Recently, I dedicated an afternoon to reading The Churches of the First Century: From Simple Churches to Complex Networks by Jeff Reed of BILD International. It’s summer, so why did I not choose a lighter, beach read? First, I’m a confessed church history nerd. Second, I wanted to learn about the success of the Early Church and whether their methods could be – and should be – modeled today in our churches. I was also intrigued by the possibility of discovering the “secret sauce” that led to the explosive growth of the Early Church in the first century.
With clarity of thought and argument, The Churches of the First Century guides the reader through the history of the Early Church and the factors that contributed to its explosive growth. Reed challenges us to reconsider our assumptions about what “going to church” means and whether they are more informed by our institutions and traditions than the solidly built foundation of “the way of Christ and His Apostles” laid down for us 2,000 years ago.
SIMPLE CHURCH GATHERINGS
At the heart of the spontaneous expansion of the early church was the practice of simple church gatherings. On the first day of every week, communities of believers would gather in homes or tenements to share a meal together and celebrate their newfound life in Christ. From these small gatherings, the Church spontaneously expanded. “The churches expanded throughout the Roman Empire in a spontaneous fashion—not according to a carefully detailed plan of man, but rather within the strategic intent of apostolic leaders who responded to open doors, under the circumstantial and sometimes interventional direction of the Holy Spirit.”
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MEAL
What did these small group gatherings look like? They included “the Lord‘s Supper as a meal at the beginning of the meeting; followed by more formal elements such as dialogue around the Word together; with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs interspersed; and robust participation by members assembled.” Reed gives us more details about the structure of these gatherings:
3–4 Hour Meeting/Meal
- Catechetical beginning—songs, prayers
- Breaking of bread
- Meal begins
- Informal elements
- Formal elements
- Passing of the cup
- Catechetical ending—song, prayers
Why was the meal critical? “It built the core identity of these meetings, a ritual embedded in the gathering every time they met. In addition, it created an atmosphere that was a reminder to everyone that the essence of their social structure was a household, and it made for a natural ordering of the churches around that social structure. That would become immediately apparent to a visitor as well, with the welcoming and natural home environment of the household and the meal.”
TEACHING AND PREACHING
In addition to the meal, teaching and preaching were essential features of these gatherings. “Teaching and preaching were also quite central to these small, simple meetings but took on an informal form with a strong dialogical component, which was more inviting to the inquiring mind and more effective as a catechetical tool than a more formal oratory form.”
Churches of the first century followed the model of Paul, who invested considerable time in preaching and teaching, employing a discussion-based style that encouraged everyone at these gatherings to participate. This open dialogue approach was a major factor in church growth and making the message of the Church relevant within the culture of the time.
What were the core understandings of preaching and teaching at these gatherings? Here are three
- “Teaching should have an every member aspect to it as the churches assemble, with each bringing something to contribute: a lesson, testimony, song, insight, etc.
- The leadership needs to work hard at guarding the assembly meeting, understanding the faith, and some to work hard at preaching and teaching.
- Skilled teachers, like Timothy, are essential in some form or another, to exercise their craft with great diligence in and amongst the assembly meetings.”
THE ROLE OF MUSIC
Songs, hymns, and spiritual songs were critical components of these Early Church gatherings. “Songs, hymns, and spiritual songs were the every-week forms of music that spontaneously grew out of the believers in those churches. They were significant vehicles for causing the Word to richly dwell in the lives of these small communities of faith, adding to the attraction of the watching world.” Reed explains how worship through music functioned as a form of theology that cultivated a sense of oneness and attracted outsiders.
The early churches had a very different type of understanding of the role of music. It was part of a one another ministry causing the Word to richly dwell in their assembly gatherings as part of a one another ministry. It brought a high degree of authenticity to their gatherings, reproducible in any assemblage, very attractive to visitors, and therefore ideally suited to the spontaneous expansion of the churches.
THE ORIGINAL CHURCH NETWORK
Why did the Early Church experience significant growth in its first 300 years? What can we glean from the wisdom of the Early Church to create similar networks today based on “the way of Christ and His Apostles” and fuel new church-planting movements in the post-Christian West?
Within the science of networks, Paul is considered – even among secular scientists – a master networker. To understand his methods, let’s look at the components or “links” within networks:
- Nodes, Small Worlds: Nodes (or small worlds) are the individual points in the network.
- Clusters, Modules: Small worlds group together, forming clusters or modules with similar characteristics.
- Hubs and Connectors: Hubs are highly connected small worlds, while connectors have an unusually large number of links and exist in diverse and complex systems.
- Hierarchies and Communities: These involve collections of small world clusters that multiply, creating a natural hierarchical structure resembling a web.
- Scale-Free Networks, Complex Networks: Scale-free networks are intricate webs with a robust and universal architecture, distinct from random patterns.
CITY-BASED CHURCHES, CLUSTERS, AND HUBS
To understand the remarkable network of the Early Church, it is crucial to recognize how it clustered around strategic cities. The Book of Acts provides an overview of the network’s structure, and the Epistles offer valuable qualitative insights as well. Among Paul’s missionary journeys, three strategic cities stand out:
- Antioch: Antioch was a central hub for the early churches. It was the starting point for Paul and Barnabas, who spread the Gospel to strategic cities and established local churches. These churches were entrusted to capable leaders, perpetuating the cycle of mission and discipleship.
- Ephesus: Ephesus became another significant hub in the Early Church network. Paul used Ephesus as a base for around two years, utilizing it to spread the Gospel. Numerous house churches were formed in cities surrounding Ephesus, indicating a well-organized network encompassing the entire city.
- Rome: Rome was very strategic to Paul, serving as the largest and most influential hub within the Roman Empire. In Paul’s writings, churches in Rome were addressed collectively as a unified entity. Rome was a great example of a city-based network cluster and is a great example of the intricate and extensive nature of the network.
THE COMPLEX NETWORK OF THE EARLY CHURCH
Reed argues that there is a significant link between the spontaneous growth of the Early Church and the weekly, simple gatherings of believers. “The architecture of the complex network of the early churches becomes increasingly clear at this point: small worlds (churches) to clusters (small city-based church networks) to hubs/connectors (strategic cities) to complex networks (apostolic leaders—sodality/modality, Jerusalem councils, publishing house, Paul‘s communication network, etc.). Let‘s look at each piece briefly.
- The Small World of Churches: The nodes in this network were the small, simple churches of the first 300 years. They shared common traditions, social structures, and meeting patterns, forming the core identity of believers. These churches were interconnected across the Empire, playing a pivotal role in the Church’s expansion.
- From Churches to Church Clusters: Small city-based church networks emerged, even in less strategic locations. These city-based clusters multiplied independently and spontaneously, forming a self-organizing network.
- From Church Clusters to Strategic Hubs: Strategic cities became network hubs, housing well-connected individuals. Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome played prominent roles in the early church network, with apostolic leaders and other key figures clustered around these hubs.
- From Strategic Hubs to Complex Apostolic Networks: The Apostle Paul and his team shaped the complex network. They fostered a sense of unity among the churches, established communication networks, and built common practices. This scale-free network flourished with a natural hierarchy of multiplying city-based clusters.”
Here is a visual of the complex network of the Early Church from the book:
So, what difference does learning about the Early Church’s success make for us today? Reed offers three essential tasks for church leaders and pastors to apply their learning:
- “Establish the churches correctly: solid DNA of “the way of Christ and His Apostles.”
- Invest in strategic hubs, shaping the churches, and building them into strong networks of churches, committed to serving the whole. And build a series of Pauline teams based among the strategic hubs, moving amongst the church clusters and across the network, respecting the sodality/modality balance of leadership.
- Design a complex network, including current and future apostolic leadership; shepherd the movement with network-wide communication; recognize leadership; write key papers, books, and letters to the network; and convene ‘Jerusalem councils’ as needed.”
If we do not take time to establish our churches solidly, seeing that the right DNA is embedded in each of the churches, we cannot expect the network to grow strong, let alone even be sustainable. If we do not develop leaders, we cannot expect the churches to be able to weather the problems Satan throws at them. If we do not build resource center hubs, in an efficient and strategic manner, we cannot expect to be able to service the churches. Yet the main reason in this [book] relates to the issue we began with, accelerating and preserving the spontaneous expansion. It is very clear that the model itself is key to the incredible progress of the gospel and the spontaneous multiplication of churches over the first 300 years of the Early Church. The churches were simple, yet designed to mature believers and be attractive to nonbelievers, creating an easy model for multiplication. The network structure is pliable, allowing for various parts of the system to evolve on their own, yet having enough leadership and authority to shape the network and movement as it expands. The network is self-organizing, yet shaped by the gifted leaders using the Word to stabilize the parts, correct the mutations, and give the entire network shape. What we see in Acts and the letters of the Apostles to the churches is a perfectly balanced, fine-tuned complex network that amazes scientists just discovering the reality of complex networks and trying to formulate the theory of complexity—that is, attempting to frame in the map of life. Why would we turn to any other way than “the way of Christ and His Apostles”?
If you’re interested in learning more about BILD International training resources for your church, contact Lauren Linz at email@example.com.
Chris Loux – Communications Director, CityChurch Network