To begin with, I especially like how Viola describes what “church” looks like:
I also like the concept of the “ministry of Priscilla and Aquila,” which he describes as a kind of “ministry of ‘site preparation’ . . . a womb wherein the church of Jesus Christ can be born.” These are people, says Viola, who are “initiators,” who “are gifted as gathering others together. They initiate meetings. Or to continue the metaphor, they gather the building materials. The ministry of Priscilla and Aquila was just that—they were initiators in the work of church building. Every new church plant needs those who will initiate, who will bring others together, and who will prepare the soil . . . .”
Suppose that what we mean by “church” is a group of Christians who are living as a shared-life community under the Headship of Jesus Christ.
Suppose that this kind of “church” is a gathered community that’s having an ongoing encounter and experience of Jesus Christ together. This community gathers often, not just once a week. And when the members gather, no human being is leading or facilitating. In other words, there is no pastor, no reverend, and no minister—whether titled or untitled. Instead, the members are gathering under Christ’s Headship alone.
As to their meetings, they are not a Bible study, a prayer meeting, a songfest, nor a supperfest, but something different. Namely, the church meets to reveal and display Jesus Christ together out of a real, experiential, life-giving encounter with the Lord. And everyone is functioning on equal footing. No one is dominating. And few, if any, are passive.
This is a church where the members are learning to live by Divine life together and they are finding creative ways to express that life week after week, month after month, and year after year. They are living for God’s grand mission—incarnating His eternal purpose in the world.
The members of the church see themselves as sisters and brothers. And they pursue the Lord throughout the week, not only individually, but corporately. They also live their lives together as a family. They take care of one another. They don’t just talk about community; they are experiencing it in living color.
In addition, the church makes decisions by consensus. They have no pastor or elite group of men who rule over or control them. Direction comes from the entire Body together. The members have learned to function in a coordinated way.
Like many of those I read, Viola has a concept or vision of how the whole church building process works. Authentic ecclesia gatherings, he says, can’t be started by just anyone; they are most successful when the “soil” has been prepared so that they can be built together by a gifted (and trained?) church planter (who doesn’t stay with the group but teaches them to function as the authentic ecclesia as described above), and then periodically visited and encouraged by those in the “apostolic ministry.”
While I hadn’t come across the specific concept Viola presents, I’ve come across similar ones in other house and simple church materials. And though there are aspects of Viola’s piece I really like (especially his image of ecclesia—one that seems common to many folks out there longing for a fuller and more biblical expression of this living-together in the Kingdom), I still wonder if perhaps there are several ways that ecclesia forms and ways by which God nurtures those gatherings and communities that join with him in his purpose and mission for the world—if there aren’t some overarching biblical and New Testament church principles and movements that occur, but the expression is unique to its time and place. What those are, however, are still a matter of exploration for me, heh.
I still tend to lean towards folks like Wayne Jacobsen who have experienced and advocate ecclesia with an even more organic beginning and isn’t limited to a single no form or “skin” (though some seem to encourage ecclesia more readily than others). Here’s how Jacobsen put it recently on his blog as he responds to someone who is somewhat confused about his understanding of church:
I can gather with other Christians and help new ones grow in the faith by just having fellowship with those God asks me to walk beside in any given season. I don’t have to ‘start a fellowship’ for that. If you read carefully I’m not advocating a lack of fellowship, but I am indicating that walking with people is far more important than starting or maintaining a group. We’d like to think they are the same but they are not. History proves that.As I’ve said before, I’m in the process of working all this out. I’m concerned that the ever-transforming Kingdom life and with-God life is not the norm among those who follow Jesus. And I’m among those who think that if everything flows from the relationship we have with the Father—transformation, with-God living and body-life that explodes like bouncing molecules—then that’s not happening because we as a Church (the body of followers of Jesus) don’t get what it’s all about. We don’t have this ever-transforming and with-God life because the vast majority of us aren’t living in relationship to the Father. Why not? Again, I’m among those who think that part of the answer to that question has to do with the way we gather (the way we “do” church).
So the Scriptures you cite are all lived out in greater reality, depth and power when we’re not caught up in the mechanics of a group and simple walk in deep friendship and love with whomever God puts in our life. Sometimes that puts me in a room with hundreds of people, sometimes just tow or three.
Jesus, nor the early apostles did not view the life of the church as a series of meetings on Sunday morning or Wednesday night that are led from the front, but vibrant relationships that wrestle with the deep issues of life and magnify God in doing so!
And it doesn’t bother me of people want to get together at a regular place in a regular way. That’s an expression of this family too! It just isn’t the only expression and not necessarily the best. Scripture never points to believers gathered in rows to witness a meeting led by a few. It pictures people meeting together to share insights and ask questions, to share Jesus’ gifts, to build each other up and to share the burdens of life together.
Which is why I appreciate pieces like Viola’s and blog posts like Jacobsen’s. They encourage us to examine and pursue the kind of with-God life and Kingdom-living-together he’s enabled and called us to as the people and children of God in a world that desperately needs Light, Love and Life.
I must admit I’m still in awe to admit this, but recently I’ve been getting some savory tastes of that kind of living-together in the Kingdom. As I previously mentioned, our family is trying a different way of “doing” or “being church” (this living-together in the Kingdom, living together as the called out ones or the people of God, and “the meeting together” as the writer of Hebrews puts it in 10:25). For the last couple of months, we’ve been regularly gathering with another family. We are six adults (two of whom are young men, 17 and 20) and two children under 10. We all meet together at least once a week (and often individually throughout the week), usually over lunch or dinner (we love to eat) while we wrestle with and celebrate God’s Word and action in our hearts and lives. And, to my continuing wonder, we look a lot like Viola’s description above.
However, we didn’t come together in the way Viola describes (at least not to our knowledge, heh), but more in line with Jacobsen’s experience. We are all concerned by the lack of Kingdom experience and living in institutional churches today, and we’re all hungry to know and live the life Jesus brings—both in our individual relationships with him as well as our relationships in him together. But we all seem to agree that this is a “seasonal” gathering (a concept Jacobsen embraces), something we are doing for now, a momentary “skin.” None of us have a conviction that how we gather is the only way or the best way. And we do struggle with the loss of some of the things we miss and value about larger gatherings and more institutional or structured “churches.” And personally, I long for larger gatherings, even if it smaller gatherings like ours coming together periodically. Many times, we have more questions than answers. But we are enjoying this walking with each other as we seek after what it means to be followers of Jesus and work together with God to bring and be and invite others into his Light and Life and Love in the world. And we're transforming. I see God’s work in our lives.
Interestingly, it is the combination of the blessings and struggles, the fullness and limitations, that enriches the whole thing for me. It is an unexpected and beautiful thing, this opportunity to explore and walk this journey with others who are hungry to experience the life Jesus gives us (individually and together) and cooperate with him to bring that life and love into our world. It’s a wonderful life—much deeper and much fuller than I ever expected. I must admit that I am enjoying this more than any other “church” experience. So, even if it is just for now, that’s more than enough for me. In fact, I feel like an over-full glass of water in the hands of my four-year-old son, joyfully spilling its content with each step I take.
(Images: from a December meal we shared together)