If you haven’t read parts 1 and 2 of this series, take some time to do so now. The questions and comments on the first two posts are fantastic, too.
In this post I’ll be looking at mid-sized communities from a historical point of view.
(FYI, I am assuming you understand what “missional” means, and why it’s important. If not, contact me and I can recommend some resources to get you up to speed. Mid-sized communities are essentially ways of infusing mission more naturally into our church structures.)
Because of the social shifts mentioned in the previous post, the Western church is being pushed further and further toward the margins of society, away from the central place of influence and power that it had occupied for over 1,500 years. In many ways, this puts the Western church on very similar footing to that of the early church. They were a marginal, misunderstood movement that was actively persecuted at various times, and yet somehow they managed to thrive. In fact, the results of the early Christian movement are stunning, growing from perhaps 1,000 people in 40 AD to perhaps 33 million (over half the Roman Empire!) just 250 years later. How did they do that?
By organizing themselves as a decentralized movement of missional mid-sized communities.
(For those concerned, this isn’t to set aside the vital role of the Holy Spirit in all this. It’s actually vital that leaders of and people in mid-sized communites are discipled in a way that teaches them to walk in the Spirit. Nothing ever happens without the Spirit. I am simply saying that from a historical/sociological standpoint, we stand to learn a lot from carefully observing how the early church structured their movement.)
The early church gathered in what the New Testament calls oikos, which means household. But an oikos wouldn’t only include one’s immediate family. It also included extended family, business relationships, slaves, and friends. The oikos was the major social structure of Rome, and the early Christians did a brilliant job of using it as the major social structure for the church. The relational pathways of oikos were the primary ways that new people came to faith in Jesus.
JWC Wand describes the way an oikos church worked: “The church in a particular house would include the members of the family, the slaves and dependents, together with other Christians situated conveniently near.” They essentially created spiritual households, which were highly relational communities that showed people what it meant to follow Jesus in a very practical way. These communities were larger than the typical “house church” today, which made them more accessible and less intimidating than a smaller group would be.
While I am wary of holding up the early church as some kind of “ideal” time in church history (reading 1 Corinthians will cure you of that!), because the context is so similar to what we are beginning to see today, and because of the astonishing fruit of the early Christian movement, I think we have a lot to learn from how they organized themselves.
This is a blog post, not an academic article, so I am speaking very broadly about these things. If you want to investigate further, I’d recommend starting with Rodney Stark’s remarkable book The Rise of Christianity.
Questions? Comments? Implications?
Next post –> Oikos in the Bible