Why should I be part of the institutional church? I'm convinced that the modern church has completely lost its way. As a result I've embarked on a personal quest to rediscover the pure, original Christianity of the New Testament era. I recently left the church and started a small discipleship group in my home. It seems to me that the early church consisted almost entirely of small, simple house-based congregations. Nowhere do I find Jesus or the apostles telling their followers to build buildings, form committees, plan budgets, or set up organizations. Most of my Christian friends think I'm crazy. They say it's dangerous to break with the organized church. What do you think?
We have mixed feelings. On the one hand, we admire your zeal for rediscovering New Testament Christianity. That's the spirit that has fired revival and fueled reformation in every era of church history. It's wonderful that you're putting legs to your convictions and taking steps to translate your ideas into action. Some of the best things in Christendom have come out of small discipleship groups like the one you've started in your home. Christian brothers and sisters down through the ages have been animated by a similar passion for getting back to basics – people like Tertullian and Augustine, Francis of Assisi and John Hus, Loyola and Luther, Bunyan and Newton. It's good to know that the flame of the Holy Spirit is burning as brightly as ever. Without it, the light of the Gospel would have gone out long ago. In that case, we'd be left with nothing but the remains of a dead, cold religiosity.
On the other hand, we think your attitude toward the so-called "institutional" or "organized" church needs some re-tooling. Your heart is in the right place. But history suggests that your idealism may be a bit unrealistic. It's fine to say that Jesus and the apostles never envisioned anything beyond simple house churches. As we've already said, house churches can be a good thing. But experience has demonstrated time and time again that house churches, once established, can only develop in one of two directions. Either they shrivel and die or they thrive and grow. If they grow, they eventually reach the point where some kind of "organization" becomes essential to survival. Without it chaos ensues.
The real choice, then, is not between "New Testament house churches" and "institutional churches." It's between "organized" and "disorganized" churches. And where organization is concerned, the apostle Paul had something very clear to say: "Let all things be done decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14:40). We gain nothing by allowing anarchy to reign in the Body of Christ.
Here, then, is what we would suggest. Keep fanning the flames of your devotion. Maintain your small group fellowship. At the same time, make sure you have one foot solidly planted in the world of the orthodox "institutional" church. Place your discipleship group under the umbrella of a larger congregation. Find ways to stay accountable to its leadership. By taking advantage of the church's accumulated wisdom and centuries-long experience, you'll be able to keep your faith fresh while simultaneously avoiding some of the pitfalls that have destroyed so many well-intentioned "offshoot" Christian movements in the past.
If you'd like to talk this over at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.
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What Every Christian Ought to Know Day by Day: Essential Truths for Growing Your Faith
Christian Research Institute