1. Devotion to Scripture
More than anything we want people to be lovers of the person of Jesus. Far too often we are lovers of sermons, lovers of ministry, lovers of good books, lovers of community. But are we primarily in love with God Himself? A church cannot be successful or healthy if the people are not personally meeting with and enjoying God consistently. The greatest command is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, so this must be our greatest priority as leaders.
We have structured things to build a culture of people spending time with God every single day for themselves. Many Christians look to Sunday morning as the time where they will be “fed” by someone preaching a sermon, but we expect everyone in our church to read through the same portion of Scripture (we have a set reading plan) during the week each day. This is the primary place that they are “fed”, through spending time with God in His word and in prayer. Then, as we are doing life together, we can easily discuss the passages we are all reading. When we gather as a church, rather than having the pastor preach a sermon, we have a discussion led by the pastor around what everyone read through the week. Instead of coming to consume, people have the expectation that they should be bringing insight from their personal time with the Lord throughout the week. This helps build a culture of people taking time in the word seriously and being devoted to the Scriptures.
When everyone is devoted to reading the Bible every day, it also becomes the best guard against heresy. When the masses don’t read the word and then come every Sunday to listen to someone explain it to them, there is a lot of potential for false teaching and people being led astray. But when everyone in the church is reading through the whole Bible every year, it becomes very difficult for them to be led astray.
2. We Meet in Homes
If you had no history or exposure to the church at all other than reading the New Testament, what would you expect to see if someone invited you to a gathering of a church? We’ve thought about this question a lot. Based on the more than fifty “one another” commands in the New Testament, we would expect to see a lot of love among Christians when they gather. Based on the way Paul describes the church in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, we would expect to see people contributing their spiritual gifts. We’d picture people living like a true family inside and outside of the gathering. We’d expect to see a lot of smiling, a lot of hugging, a lot of crying together, a lot of meals shared, and a lot of life connection throughout the week. We wouldn’t picture a huge auditorium or rows or a stage or everyone being quiet while just a few people lead. We’re not saying it’s wrong to do this. But the question is: do our structures undermine or contribute towards God’s commands in Scripture, especially the ones that are emphasized and repeated? And if there are more than 50 “one another” commands that call us to radical, intimate, deep love for each other, why would the thing we call “church” be something where we don’t interact with or know each other?
In order to help us truly love each other, we’ve committed to having churches of 10-20 people meeting in a home. We’ve seen that once we get to 30 or 50 or 100 people in a church it becomes increasingly more difficult to live like a family, truly know each other, carry each other’s burdens, and build each other up. Many churches will do this in the form of a community group, which is great. But far too often people view a Sunday morning big gathering as the primary context of church, and the community group as optional. For us, we want to everyone to opt into sharing life, and therefore the primary context of church for them is a spiritual family of 10-20 people.
Another reason we meet in homes is because of the financial implications. Far too often, reliance on buildings means a big budget increase in order to have church growth. By meeting in homes and having no church building, we have the option to scale exponentially without increasing our budget by much. We also set ourselves up for using our financial resources more strategically for local and global missions.
3. Everyone Discipled and Discipling
Everyone is called to make disciples. We are all called to share the gospel with non-believers in hopes that they would follow Jesus. We are all called to take responsibility for the spiritual care of other believers. But discipleship is hard and messy. It involves intentionally getting to know someone, having hard conversations when sin is evident, working through conflict, and spending extra time with them when life gets hard.
Our temptation in the church has been to replace discipleship with various other programs. If there is a married couple struggling, we might often suggest they read a book, enroll in a marriage class, or go on a retreat. But what they need most is older couples who love Jesus to come alongside of them and do life with them through life’s challenges. Though these programs could be helpful, we often hide behind them and ignore our responsibility to make disciples. We intentionally restrain ourselves from starting classes or programs that could start making people feel like discipleship isn’t needed as much. It’s not that these programs would be bad, but they might undermine what is best and most important.
In our church, the pastors are not responsible for discipling everyone, but rather they will each disciple a few and then ensure that those disciples are also discipling a few. And for those who are new to the faith, though they might not be fully responsible for the spiritual care of another person, they are actively engaging in evangelistic efforts and being trained to take responsibility for others.
Another reason we want the entry point to joining our church to be in the context of a small, intimate, intentional group of believers is so that there is no room to hide. Each person’s life is consistently being poked and prodded by someone. It means that each person is expected to be transparent with a few other believers about the things they would want hide, while those believers walk with them through healing, repentance, and believing the promises of God. There shouldn’t be any room for people just “attend church” when everyone is being discipled for life and ministry.
Discipleship is taking responsibility for the spiritual care of somebody else. It doesn’t mean you’re the only one invested in that person, but it does mean you should be aware of what’s going on in their life. Discipleship is life on life. If you’re discipling someone, have them be around you a lot. Discipleship doesn’t happen with 1:1 coffee dates once a week. You need to be around each other and observing each other’s lives.
4. Everyone Exercises Their Gifts
Paul said “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). He goes on to list many different types of gifts that the Spirit gives to believers for the sake of the body. Then he explains how every part of the body is needed, and that we must be careful to not start to develop a mindset that some gifts are more necessary than others. But is that truly how we function in the church? Does every single believer in a church realize that they are just as needed and important as anyone else in the church? Or do they tend to think that the preacher and worship leader are more important?
We have intentionally structured things to create space for everyone in the body to contribute in the gatherings and in everyday life. The pastors have an important calling to lead and shepherd, but it doesn’t mean that they are the only voice that needs to be heard. We don’t have long monologue sermons in our house gatherings because we don’t want any one person to dominate things.
Our pastors lead the Scripture discussion in gatherings, and a big task for them is to draw people into utilizing their gifts. Leaders shouldn’t be dominating the discussion. They might be quiet at points, even if no one has anything to say, so that the church feels the weight of the need of everyone contributing with what they have received from the Lord that week.
In your gatherings, at points you might want to call out for the prophets in your church. Ask to see if anyone has a sense of having received something from the Spirit.
Sometimes there might be certain people who talk a lot. It is appropriate for the pastor to privately ask them not to talk as much, so that others have space to contribute too. This is one of the reasons we have smaller churches. If there are 30 to 40 people in the gathering, it’s easy for half the group to shrink back and not contribute. That’s why once we get to around 20 people, it’s time to multiply.
The pastor should also look out for gifts in the people in their church, and give them opportunities to lead and grow in those. Have people use what they’re passionate about and gifted in. For example, a person in the church might be under spiritual attack. A person might have the gift of discernment of spirits - invite her to pray with this person together with the pastor. If someone is hospitable, encourage them to have people over in their home. If someone is administratively gifted, have them organize a retreat. Someone might have the gift of encouragement - ask them to support someone who is down. If someone has the ability to explain the Bible well, ask them to meditate on a passage and share about what God has taught them on Sunday.
In conversation with people in your church, affirm gifts that you see and encourage people to use them.
5. Regular Multiplication of Churches
So many churches begin small, relational, and discipleship-focused, but aren’t able to maintain those characteristics as numeric growth happens. Before they know it, they have become more and more of a machine rather than a healthy family. Meeting in homes sounds great, but what happens as the church grows? How does a church adapt as the Lord adds to their number? One word: Multiplication. The true fruit of an apple tree isn’t apples, but rather more apple trees. The true fruit of a strong leader is not followers, but more strong leaders. The true fruit of a healthy church is not congregants, but more healthy churches. God has designed the world to be one that reproduces and multiplies. The apple trees that can’t multiply are ones that are genetically modified. We have too many GMO churches, and not enough reproducing churches.
We multiply to preserve the healthy number of 10-20 people in a church, and to prioritize the mission of God over our own comfort. In order to be able to multiply effectively, we must structure our churches in a way that is reproducible. Churches where one or two people are always on the stage leading with big budgets and amazing programs are not easily reproducible. We place a high premium on leadership development because we are preparing to multiply each year and need new leadership ready to step up to care for the new believers that have been added. Our pastors, while trying to lead well, also have to be mindful to not make people too dependent on them, so that when it comes time to multiply, people have no problem going with a different leader. Effective leadership always involves allowing others to have opportunity to lead, and it is imperative in the multiplication process.
Each pastor is developing a pastor-in-training. When multiplication happens, each church multiplies in half. The criteria includes whether we have a pastor-in-training ready to start taking the lead, and whether the church has reached a size where intimacy is difficult. We want a healthy critical mass of at least 5 or 6 people to start a new church. It’s helpful to be this size to have a community to bring people into.
Multiplication is not something we force, but we do push for it. Rarely does a church go, “we want to multiply and we’re ready!” Almost everyone is says, “We don’t want to multiply yet.” Who’s going to want to see half the people walk away? It hurts. But if we don’t aim to multiply regularly, it will never happen. It’s like your English teacher assigns you a 7-page paper. You ask, “When is it due?” He says, “Whenever.” You’re not going to write that paper. You’re going to put it off. Multiplication is one of those things we will put off. You get to 20, 25, 30 people. Before you know it, you will lose the thing you love. At that size, there is not the same level of intimacy and care. We only get to experience amazing family life because churches have multiplied before us, and we want to continue in this practice.
What does “regular” multiplication means? It means as a wider church family we are constantly evaluating whether it is time to multiply. We have target dates, but they are goals. If there are just 5 people in an existing house church, we won’t force multiplication.
6. Simple Gatherings
When things started getting out of control in Corinth, Paul reminded them of how he started the church. In 1 Corinthians 2 he states that he intentionally held back from using “eloquence”, “human wisdom”, and “wise and persuasive words” when starting and building the church there. He didn’t want their walk with Jesus to be built on anything other than the power of the gospel message of Jesus. He then goes on to describe himself in chapter three as a wise, master builder in how he approached building the church. Likewise, Jesus was unwilling to draw people with anything other than Himself. In John 6, people are coming after Jesus because He provided them with food. Jesus refuses to give them physical food anymore to make sure that only those who really want to follow Jesus will remain. Are we willing to do the same in our churches? Are we willing to strip everything away to make sure people are being drawn by Jesus and Jesus alone?
We try to be very intentional that we aren’t drawing people in with anything other than Jesus. There is no impressive service. The church isn’t built on a well-known leader (people rarely will see Francis apart from our once a month big church gathering in the park, and even then, Francis doesn’t always preach). We don’t have any paid staff or attractive programs. The main thing you get in joining We Are Church is Jesus and belonging to the community of believers He has formed. If you don’t want Jesus and/or don’t want deep Jesus community then you won’t want to be in this church. Where many church conferences are about how to create impressive strategies to draw people and build the church numerically, we are resolved to not offer anything other than Jesus and His people. Jesus will build His church. Paul knew it. Jesus knew it. Let’s not do anything different.
What Do You Do on Sunday?
The principle of simple gatherings translates into how Sunday gatherings are facilitated. We want to people to view that week’s Scripture as their sermon. In a traditional church, you get a sermon on Sunday, and then you get into small groups to discuss it. For us, we want to devote ourselves to thinking deeply not about the pastor’s words but the inspired word of God – that is how we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. We don’t want to draw people to how we explain Scripture. Rather, we double down on the belief that if you have the Spirit of God in you, you are able to read Scripture yourself, and as a body we can wrestle with Scripture together.
Pastors don’t regularly preach a sermon on Sundays. If the pastor feels very strongly about a message that they want to bring to the church, they can teach for 5 to 10 minutes at points. Pastors shouldn’t be the ones to speak for the majority of the time in our gatherings. If they do, it subconsciously teaches people that they don’t have as much to offer. There is a place and time for sermons, but if every single week there is only one person talking about the Bible, instead of the whole church talking about it, we can lose the culture of everyone reading the Bible for themselves. The role of the pastor is to ask really good questions to get their church thinking through Scripture as well as teach throughout the discussion.
We really want to get the body involved in being able to bring something to church gatherings. Make sure each person in your church understands this: If you’ve spent time with the Lord all week, meditating on the Word, you should have something to offer that would be beneficial to the body.
The same principle applies in our times of corporate prayer. We want to see people come into prayer gatherings desiring to see God use them to build up the body and bless.
We recommend trying to hold back from creating an agenda for prayer time, and have God direct the meeting through other people. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul talks about someone having a hymn, another a tongue, and another having a prophecy, and all these should be done in order in gatherings. Biblical gatherings have the element of different people participating and God speaking through different people.
In church we often feel like we need to control or dictate every minute of a gathering. As pastors, we need to create space for the Spirit to move, while not letting things get out of control or unhealthy.
Sometimes leading prayer meetings looks like just saying, “let’s pray” and sitting and waiting on the Lord. Someone might bring up something, like a sin we need to confess. The role of the pastor is to affirm or redirect that. The leader should guide and direct, but not control. The church is not waiting for the pastor to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying or doing. Rather, everyone is discerning, looking to build up the body. Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that the body “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (v.16, NIV). Our growth is connected to everyone working to build each other up. Since that is true, we believe it is important to focus on creating that sort of culture in our gatherings.
There is freedom for each church to decide how selective you need to be about having someone lead prayer or worship. Even if someone else is facilitating the time, the pastor is still there, guarding and providing spiritual oversight for the time. Therefore, if both pastors have to be gone one week, that church can join with another church, so that there is a pastor to provide spiritual oversight.
Church is not a Sunday morning thing, and therefore we shouldn’t think of training and ministry mostly in terms of Sunday morning programs. Our children get to be in a community of believers who love each other deeply, live life together, support each other, and watch each other’s kids. It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child. We believe the best thing for the discipleship of our children are 1) parents who are discipled well 2) the body of believers who will be the aunts and uncles in the Lord and will love them and model Christ to them in the normal rhythms of life.
Regarding how to incorporate children at your church in your gatherings, pastors have freedom to think through what would work best for your group. A church with a group of kids under 5 will look a lot different from a church that has only 2 teenagers. A guiding principle is that we want to value children. We don’t want to segment people out too much based on age. And we want the whole church to be interacting with each other. Where we can, we’d love to have kids engaged in gatherings. But more than anything, we want them to be engaged relationally. This might mean that when you spend time with other people in the church, discipling them or just sharing life, you have the children around you as well, so that there can be more space for different age groups to live life together and to love one another.