Introducing: Church with Understand the Bible

I have an exciting announcement about Understand the Bible! I am going to be starting a new feature here – ‘Church with Understand the Bible’. The basic idea is to give people a resource to help them start up a house church.

But before we get onto that, let me explain some of the background.

Church to meet the needs of the 21st Century

The world has changed rapidly in the last hundred years. The world is now more secular than ever before – most people don’t have even a rudimentary understanding of Christianity. Church is seen, at best, as an irrelevance to life – something which only particularly ‘religious’ people get involved with.

At the same time, people are also living more and more atomised lives. Social media has not made us more social but instead has driven us apart – we spend more time on our screens rather than with others face-to-face. As a result of this, and various other factors, young people are feeling more and more lonely.

Despite these challenges, I think many churches are still operating as if we were still in Christendom – in particular, assuming that most people have more knowledge of the gospel than they do. I do not believe this is going to be effective going forward – surely, the experience of the church through the last 20-30 years has demonstrated this. Dwindling numbers of young people would testify to the fact that what we are doing is not working.

I have come to believe that churches, rather than continuing to do what they’ve done for years with diminishing effect, need to intentionally refocus on two key areas:

  1. Discipleship. That is, helping people make the journey all the way from knowing nothing about Christianity to living for Christ every day. Practically speaking, this means a revival of catechesis (see why Sinclair Ferguson says this is important) as well as the traditional sermon. We need to take people deeper in the faith than we have been doing.
  2. Relationship. I wrote a while back that being at church was not the same as being church. Church, fundamentally, is not a building or event but people – specifically, people loving one another. This is our witness to the world. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). This, more than anything else, is what will demonstrate the reality of God to a watching world – the reality of the love Christians have for one another. Francis Schaeffer once commented on these verses, “the final apologetic which Jesus gave is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians”.

It has become more and more clear to me recently that it’s not going to be easy to implement these changes in traditional churches. Churches – as with many institutions – are like oil tankers: it takes a long time to turn them round. Once people start to think “we’ve always done it this way…”, it’s very difficult to persuade them otherwise.

Plus, unfortunately, churches are often so busy running events and doing their regular activities that the fundamentals get squeezed out. Many churches have so bought into seeing church as an event that it’s hard to row back and see the bigger picture. Churches are rushing about doing stuff, when what is needed right now is to stop and refocus.

All this is why I took the difficult decision recently to leave the church I have been with for nine years and start a house church. I believe that we needed the space to ‘reboot’, to focus back in on what is essential and rebuild church from the ground up.

Is church at home real church?

It’s important to deal with the question of whether church at home is real church. Many of us have been so used to going to a church building for church that it’s almost impossible to imagine anything different. I have been challenged on this recently by a friend of mine who started a house church a few years ago. He said to me that if you read the New Testament, it was very common for Jesus and the Apostles to teach in a house. In fact, virtually every church in the early days of the church would have been a house church. For example, Paul says:

The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.

1 Corinthians 16:19

Obviously, in those days there were no church buildings – apart from public places, there was no other place for the church to meet. It seems to me that, if we are to be truly Biblical, we need to recognise a ‘house church’ as at least as Biblical as churches we have become used to. Possibly even more so.

But is that valid, according to the definition of a church given by traditional denominations? This is how the Church of England defines a church:

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

39 Articles, Article XIX

In other words, there are two things necessary for a church to be a church: (1) the pure Word of God – the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures; (2) the Sacraments – baptism and communion. Those two things can be present anywhere – in a home, or a traditional church building. Notably, it doesn’t mention anything about priests, bishops, church buildings, and the like. That’s not to say that bishops etc are a bad thing, but rather they are not essential for church.

The practical need for house churches

Quite apart from the theological case, there is a more pragmatic, practical case for house churches. Over the last few years, a number of people have got in touch with me to say that they’d love to start going to church but there are no suitable churches in their area. Unfortunately many churches have fallen into liberalism, and you are more likely to hear a sermon about climate change or Black Lives Matter than you are about Jesus. But even if every church remained faithful, there is simply not enough space in church buildings for everyone.

Let’s take the town where I live as an example. There are about 53,000 people living here. There are approximately ten churches across the town. If 25% of the people of the town wanted to go to church, that would be 13,250 people. If you distributed them evenly across every church, you’d have to have 1,325 people in every building! That would be absurd – there are simply no church buildings big enough. That’s not to mention other factors such as parking and facilities: some parts of town are further away from church buildings than others – they seem to have clustered around the town centre.

I, along with many other people, have been praying for revival in the UK – for God to bring many people to faith. If he is pleased to bless us with spiritual renewal, then we are going to have to face the fact that that will not happen in traditional church buildings: there simply isn’t enough space. Not right at the moment, anyway.

There are other issues, for example the fact that we don’t have enough theologically trained leaders to go round. Many churches are struggling to fill vacancies.

What I believe we need to do is – as I argued a few years ago – make smarter use of the internet. That’s where Understand the Bible comes in.

Church with Understand the Bible

My plan is to publish a weekly service outline which could be used and adapted by a house church. I will provide the sermon in video format, and probably also a short catechesis video. I would then publish here on the website the videos along with some suggestions for songs and prayers and so on. I am also planning to publish other resources, e.g. a downloadable service sheet with elements such as creed, confession and so on.

The idea is that the service could be used and adapted by anyone even if they had no theological training. Because the Biblical input would come from Understand the Bible, everything else would be doable. However, I hope that churches would grow in maturity and eventually God would raise up local leaders who were not dependent on Understand the Bible.

I have previously talked about how it’s not possible to be a Christian without going to church. But, as we have seen, a house church is proper church. Church with Understand the Bible isn’t a replacement for proper church – it’s designed to enable it.

I hope that this resource will help people to have the confidence to get together with some friends and start worshipping God together. Church shouldn’t be complicated, and I hope that refocussing us on the essentials of church will help bring about a spiritual renewal across the country.

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