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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A church without love is dead | Revelation 2:1-7 Sermon

We have seen many examples of churches over the last few years where not everything has been as it appears. How can abusers come from what seem to be very active churches? In this letter to the church in Ephesus, we see what is vital to the health of a church.

Enjoyed this sermon? See more on the sermons page.

Sermons are also available on the podcast.

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Church is not a private spiritual experience – 1 Corinthians 14:20-25 Sermon

Church is not about individuals having a private spiritual experience – it’s something much more important than that. But what does that mean for how we do church?

Enjoyed this sermon? See more on the sermons page.

Sermons are also available on the podcast.

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How to BE the church!

Is church (a) a building, (b) a service, (c) people? In this session we look at what church actually is, and how we can go about being the church. Being the church is more than simply going on a Sunday – it requires a whole change of our mindset.

The book I mentioned at the end is Devoted to God’s Church by Sinclair Ferguson.

Did you know – you can do the How to Live as a Christian course right here on the website!

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The Cross makes us family – John 19:17-27 Sermon

When we think about the cross, we often think about it in individual terms: “God forgives my sin”. But the cross has important implications for how we relate to others as well.

Note – unlike previous weeks, the video goes straight into the sermon and doesn’t start with the reading. If you’d like to read the passage online you can do so via Bible Gateway.

This is the second of a short, three-part series in the run-up to Easter looking at the passion narrative in John’s Gospel. Watch the previous one here.

Enjoyed this sermon? See more on the sermons page.

Sermons are also available on the podcast.

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Do you have to go to Church to be a Christian?

People often say that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. But this is a misunderstanding: church in the Bible is not something that you can actually go to.

This session is part of the Your Questions Answered series.

Key Points

  • Church is NOT…
    • A building. In the New Testament, a building is NEVER called a church.
    • A meeting. Again, in the New Testament, church is never called an event (like a service).
  • Church is always the people. A building or an event is only church inasmuch as it’s about the people.
  • In a sense, you can’t go to church. If you’re a Christian, you ARE church.
  • A lot of people seem to think of church like a social club, or something which we can dip in and out of. But actually we should see church like seeing our family.
  • When we come to Christ, God puts us in a family of believers. He gives us a whole new family. In fact, in Mark 3:31-35, Jesus says that anyone who does God’s will is in his family.
  • So asking “Can I be a Christian without going to church?” is like saying, “Can I be in a family without seeing my family?”
  • We need to change our mindset! Being a Christian means loving others, especially loving our church. It’s not about “going to church” – it’s about being with our families.

Explore further

There’s a whole session on church as part of the How to live as a Christian course.

You might also like Heidelberg session #21 on The Church.

Your questions answered

This is part of the Your questions answered feature. See that page for more videos in the series.

If you have a question about Christianity or the Bible, please send them in or comment below.

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“At” church vs “Being” Church

Yesterday I wrote on my personal blog about something I’ve been thinking about during lockdown: Being AT church is not BEING church. I think many churches focus on running lots of events rather than facilitating relationships. What’s happened during the lockdown is that this has been exposed.

Here’s how it begins:

Can you remember LBL – Life Before Lockdown? (It’s a new acronym, I hope it’ll catch on). It feels like life has changed so much in the past year, it’s hard to remember what it was like before. My days were full of activities and meetings – taking a look back in my diary brings back memories of having activities most days: groups, meetings, services, there was at least something on every day.

My life was in many ways centred around the church. The beating heart of this was the services, especially on a Sunday: in the morning I would go to two services (in our parish there are two church buildings, with a service at each one). Then there would be a service in the afternoon which I was at most weeks. Sometimes there would be an evening service. So each Sunday I was usually at church three times – even four, on occasion. That’s a whole lot of church!

So – what’s the problem with that?The problem is that I spent so long AT church that I forgot to BE church. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Do have a read if you’re interested. I am hoping to think more about this

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The Church and Forgiveness (Heidelberg 21)

In this session we take a closer look at the church – what is the church, and what does it mean for us to be part of it? We also think about forgiveness of sins and how struggling can be a good sign in the Christian life…

There are three questions in this session, focussing on the lines in the Apostles’ creed: “I believe in the Holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins”. These are the main things we look at:

  • Firstly – a note about the “Catholic” church. This just means ‘universal’ rather than the Roman Catholic church.
  • Q54: What do you believe concerning the holy catholic church? – what the church is, and what it means for us to be a member of it.
  • Q55: What do understand by the communion of saints? – how do we relate as Christians to other members of the church?
  • Q56: What do you believe concerning forgiveness of sins? – it feels a bit tacked on at the end but it’s fundamental! What is forgiveness in the Christian life, in summary?

If you enjoy this, you can do the whole series right here on the website, or on the app (see links on the right hand side of the page). Alternatively, I am uploading them regularly to YouTube and Facebook. All sessions on YouTube are available on this playlist.

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