A Case for Simple Church
Christians do what they do, and then they claim they were led by the Holy Spirit to do what they did. This is true some of the time, but not all of the time. When it comes to what the church is and what the church does, there is much complexity and some confusion. God is never the source of complexity and confusion. Simply put, Jesus promised to build His church, and the Holy Spirit is at work, today. Does the Bible give us a template or guideline for church life? If there is a regulative principle for worship, is there a regulative principle for all of our activities as Christians in community? In other words, what should we be doing as Christians?
Some local churches want their members engaged in activities as many days of the week as possible. Other local churches keep their programs simple, so their members have more opportunity to live out their Christian lives in front of people in the world. One extreme strives for separation, and the other is minimal church and maximum exposure to the world. If we are going to do something, what takes priority? Our primary tasks should begin with quality priorities and then wisely add quantity. Having been exposed to overly program-driven churches, and also a minimal church, I suppose each has its place in the diversity of Christianity. My purpose here is to make a case for simple church.
Activity does not mean spirituality. In fact, Christian sages throughout history have longed for and labored for simplicity. They have formed castellated communes in the desert for the removal of worldly and ecclesiastical distractions. This is hardly the apostolic model we see in Acts of the Apostles, but we must admit, a truly spiritual Christian life is elusive. Clearly, we must work at the disciplines afforded to us, but we must always begin these labors in submission to the Holy Spirit. Are we clear on what we must do to become and maintain our spirituality? I believe Luke and the early church give us a glimpse of Christian priorities in Acts 2:41–47.
41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and[signs were taking place through the apostles. 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
First, we see the entry into the Christian life (2:41). A Spirit-filled man of God preaches the Gospel truth to all creation (Mk 16:15). Some hear the Word, and they are given faith to believe in Jesus Christ (Jn 1:12; Phil 1:29; 2 Pet 1:1). They received his word (2:41), and the Holy Spirit caused them to be born again (1 Pet 1:3). Water baptism follows a credible profession of faith, and this is God’s church growth program (2:41). There is no end to the means and methods people employ in the church “to get people saved,” but God only has one method…the preaching of the Word of truth.
What people need is more preaching. Preaching should be the church’s first priority. Preaching not only brings the Word of life to unbelievers, but it strengthens believers, especially when the subject is Christ. A church may value preaching above other activities, but then the preacher may give them psychology or philosophy, instead of Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 1:23; 2:2). Typically, a church with a small diet of preaching has exposed itself, for its preference for lesser things. Certain churches are known for the primacy of preaching. They will not settle for sermonettes. They find the best preachers in the world, and they call them to be their pastors. Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, First Baptist Church of Dallas, the Tron Church in Glasgow, and Westminster Chapel in London are just a few examples of a legacy with very capable preachers.
Second, the early church believers were devoted to a few exercises (2:42). Preaching and teaching have very distinct etymologies. The different Greek words describing the two distinct tasks inform us of the variation in these disciplined exercises. We need Gospel proclamation, and we need doctrinal education. If we sit under preaching once, twice, or three times per week, we must also grow in the understanding of the Christian faith. Teaching Christian doctrine is the second priority in the church.
We preach and we teach. The material for Christian education is “the apostles’ teaching.” The Bible is the book we use when we gather together. Consider your small groups, Sunday school, along with weekly “Bible studies.” Is the Bible actually what you are learning? You may be subject to an opinion-driven conversation, rather than a group which opens the inspired Scriptures and works with the text. We grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, when the Holy Spirit, our Teacher, gives us spiritual understanding of true knowledge and the wisdom of God (Col 2:3).
Next, we are better off when we are in fellowship with other Christians (2:42b). We should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the habit of some (Heb 10:25). Christians were not made to be hermits nor autodidacts. We are members of an interconnected body (Col 1:24). We need one another.
The Holy Spirit manifests fruit in us (Gal 5:22–23), and He gives us spiritual gifts (Rom 12, 1 Cor 12, Eph 4) for the building up of one another in the faith. This is not possible unless we are together. When there is preaching, we are there. When there is teaching, we are there. Preachers and teachers need us to be there to encourage them to press on with their studies in their gifted calling. It is the Holy Spirit who calls us to assemble, for the purpose of being together, learning Christ in community.
Fellowship is for preaching and teaching, but it is also for the breaking of bread and prayer (2:42). The breaking of bread comes with two possible interpretations and just might mean both of them. The Lord’s Table is a sacrament we practice together in the fellowship of believers, gathered for worship. Throughout history, local church families would also share in a “love feast.” The Lord’s Supper is symbolic and employs token elements of bread and wine. The love feast is a more substantial fellowship meal. A relaxed atmosphere with much conversation and good food nourishes body and soul. It knits God’s people together. They know Christ through the preaching and teaching of His Word, and they know one another by investing time with one another.
Fellowship also provides a viable venue for spontaneous prayer (2 :42). Formal prayers accompany our worship. We call upon the Lord, give thanks to the Lord, confess our sins to the Lord, and ascribe greatness to our God in prayer. We pray together in the Spirit for various issues in the world, in our nation, in our church, and in the lives of individuals.
In non-formal fellowship we are together, eating, conversing, and praying for one another. You share your troubles, and I pray for you. The more spiritual we become, the higher the priority prayer occupies in our disciplines. Not surprisingly, the more we pray the more spiritual we become, and the more spiritual we become, the quicker we are to pray. Self-made men and problem solvers need not apply. We are people who are dependent on the Lord, and we pray without ceasing, giving thanks to God in all things, and seeking His deliverance from that which confounds us.
Third, there is a litmus test for the church to examine whether it is reaping the results from these prioritized disciplines (2:43). Is there a sense of awe? Although we are not operating under the dispensation of apostolic miracles, we are certainly operating under God’s providence. His Spirit is working in us and through us, and what could be more exhilarating than God in us? When God’s people are tuned into God’s providential hand moving, it still produces a sense of awe. God is true, and moreover, He is intimately interested in each of the lives of His children. The theological term for the Spirit’s work is sanctification, and it is loving and personal (Heb 12:4–13). The truth is God cares for you (1 Pet 5:7).
Things of the world, brought into the church to occupy and entertain us, will never satisfy us. The devil loves to keep us frenetic in our mindless endeavors. This is why we call it, “amusement.” To muse is to use one’s brain to think. To “amuse” is to remove the mind from the task. Preaching requires the mind. Teaching requires the mind. Prayer requires the mind. Breaking of bread, whether in communion or a common meal, requires the mind. To know Christ demands the mind of Christ, and it is the Spirit who gives this gift to us. Mindful of the things of God, the things above (Col 3:1–2), even our language becomes an exercise in heavenly tongues. We edify one another with our words of common faith.
Fourth, a new economy was established because of what the early church was learning and experiencing (2:44). It is common for people to experience financial trouble in the world. It is a voluminous topic in Scripture and a great test of one’s faith. Silver and gold, as hoarded resources, is not an option for Christians, who give as anyone has need. Is this your practice?
A river of grace flows to believers, and we have no instruction for doing anything other than blessing others with God’s gracious provision poured out to us. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread (Mt 6:11).” He gives. We give. He gives, again. We give, again. This cycle of love and grace never fails unless it is damned up by fear and unbelief. The rich fool did not understand God’s economy of time and resources, and it cost him (Lk 12). Ronald Sider and Craig Blomberg have given helpful insights for Christians to live in a war time lifestyle. We actively seek those in the body of Christ who may be in need, and we do what is necessary to meet the economic needs of the brethren (2:45), and they join us when they can (Eph 4:28), so we might achieve economic equality (2 Cor 8:13, 15).
Fifth, the Christian life is lived day by day with gladness, sincerity of heart and mind (2:46). Christians open their tables at home for meals together with others. Jesus was ever eating with people in the Gospel accounts of His life and ministry. He was even accused of being a drunk and a glutton because of His priority of eating meals with others (Mt 11:19). Feast, fellowship, and festival is the holistic Christian lifestyle, in the war time economy, of caring for those who need encouragement on the battlefield of this world. Caring for the body and caring for the soul is our ministry to others. We give a cup of water to the thirsty and our reward is increased with the joy of the Lord (Mt 10:42).
Heaven itself is pictured as a banquet (Rev 19:9), and we need to simplify church to those prioritized disciplines that help feed the mind, body, and soul of every believer. We have learned from Luke and from the early church in Acts of the Apostles what simple church looks like as a preparatory school for our forthcoming heavenly reality. Preaching God’s Word, teaching doctrine, fellowship, communion, common meals, home gatherings with food, all accompanied with spontaneous prayer will leave us with a sense of awe and wonder, if we only have enough faith to drop the other things.
Spokane Valley, Washington
February 23, 2021