In Latin America, some regional associations of young churches remain limited to an area small enough so that they could meet together regularly and conveniently. This limitation allows them to take common action, implement community development, keep pastors accountable and ward off wolves. Their leaders meet often to share needs, opportunities and advice. Church members also enjoy regional celebrations where they share testimonies, energetic teaching and plenty of tacos, piña colada and fiesta.
In an Islamic region of West Africa where rural churches are spontaneously evangelizing and multiplying, as more experienced leaders coach the less experienced. This has led to a sense of unity without need of constitutions, by-laws and formal decision-making processes. Until someone tells them differently, they will remain one church with many, local congregations and cells.
Two unbiblical extremes plague new, little churches. One plague consists of big, usually urban, congregations that seeks to impose practices and forms that fail to fit little flocks; another is the independently-minded little flock, often led by an insecure power seeker. The New Testament model of inter-dependent clusters of little flocks effectively avoids both errors when new shepherds receive proper coaching by someone who understands cluster dynamics.
Teach a New Testament model of inter-dependent flocks and co-operating shepherds. Perhaps you could assign texts like the following and have apprentice shepherds report to you what they discover about inter-church relations:
Acts 13:1-2. There were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.
Acts 19:10; 20:28. All the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks… Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.
1 Corinthians 16:19. The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.
2 Corinthians 8:19. And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace.
Galatians 1:2. To the churches of Galatia.
Philippians 1:1. To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.
Colossians 4:15-16. Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.
Titus 1:5. This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.
Revelation 1:4. John to the seven churches that are in Asia.
Most Christian churches did not meet in chapels before the third century. Rather, regional churches consisted of clusters of many little congregations that shared elders and deacons. Congregations typically were made up of an extended family, their servants and close friends. This allowed apostles, elders and deacons to discuss common needs often and make decisions together. Thus, it proved difficult for outsiders to impose rules on them and to contaminate their doctrine.
A biblically informed ecclesiology (theology of the church) must recognize that the New Testament uses the term “church”, “assembly” or “community” in several ways:
- The Universal church that consists of all believers and only believers, living and dead, past and present. Her only head is Jesus Christ, her God, Lord and Savior.
- Local bodies of living believers who love one another while obeying the commandments of Jesus, served by apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers (Eph. 4:11).
- Regional clusters of churches, made up of cells and congregations that enjoy frequent fellowship and are served by apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, some of whom may be appointed as overseers, elders and deacons.
Leaders should help apprentice evangelists and shepherds form regional networks and hold occasional celebrations. When they are challenged by outside forces, provide them with guidelines and let them make decisions together. This will avoid many of the political and doctrinal attacks that discourage workers and stifle church multiplication.
Several advantages derive from forming and maintaining clusters of churches that maintain communication and take common action as a regional church. Examples:
- Workers learn from the start their power from God to plan, agree and cooperate without unwanted external control from outside church authorities, and without need of written constitutions, by-laws and rules of order.
- Clusters capitalize on the loving relations that develop between trainers and their apprentices, maintaining respect and cooperation long after formal coaching has been completed.
- Elders and shepherds encourage believers to move between congregations and cells where their gifts of the Spirit might be needed, since little churches may prove to be too little to have all the gifts that it may require.
- The members of little churches enjoy a genuine sense of the size and importance of their movement and social and ministerial relations.
- Elders plan and coordinate the formation of churches that serve ethnic, class, caste, economic and linguistic communities without requiring any one such social group to adopt the customs of another.
- Where churches suffer persecution and violence, even though some leaders may be arrested and congregations disbanded, the movement continues and the others undertake legal and advocacy action in behalf of their fellow believers.
A small house church seldom includes members having all the spiritual gifts needed to carry out all the ministries that God requires in the New Testament. However, they can perform these ministries by cooperating closely with other small bodies. The New Testament “one another” commands (teach one another, confess faults to one another, admonish one another, etc.) apply not only within house churches or cells, but also between them.