The theory that almost everyone I meet (that is, those who know about churches) believe is that churches cannot exist without Sunday services. Even if it does exist, it will not succeed. It will fail eventually. It must have Sunday services, and, together with it, all other programs that make up a church, in order to flourish and grow. Who would go to a church without Sunday services? Will you even call it a “church?” People will always ask, “Where is your church?” which means, “Where do you hold Sunday services?” People will always look for Sunday services before they can even feel like “they went to church.” Remember how you felt when you were not able to “go to church?”
Of course, it’s not just Sunday services that we’re looking for. There has to be a resident pastor, too, someone who has the experience and the expertise to run the “church.” He (or she) must be seminary-trained as much as possible, or else that church would be highly suspect. It would be good if there is more than one pastor. It would be called a “multi-staff” church, and it will most likely become more successful than a church with only one pastor. You will then have a senior pastor and other pastors who can handle various kinds of ministries (e.g. a youth pastor, an administrative pastor, a singles pastor, etc.). If it has these ministries or programs, and thousands of people are attending, then we will call it a “mega church,” which is what a “real” church is all about, as some people will argue. Churches with these kinds of structures and set-ups are called “real” and all other models are not real. Even if they do exist, they will not last long. Simple or smaller churches will not succeed. So goes the theory.
I beg to disagree.
A simple inductive Bible study of the word “church” in the Bible will show that this theory is wrong. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus talks about the church with no reference at all to its structure. What is important is just its foundation, the belief that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus instructs His disciples how to disciple one another as a church, and he adds that where two or more are gathered in His name, they are in fact a “church. In Acts 5:11, the word “church” is applied to all the believers who were scattered in Jerusalem. This is similar to Acts 8 and 9, where the word “church” is just applied to believers wherever they are, without any reference to where they meet or how they meet. In Acts 11, the word “church” is applied to believers in certain locations, but again there is no reference to a service. They gathered to learn together, but there was no “service.” There are many others instances in the Book of Acts where the word “church” simply refers to believers who were either gathered or scattered. Having a worship service is really just a modern idea.
In the epistles, for example in Romans 16:1-5, the word “church” is applied to believers who met in homes. In First Corinthians, the word “church” is used to refer to all Christians in Corinth, regardless of where they are or how they meet. Their meetings, in fact, are quite different from our “worship services” today (see 1 Cor 14:26 for example). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul uses the word “church” in a generic sense, not limiting it to those who are actually gathered. He does the same thing in his letters to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. He uses the term to refer to the body of believers scattered in different places. But in Colossians he applies the word “church” to a group that meets in a house (Col 4:15). He did this again in Philemon 1:2. So all in all (and we have not really covered the other epistles or even the whole Bible) the word “church” has nothing to do with worship services or programs at all. It has to do with the people of God wherever they are, whether they are gathered or scattered, for as long as they are identified with Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.
Historically, this is also true. Buildings called “cathedrals” did not exist prior to the 313 AD. So for the first three hundred years, the “church” existed without worship services. Down through the centuries, communities of faith existed without formal programs. Even today there are churches in many parts of the world that do not have large buildings or worship centers. Many churches in China don’t even have pastors! The House Church Movement today continues to expand side by side with mega churches in many parts of the world. In other words, there is nothing in Scripture nor in history that proves that churches cannot exist without Sunday services. In fact, if we’re just open to the idea, churches can even thrive and flourish even though they don’t have worship services!
So does that mean that worship services are wrong? Of course not! Does it mean that church programs are wrong? My goodness, no! Then what’s the point? The point is this: these are not essential to what it means to be a church! A church can exist without them. There’s nothing wrong with being part of a church that is simple and not complicated. There’s nothing wrong with NOT having a worship service every Sunday. You can attend one, and it’s not wrong. But if you don’t attend one, it’s not wrong either! Just because your church is simple (for example, it does not have an ordained pastor or it doesn’t have multiple programs), it does not mean it’s not a real church! It can still grow and flourish! The Scriptures and history itself testify to that. God’s purpose for His people can still be fulfilled. In other words, let us stop thinking or saying that if a church is simple, then it’s not real, or there is something missing, or it’s not enough, etc. We are simply arguing this based on experience, tradition and culture. But when we look at the Scriptures and history, our arguments fall short!
Bottom line? I believe churches can exist even though it does not have weekly Sunday services or programs. I believe a real church can exist even though it doesn’t have an ordained, seminary-trained pastor. I believe a simple church can exist simply and productively, even though it does not have multiple staff. A church does not need a building or a worship center. All those things that we say are “needed” — even though there is nothing wrong with any of them or all of them — are actually not essential to what it means to be the church. A church can be simple, and it can be real at the same time. This is the reason why I am passionate about planting simple churches! Would you join me?