When I was in my last two years at school, an Agricultural High School in Tamworth NSW (Farrar Memorial Agricultural High School), I decided that I wanted to buy some sheep to put into practice all these new things I was learning. A family friend outside Armidale was selling out their flock of Tukidales, a long, un-crimped wool breed normally grown for the carpet wool industry. So I bought some sheep, a flock of twelve ewes, and later, a Tukidale ram.
The second breeding season, over a period of two weeks, the ewes dropped 60% twins. Suddenly, from 21 ewes and a ram, there were now 32 sheep running around our very small farm. What do you do with that many sheep? Now I needed equipment to drench and vaccinate, equipment to spay and de-tail, find a shearer willing to shear a flock that was too big for me and too small for most shearers to be interested in, and a market for carpet wool. My flock grew until it was out of my skill and control. It was a good problem – we never went without lamb roast.
In Jesus’ day, sheep farming was a big deal even though it was small scale. The sheep, themselves, were often not owned by the shepherd. He was hired by the owner of sheep to look after them. At night, the sheep would be kept in a holding pen, with sheep belonging to others. A guard was employed to stand watch at night to ensure that no one would come in and rustle the sheep or that they would be attacked by wild animals. In the morning, the shepherd would come to the holding pen and call the sheep. The sheep, knowing his voice would sort themselves out of mob and make their way out through the gate, to follow the shepherd. There were no fenced properties in which the sheep were left to graze, they were led out by the shepherd to grass and water, and the shepherd would stand watch over the sheep during the day and, at night, return the sheep back to the holding pen.
If the owner was rich enough, had a large flock, or purchased more sheep, or the flock grew in number, the owner of the sheep would hire as many shepherds as were needed to look after them. It was understood that a shepherd could only care for a certain amount of sheep.
Psychologically, a person can only have a certain number of significantly close relationships with others. The figure is, I think, somewhere between 5 and 7 people. Past that point the quality of most, if not all, of the relationships begins to be weaker. The relationships can no longer be sustained as “close” and the relationships begin to be more of acquaintances. At the acquaintance level, the number of relationships that can be sustained is perhaps around 70 to 75.
If we expect our clergy, our professional ministry, to be the shepherds of God’s flock, then, at best, we can expect the parish congregational numbers to plateau around the 75 people mark. This is financial sustainable if those attending contribute just under $26 per person per week. When one of those 75 dies or moves away, the rest of the congregation need to pick up the financial slack. The church is meant to grow in faith, in maturity and numerically. Finances, however, highlight the point of the failure of our present model of church.
Jesus himself did not even operate in such a model. He gathered around himself a group of twelve disciples and, when they were ready, sent them off to share in the work of ministry. The model of church, upon which we have become brain washed, is limiting our ability to be the church God wants us to become. The model of church, upon which we have become brain washed, is not the model that we find in the scriptures.
Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV)
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The model of church that we see in this early picture of the church is that “church” was done in two contexts. One context was in the Temple, a large gathering of people and, from what we know of the temple worship, it was just that, worship of God; its focus was God. This is what we could describe in our context of coming to church on Friday or Sunday mornings.
The other context was in homes, a multiplicity of small gatherings of people. Since the temple was purely about worship, it was in this smaller and more intimate gathering who “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching”, “breaking of bread”, “fellowship”, “distribute the proceeds to all as any had need”, “prayers” and “praising God”.
The result is growth in the early church. Note that their distribution of the proceeds is “to all”; those who are a part of the house church and those who are not. They are ever looking outward, it is a mission, or evangelistic, mindset, “having the goodwill of all the people,” they grew in numbers, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
One of the reasons the church is struggling to continue to exist is because we have lost sight of this fundamental model of being church and who is responsible for ministry. We have tried to fit all that we are supposed to be doing into one context and we expect the professional minister to do it. This development of the church is now found wanting. To expect the services on Friday and Sunday mornings to provide teaching sufficient for people to grow in their relationship with God and meet expectations for intimate pastoral relationships with one another and those outside, is disabling our ability to enable numerical growth.
There are two things that this picture of the early church encourages us to consider. Firstly, note that the only assigned role of ministry was of Apostle, sent by Jesus to the congregation, to teach. The rest of the ministry, described by Paul in Ephesians, encompassing prophecy, evangelism and pastoral care, was undertaken by all members of the house churches.
In Madagascar in 1845, not long after the missionaries had constructed the first church buildings, there was a severe persecution. The missionaries left Madagascar. 25 years later, when they returned, they were wondering if there would be any of the people of the churches left. To their amazement, the people of the churches had grown to ten times the size they were when they left. Rather than being scattered, the congregations had prospered and grown numerically.
But, here’s the thing, even though the missionaries got on with setting up hundreds of schools, a theological college, and construction of churches, there is no evidence that the numbers of people in the church continued to grow tenfold after their return.
The biggest obstacle to our growth here at St Stephens is me. Well, not me personally, but the professional ministry, our dependency upon a professional ministry to do ministry for us and to us. The answer to this is to re-establish a model of church that operates in two contexts.
We must commit ourselves to be a part of a house group. The primary purpose of a house group is to be a “house church” where the members the house group are pastoral caring for one another and those who are not yet members of the house group. I risk saying that we have often determined house groups as primarily Bible study groups, but I think Bible study needs to be secondary in this context. Intensive Bible study becomes exclusive and threatening to newcomers to seekers attending a house group. Discussion of the Bible and issues of faith should come out of the pastoral conversations amongst the members, not drive it. As well as participating in the corporate worship of our preferred service on Friday or Sunday mornings worship will have a place as the group prays and sings together.
As these house groups grow in their ministry we should expect to see people being added to their number, and encourage them to participate in the larger gatherings of “temple” worship. The model of the church in the Bible is always one where the ministry is shared by all, in order that we are able to receive the growth in faith, establish close relationships, pastorally care and find the church growth we hope for and is expected, by God, of us.