same time each week? How many opportunities are there within your gatherings to have conversations with those who are both inside and outside the church community? Many church communities are based on a club style, with a membership approach. How could your church group look if you were to focus on conversations and stories?
- When was the last time you cancelled your main gatherings in favour of asking your church community to spend time with their families and neighbours? What would you do to make this happen?
What would happen if we were to move out of our routines into relationship-based gatherings? Over the next few months, look at how you can spend time outside your church groups. Always keeping Jesus in the centre of your life, lean outwards, along with others, into the world and be prepared to be amazed.
See: William A Beckham, The Second Reformation: Reshaping the Church for the 21st Century(Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 1995, 1996, 1997), pp41-50; Ralph W Neighbour, Where Do We Go From Here? A Guidebook for the Cell Group Church (Houston, TX: Touch Publications, 1990), pp11-37.
Community Interest Company.
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/movingwords/shortlist/mandela.shtml(accessed 21st August 2018).
 https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/marcel_proust_107111(accessed 21st August 2018).