“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Acts 20:28
A further step
The place to begin in shepherding is with the existing ministries of the church. Here leaders are in place, relationships are already forged, and opportunities for more effective pastoral care and discipleship are ready to hand. Through planning, training, and a gradual approach, local church leaders should be able to erect a structure for shepherding throughout all the existing ministries which presently serve the needs of the church.
However, shepherding through existing ministries alone will not be sufficient to provide a “blanket” of shepherding for all the people of the church. For that to be in place a further step is required.
Church at two levels
One of the clear aspects of New Testament church structure is that churches were organized at two levels. At the most obvious level was the church in the community – Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, and so forth. The church at this level consisted of all the believers in the particular community, who were recognized as “members” of the Body of Christ and called to be in submission to those appointed as shepherds over them (1 Cor. 16:15, 15; 1 Thess. 5:12, 13; Heb. 13:17). The shepherds, in turn, were charged with the duty of caring for the church God had established in that city, as overseers, watching over the flocks, presumably, according to the shepherding example of Christ and the Apostles.
At this level the community of believers met for worship, for instruction in apostolic teaching, to consider matters of urgent concern to the local or worldwide church, for fellowship and sharing, to carry out church discipline, and for the election of officers. Prior to the middle of the third century, most of these city-wide churches met in rented facilities or in the made-over residences of affluent church members. There were few church buildings before that time. In these settings the letters from Peter, Paul, and John – as well as the rest of the Scriptures – would have been read and explained.
In addition to these city-wide churches another level of church appears to have existed during this period. This consisted of “churches” organized within the community church within the homes of members of the larger body. In the New Testament we read about pastors and elders ministering “house-to house” (Acts 2:46; 20:20). Paul’s reference to “households” (ESV: “families”) in Titus 1:11 probably refers to these smaller, perhaps “neighborhood” churches, organized within the larger community congregation as true churches within the larger church – just as community churches were understood to be true churches within the larger, universal Church.
In these smaller settings the members of the larger body of believers would have been able to exercise meaningful accountability and encouragement toward one another (Heb. 10:24, 25). They would have had a local platform for evangelism and sharing with their neighbors. A smaller arrangement such as this would have made it more difficult for heresy to capture an entire church, or for persecution to destroy it. The exercise of church discipline, when necessary, would have been more personal, private, and effective. Worship, as we know from Pliny, was often a daily activity in these “house churches,” whereas in the larger community church worship seems to have involved a weekly meeting only.
Churches, not small groups
It is important to note that these smaller, neighborhood groups were not simply “small groups.” They were churches. They enjoyed all the privileges and shared all the responsibilities of the city-wide congregation, but at a level appropriate to their size and membership. As churches they conducted worship, would have been organized under the oversight of shepherds, and taken their place in the larger mission of the community and worldwide church. These house churches would have been eminently manageable in size, since only the largest of these, such as the one excavated at Dura-Europa, could only accommodate 30-35 people.
This “large group/small group” structure made it possible for shepherds to carry out their work so that every member of the church could be accounted for and equipped for the work of ministry. Unfettered by concerns of fixed property and budgets, these churches could move easily and re-organize as needed whenever persecution or other exigency required (cf. Acts 8, 11). The frequent meetings of these house churches would have kept up a continuous witness in the neighborhoods of the larger community. Members would have been more concerned about seeing their neighbors come to faith in Christ. The shepherds who watched over these house churches also shared in the oversight of the city-wide congregation (cf. 1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15, 26). They were charged with the oversight of the flock and with developing the future leaders the church would need as one generation gave way to the next (2 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 2:3-5).
Merely an expedient?
One might argue that this “publicly and house-to-house” arrangement was merely an expedient, given the circumstances of the early church, and that we are free to discard or alter this structure in our own day. Indeed, almost every church in this country has taken precisely this tack in organizing its congregation for life and ministry.
However, if we choose to reject this clear New Testament pattern, and to replace it with a form or arrangement which mirrors the organizational and programming practices of agencies and entities beyond the pale of the Christian community, then it is not unreasonable to expect that such a step should have a clear Biblical basis undergirding it. Since building and growing a church is a good work, and Scripture is sufficient for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-17), we must expect those who reject a clear Scriptural example to prefer one drawn from the ways of the world to provide good Biblical reasons for so doing.
Churches today are not structured according to this Biblical model; they are set up and managed according to models and practices imported from the worlds of business, education, entertainment, community planning, and the military. But these models have only “succeeded” in allowing churches to remain intact as marginally-spiritual communities which are drifting ever more firmly onto the social and cultural margins of American society.
It is reasonable to expect that a good faith effort on the part of church leaders to recover some of the dynamic of the structure and form of the early churches might be a means of bringing new vigor and power into our churches to enhance the work of ministry and the progress of the Kingdom of God. For such a structure lends itself most agreeably to the work of shepherding as Jesus defined it and the Apostles practiced it during the period of the New Testament.
But how can a church establish such a “house-to-house” structure for shepherding?
Vision, planning, resolve, patience, and sensitivity to others are crucial in taking such a step. Incorporating a “house-to-house” structure within the framework of an existing church is not easy. Leaders can founder at the very beginning unless they carefully define the nature of the structure they intend to implement and are unified in how they intend to approach such implementation.
The goal is not to subvert or replace the existing “culture” of the local church. Rather, the goal is to erect within that culture some “new bones” for the sagging body of Christ – new and more local connections for disciple-making, evangelism, and pastoral care which can both strengthen and enlarge the larger congregation and complement the existing ministry structure and culture.
How we may proceed to implement such a structure will be the topic of our final installment in this series.
Next steps: Why do churches today not make use of this “house church” structure? What’s the basis for choosing not to follow the example of the New Testament? Ask some of your church leaders.
For more insight to this important topic, get the book, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church, by Timothy Witmer, from our online store. You might also read the article, “To Shepherd or to Manage?” by T. M. Moore.