The impact of New Testament House Groups
Acts 2:42-47 – The Fellowship of the Believers
Some of the best Christian discussions happen in kitchens. Where food is shared, life is shared. The Jews of Christ’s time understood this. Their religious feasts were a combination of worship, food and fellowship. And this tradition continued into the early church. Scripture says the first Christians “ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46). This happened after 3000 people became Christians on the day of Pentecost (41). Now there’s a thought. Where do you take 3000 for a bite in Jerusalem? For that matter, where did 3000 gather for worship? The temple was used initially, but you can bet the Jewish authorities wouldn’t have allowed that for long. The answer is not hard to find – the first believers met in homes. That’s right, 3000 believers gathered in multiple houses across the city. The early church was a house group movement.
We get an interesting window into one of these house groups in Acts 12:11-17. Peter has a miraculous escape from prison. The angel that rescues him leaves him standing alone on street in down town Jerusalem. So he heads for the closest Christian home he knows – the house Mark’s mother where a Christian meeting is in progress. He knocks at the outer entrance and a servant called Rhoda runs to the door. She recognizes his voice and is so excited that she runs back to tell the gathered believers without opening the door. Her strange behaviour and the assumption that Peter had to be in prison led them to think she had lost her mind. But eventually they check and find Peter is still banging on the door. You can only imagine the look on Rhoda’s face when everyone discovers she was in her right mind after all. Peter then tells them about his miraculous release and asks them to pass the news on to James and the apostles who were not at this particular gathering. Then he heads off into the night to another place. I can only imagine he wanted to get as far from the city centre as he could.
Now it’s interesting that James and the other apostles were not at this gathering and that the people there knew where they could be found. I imagine that this was just one of the many Christian house gatherings in the city and that Peter had simply popped in at the closest one on his escape.
But there are numerous examples of house gatherings in the New Testament. And not just in Jerusalem but in other cities dotted around the Roman Empire. The tent making couple Aquila and Priscilla had a house gathering in Rome (Ro 16:5). We will hear about them in a moment. Lydia the purple cloth dealer had a house gathering in Philippi (Ac 16:40). Nympha had a house gathering in Laodicea (Col 4:15). Even Jesus used houses for religious gatherings. When he healed the paralysed man that was let down through the roof he was at Peter’s house in Capernaum. Peter’s house remained a Christian meeting place years after Jesus ascended to heaven.
We can safely say that the early church was grown and established in house groups. Did this impact its development? You bet it did! It was the perfect environment for strong relationships. Close relationships require small groups where individuals can be known and not become a mere statistic.
The feel we get from the Acts 2:42-47 description of early Christian fellowship is not that of a 3000 strong mega-church, but a cosy house fellowship. This is healthy, and there is much we can learn from it. We all know the problem with large church meetings where 500 or more people gather – very few people make friends, they get lost in the crowd and no one knows they came or went. If you recognize someone you give them a distant wave of the hand, and if you say ‘Hi, how are you?’ you get the superficial ‘I’m blessed brother.’ The only way a large church can have genuine intimacy is to have effective small groups in people’s homes.
Like the Jerusalem church the church in Rome was probably quite large, but it all reports of it indicate that it enjoyed a high degree of intimacy. In Paul’s Romans 16:3-16 greeting list he mentions 27 people in the Roman congregation and comments on each one. He knew these people well, and going by his comments, they all knew each other well too. Again the feel is not that of a mega-church but an intimate house group. And as mentioned above, we don’t have to look far to find a mention of one of their house groups because Paul tells his friends there to greet those who gather in the home of Priscilla and Aquila (Ro 16:5).
We should not underestimate the affect of small groups. Bigger isn’t better when relationships are important. Jesus chose twelve disciples and turned them into the kind of men that would spark an empire wide revolution. Much of his time with his disciples was spent in homes and around tables. He knew that quality requires intimacy.
If you are looking for a new church I strongly advise you to join a church that has an effective house group system. John Wimber the founder of the word-wide Vineyard movement said “People come to church for many reasons, but they stay for one – relationships.” In other words you won’t stay at the church that has the best preaching or the best music, you will stay at the church where you make the most friends.
Let me finish with a challenge. Paul was able to name 27 people in the Roman congregation. How many people can you name in your church? If you have been in a church for a year you should be able to name at least 30 people. If you can’t you are not integrating properly. Church isn’t about a one hour ritual on Sundays, it’s about being part of a community. You cannot embrace God without embracing his people. God is a God of relationship, and his people are to be too.