I remember being a freshman in college; the uncertainties, the new faces and places, the desire to belong. I particularly remember that first trip through the cafeteria line, loading my plate with more than enough food. When I reached the end of the line, I stepped out into the dining hall to survey dozens of tables and hundreds of faces, all new and strange.
There was one thought in my mind and heart: “Is there a place for me?” That is the heart of the “house church,” the “Share and Care Group,” the small group of caring Christians. They provide a place that’s safe and people that say, “What happens to you matters to us.”
As a child, who did the “caring” in your family? Was it your mother or father? Was it a grandmother or uncle? Perhaps it was a neighbor or friend? For some children-now-grown, it feels like nobody cared.
I was trying to remember the moments in my youth when I felt sincerely cared for. On my tenth birthday, my father spent the entire day with me. We took the ferry boat from Seattle, Washington, to Victoria, B. C. I also remember my mother purchasing tickets to a play at the university; two tickets for the two of us. In my junior high years, there were the few friends that let me “gripe”– at an age when you need to “gripe.” And, I remember being accepted by the drama club in my high school; not as the “preacher’s kid,” but as Richard.
What Happens to You Matters to Us
Each remembered expression of “care” is similar: A sense of belonging, acceptance, understanding, and inclusion.
- The Old Testament expresses God’s care and compassion as “raham”; often translated “loving kindness” or “tender mercies.” The word “loving kindness” is the same word for a mother’s “womb.” We are brothers and sisters in Christ; we are born in God’ compassion.
- This concept was adopted by Jesus as His fundamental understanding of God, the Father. Jesus lived out “compassion” — “to suffer alongside.” Jesus calls us to “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36)
- The great missionary and Christian evangelist, Paul, expressed the same idea in the word love: “Love is patient, love is kind….it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. “ (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
We use the word “care” to express this call of “love,” “compassion,” and “tender mercies.” Webster defines “care” as 1) to be concerned or interested, 2) to provide needed assistance or watchful supervision, 3) to have a liking or attachment, 4) to be concerned.
Let me give you a practical definition of care: What happens to you matters to us!
Do you remember an expression from an old television program, Cheers? Cheers was the place where “everybody knows your name.” In a Church Sanctuary of several hundred people, it would be impossible for everybody to know everybody else’s name. But, with a small group of ten, the names could be learned in a matter of moments. Yet, it is more than just knowing your name; care means knowing your dreams, your fears, your struggles, your victories, and your story. That is caring for one another.
The House Church in the Book of Acts
The path of care is the path of relationships; primarily the relationships of a few Christians, determined to be an island of grace in a hostile world. A simple plan was instituted by the apostles on the day of Pentecost. In one day the movement grew from 120 to over 3000 people. Such a large and growing is not the place “where everybody knows your name,” much less your need? The plan instituted by the Apostles followed the small group pattern they learned from Jesus. The church meet in the Temple courts as a large group. They also meet in their homes. In both settings the Holy Spirit would lead, encourage, convict, challenge, cleanse and heal[i].
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. (Acts 2:46-47)
The House Church in the Gospels
For the early Christians, the only church they knew was the “house church.” When the Gospels were written some thirty to fifty years after the Day of Pentecost, they were written to churches that met in houses. Consequently, there are occasions in the Gospels were the word “house” takes on special meaning. It not only means of place of residence but, to early followers of Jesus, it would cause them to think of their own “house church.” Consider three examples from the Gospel of Matthew.
1. A small group of compassionate Christians is a wonderful place to find Jesus.
The opening picture of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is in a house. The familiar words relate the meeting of the Wise Men and the infant Jesus.
When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:10-12)
Imagine sitting in the home of a first century “house church” as you heard these words for the first time. It is more than the story of Wise Men coming to Jesus; it is also the story of the way a small church (house) of Christians welcomes people into a saving relationship with Christ. I can almost hear someone from this imaginary group of early Christians say:
“That happened to me. Like a star in the sky, the grace of God seemed to guide me to all of you. And when I came here, you welcomed me, cared about me, and offered me Jesus. It opened my life to all the blessings He has for me, and I gave Him all my life. It is true; I returned to my everyday world as a different person.”
Matthew was applying the story of the Wise Men as a picture of how small groups of Christians are opening the blessings of Christ to the whole world, one person at a time.
It is in a small group of caring Christians where people—then and now — find a place to meet Jesus. It is an opportunity to ask questions, “try on faith,” struggle with doubts, and come to a deep experience of conversion. It is a place where the treasures of your life can be opened to God. It is a place where you learn new ways to live. A small group of caring Christians is a place to find Christ.
2. A small group of committed Christians is a wonderful place to share Jesus.
Another use of the word “house” that seems to indicate a lesson for the “house church” that cares for one another is found in the teaching of Jesus:
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
The goal is for the people of God to be light to the whole world. We are to be like a city on a hill, drawing people from all directions. The plan for achieving this goal is to be light in the “house” or “house church.” In one little group after another, the genuine care of one another (“your light”) is seen by those around you (“that they may see your good deeds”) resulting in praise to the Father.
By caring for one another in small groups, and then reaching out to care for those around us, the light of God’s love moves into the whole world. It naturally draws people in, changing their lives, offering hope and faith.
A small group of caring Christians was the greatest witness for Christ in the early days of the faith. Even the early enemies of Christianity had to admit, “Behold how they love one another.” And today, there is something about a group of caring Christians that quietly draws attention, encourages curiosity, and invites people to question their old ways as they search for something new. A group that cares is a witness for Jesus.
3. A small group of courageous Christians is a wonderful place to find the power to stay true to Jesus.
In the years that Matthew was writing his Gospel, Christians were learning the ugly truth of living in conflict with the world around them. The deeds of love and kindness were a threat to the power of the Roman Empire. Persecution broke out.
The words of Jesus, spoken many years before, had new application to the little “house gatherings” of Christians. Imagine hiding with your small family of Christian friends, trying to determine how to face the onslaught of cruelty crashing down around you. These words would take on powerful meaning for your “house church.”
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)
In our world of North America, the persecution by the government on Christians is not the experience of many. But, the stress of life, the storms of living, the flood of difficulties and troubles come to all. Where can you go? Who can you turn to? Where do you find the strength to hold to what is true and good when so many are false and bad? A small group of caring Christians can say in words and deeds, “What happens to you matters to us.” This is putting the words of Jesus into practice. In such a place of compassion, the strength of Christ is administered to you and through you. You have found solid ground.
[i] A BIBLICAL STUDY OF THE HOUSE CHURCH IN THE BOOK OF ACTS: The first Christians had a balanced approach to ministry: in the Temple courts and in their homes, through large group celebration and small group care. In college science classes we called this system “lecture and lab.” In the Christian life, there is a time to hear the Word (in the Temple) and a time to do the Word (in the House Church). The early Christians continued to employ this simple plan as the church grew.
Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 5:42)
When persecution came to the church, it was not the “temple court” meetings that were attacked, but the “house churches.”
But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:3)
The attack was directed at the leaders of these little units of caring Christians. Destroy these groups and you destroy the church. It is the wonderful irony of God to see Saul (the one who sought to destroy) coming to faith in one of these small “house churches” in Damascus.
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:17)
The second great conversion in the early days of the Church involved the first Gentile who came to faith. His name was Cornelius. Peter, the evangelist in the conversion story, was being converted to a new way of thinking in the “house church” of Simon the tanner (Acts 10:6). The transformation of Peter and Cornelius founded the first “house church” among the Gentiles. As Peter explained to the church in Jerusalem:
“These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’” (Acts 11:12-14)
Not long after this incident, Peter found himself in prison. When released by an angel, he went to the “house church” that was praying for him.
…He went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. (Acts 12:12)
Paul, the great missionary and evangelist, started “house churches” everywhere he went: In the home of Lydia (Acts 16:15), and the Jailer (Acts 16:31-32) in Philippi; in the home of Jason (Acts 17:5) who helped Paul and Silas escape a riot; and in the home of Titius Justis where the synagogue ruler in Corinth was converted (Acts 18:7).
At the end of thirty years of ministry, thirty years of sharing the Gospel, thirty years of seeking to find the best way to plant the love of Christ so that it will grow, Paul had not changed his original plan, the Jerusalem plan of “temple courts and house to house.” (Acts 5:42) In his farewell address to the people of Ephesus he reminded them of the simplicity of the plan.
You know that I have no hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. (Acts 20:20-21)
Copyright 2011 © Richard Leslie Parrott, Ph.D.