BY HERB MONTGOMERY
“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (Paul, 1 Corinthians 14.26, emphasis added).
Mutual, Open Sharing in Living Rooms versus Passive Spectatorship in Auditoriums
At Renewed Heart Ministries, we have modeled our HeartGroups after the early church, simply because 1) we have the clearest instruction for this type of gathering from the text of the New Testament community of early Jesus followers, and 2) we have seen it to be the most holistic way for followers of Jesus to experience real and mutual growth, multiple narratives, equal value of all voices, within the context of genuine relationships and an authentic community.
Let’s dive right in to what HeartGroups are by looking briefly at a few texts.
1 Corinthians 14.26: What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (Some have suggested that this was the problem with the Corinthian church, but a quick survey of the entire New Testament disproves this. This was how all churches in the New Testament operated. Paul, in his letter, does not seek to squelch the open, mutually participatory nature of the Corinthian gatherings that turned the majority of those gathered into spectators. On the contrary, Paul gives guidelines on how to exercise mutual respect, so that the mutual, openly participatory gatherings will be done orderly and respectfully.)
Romans 15.14: I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.
Colossians 3.16: Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Hebrews 10.24, 25: And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Matthew 20:25, 26: Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
Matthew 23.8, 9: “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” (This is not a gender exclusive statement. The early church included sisters too, some of whom were Apostles themselves; but at this stage, Jesus is talking, literally, to twelve “men.”)
Ephesians 4.15, 16: Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Meditate on these passages, if you will. I want you to notice that, in each of the above passages, the nature of early Jesus-follower gatherings is clearly described. They were open, mutually participatory gatherings where each person was free to share. They were not marked by command-style leadership. There were no hierarchical structures; no passive spectatorship; no one- upmanship; and no religious rituals and programs. Rather, these groups were marked by complementary and reciprocal interchanges, love, and fellowship.
These early gatherings of Jesus-followers were marked by mutual love, mutual fellowship, mutual dependence, mutual honor, mutual submission, mutual dwelling, and authentic community.
This actually explains why the role of a New Testament Apostle is so unique from anything we have today. (Apostles were church planters, but in a very unique fashion; see Ephesians 4.12, 13). After the Jesus story had been preached and there were those who desired to follow this Jesus, the Apostle would stay in the area for a temporary time, with one goal in mind: Establish and develop a group with an open, mutually participatory nature, and once it’s off and running, leave it! These fellowships were not to be led by the Apostle. No, no! They were to function with mutual participation, in fellowship with Christ. (Ephesians 2.14, 15).
With the help and encouraging of the Apostle, those within the group who had a natural tendency to take over would have to learn, over time, to listen more to others in the group and to submit more to the headship of Christ Himself in each gathering (Ephesians 4.15, 16). Those who were not comfortable sharing
needed time, encouragement, and support from the group, as they became more comfortable, and over time, confident, in sharing and edifying the group with the ways in which Jesus was leading them as well. From a human view point, the work of the Apostle was about teaching those who like to share to also listen more, and for those who are not comfortable sharing to become more comfortable. It was about teaching a group to, together, submit to the worth and value of “one another” ; it was not just having a gathering about Jesus, but actually allowing Jesus to shepherd the group himself. (Again, see Ephesians 4.15-16).
Again, early gatherings of Jesus-followers were characterized by the very traits they had learned from Jesus, particularly mutual love, mutual fellowship, mutual dependence, mutual honor, mutual submission, mutual dwelling, and an authentic community. The church’s gatherings were marked by:
•the functioning of every member
•open-participation meetings (as opposed to preacher-to-spectator services) •non-hierarchical leadership
•the centrality and supremacy of one another, with Jesus being not just as the central subject, but the shepherd of the new community as well.
It’s such a paradigm shift to discover that almost all of Paul’s letters (Ephesians is the only exception) were written to open participatory “churches” (assemblies) that were in crises. He never addresses the “clergy” or “leadership offices” of those churches but always the churches themselves:
Galatians 1.1: Paul, an apostle . . . to the churches in Galatia.
1 Thessalonians 1.1: Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of theThessalonians.
2 Thessalonians 1.1: Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 1.1,2: Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.
2 Corinthians 1.1: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia.
Romans 1.1-7: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God . . . to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people.
Colossians 1.1, 2: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.
Ephesians 1.1: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 1.1: Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons. (This is the only letter that includes “overseers” (plural) in whom the letter is addressed to, and even this occurrence mentions them only in passing. Following this greeting, Paul talks to the church about its present problems. And he never again mentions the overseers. This trend is highlighted in the book of Hebrews. Throuought the entire epistle, the writer addresses the entire church. Only at the very end does the writer offhandedly ask the believers to greet their “overseers.” Hebrews 13.24 We’ll talk about “leadership” in just a moment.)
Why? Because there were no “clergy” as we know it today in these small gatherings. Why? Because there were no laity in Paul’s headspace, but rather a priesthood of all believers, both men and women.
Today, we are at the tail end of centuries of teaching Jesus-followers to function on a weekly basis as mere “spectators.” This is so deeply ingrained and has been done to such a degree that many don’t even have the confidence to embrace a gathering where they could take a more active, participatory role in exercising their own spiritual and relational gifts. Many don’t even know what their gifts are (Some, on the other hand, are dying for this kind of mutual fellowship). But the mere fact that many congregations have to resort to “tests” to discover our spiritual gifts, rather than letting them become obvious to everyone in an open, mutually participatory gathering, is proof within itself of how far off the path we have strayed.
Another revealing passage that tells us how these gatherings were conducted is found in the book of Acts.
Acts 2.42-47: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship; to the breaking of bread and to prayer…They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God…
In light of this passage, one possible “HeartGroup” format (and I want to stress, POSSIBLE! Each HeartGroup will be a mixture of folks with different spiritual gifts; no two HeartGroups will ever look the same, just like the early church), is as follows:
Meet ahead of time for prayer. Mutually open, participatory gatherings require more prayer, not less.
Then, as more people begin to show up, take time to actually eat together. Each person should bring a dish. This breaks the ice and gets things started. It’s what Acts 2.42 refers to as the “Breaking of Bread” together.
Then, once everyone has eaten, you could move into a mutual sharing time. Although this will be done in a way that respects each person (no one interrupting another), this is a time of spontaneity and open sharing, whether through song, something someone has discovered that week, an experience that taught you something of Jesus’ new world that week, or periods of mutually participatory prayer. An example could be, if someone had some cool insight into the Jesus story and how it relates to our world today they would share that insight and then the group could openly discuss it. Each person is open to share or even stop and pray. This is a time where we are dedicated to learning how to practice the 52 “One Anothers” of the early Jesus community. This is the unique time when we get to, in a very unique and purposeful way, express our love for one another, encourage one another, and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5.11).
Again, many of us don’t even know what our gifts are. For many of us, it’s going to take time for us to even work up the courage to share. Let’s face it; we have spent our lives, most of us within a Western Christian context, in training to be nothing more than weekly spectators. But, as each week passes, we will get closer to the mutually participatory nature that the gatherings of Jesus’ followers were originally intended to possess. Be patient with yourselves. This will not happen overnight. It’s a journey, not a destination. Enjoy it!
Over time, leadership will evolve in your group. (This is not a leadersless model.) But even when leadership evolve, this leadership is NOT hierarchal. It’s not top-down. It’s not one person leading out and everyone else “spectating”. New Testament “leadership” was “servant” leadership. The role of a leader/overseer was to protect the group’s mutual open sharing from being taken over by one or a few. The role of an “elder” or “overseer” in a group was not how they are defined in many churches today. Rather, overseers were to serve the group by protecting the mutual, open sharing of each gathering. (This was the role of the New Testament Elders. This was not an office in the early church, but a function of the older more experienced (i.e. “elders”) followers of Jesus in the group. This is our hope for HeartGroups as well. When leadership
arises, and it always will, that those leaders realize they are simply overseers, theirs is a “role”. They do not hold an “office” but serve a “function.” See 1 Peter 5.1-5)
Let’s take a final look at just three more texts:
Romans 16.5: Greet also the church that meets at their house.
1 Corinthians 16.19: The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.
Colossians 4.15: Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.
The fact the early church met in the homes of followers of Jesus is a point that must not be overlooked (For the first three hundred years of Christian history, followers of Jesus met exclusively in “homes.” The first “church” buildings did not appear until the fourth century after the “conversion” of Constantine. This, too, was a time when the church was growing exponentially).
Why is this noteworthy? A HeartGroup can meet anywhere, but I personally know of no other environment that is more conducive to open, mutually participatory gatherings than a living room. It’s informal. It’s designed around relationships. And, it’s where the early church met too! There is no other setting that encourages, in my experience, a gathering of this nature to simply just “happen” as effectively.
This type of gathering, like no other gathering to my knowledge, fosters and demonstrate most effectively the radical, community-focused, mutual love we see revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus. If you would like to try a HeartGroup on for size, or if you are already gathering in early New Testament style, please drop us a line (firstname.lastname@example.org).
We’d love to spend some time either encouraging you, helping you start a HeartGroup in your area, and/or just listening to how God is blessing your already existing group. Remember, just like the children of every parent, each HeartGroup is going to be just as unique from one another as two children can be who are from the same set of parents. But no matter how unique those children are, they will carry within them the same DNA. What is the common thread, DNA for a HeartGroup, that we also find in each of the early churches? The “One Anothers” of the New Testament; The every-member-lovingly-sharing, mutually open participatory (verses passive spectatorship) nature. No two HeartGroups will look the same. But what all HeartGroups should have in
common, is what we have covered here at the very minimum. These are not glorified Bible Studies (although each person is sharing from their Bibles) where the same person leads out each week. Nor are these just “church” on a smaller scale. (Think of it like a church “Potluck” where everyone brings a “dish.” This is where everyone has prepared and brought something, not a whole meal i.e. a sermon, but just a dish remember, of what the teachings of Jesus have been teaching you that previous week. The purpose is to simply share with and edify the group. Again, this is a gathering where Jesus is the shepherd, and any human leadership that is present is simply ensuring that the participation is not taken over and monopolized by any one person.
“But speaking the truth [to one another] in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Ephesians 4.15-16
It’s a new paradigm for some to think about, for sure. But, you don’t have to think too hard. Try starting a HeartGroup in your area and see where Jesus leads it. You don’t have to be in charge. You simply provide the location. The group itself, through the shepherding of Jesus will provide the discovery, the encouragement, and the edification.