What is Simple Church?
To be honest, the first time I heard the term simple church I recoiled from it as though one were suggesting we turn God’s idea of His ecclesia into something more “simplistic” to satisfy our own ends. However, this is not the intent at all.
If I spoke of simplifying my life, I would be referring to a desire to get back to basics or, better yet, a resolve to return to a more holistic, authentic lifestyle. I would be suggesting that I have unnecessarily complicated my life in some way and want to rid myself of the superfluous clutter I’ve somehow accumulated.
It is in this way that I use the phrase “simple church”. Yes, it is an expression with limitations; as is any term we place in front of the word “church”. However, it is helpful in capturing our desire to return to the simplicity and purity of the organic, relational, missional church we read about in the New Testament.
And thus, it also implies the need to shed the complexities and clutter we’ve added to the concept of church; acknowledging that there are more than a few sacred cows that need to be turned into juicy hamburgers.
Continue reading as we unpack this thought further, offer a working definition for the phrase “simple church”, suggest some valid synonyms and explain why “simple church” captures our desire to return to a Biblical, Kingdom way of life.
So, what is simple church?
This is a very good question since adding a descriptive word before the word “church” has serious limitations. Definitions that help us now may hinder us later. Why? By nature, we tend to box things or settle for helpful formulae. The problem is, of course, that somewhere along the way we start to put our focus on the formula rather than on God. And often we only realise that we’ve crossed the line when it’s too late. (Of course, it’s never too late in the mercy of God. However, the time and energy spent in breaking old forms and the insidious dependencies they foment is exhausting and often leaves casualties along the way).
Having mentioned this caution, I concede that definitions are important and unavoidable. The wisdom writer declared, “the path of the just is like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18). We can dream of a time when one day “church” means to everyone what it ought to, but until that day we’ll have to reluctantly use some workable definitions. And by workable, I mean definitions that we hold lightly enough so that we keep the dialogue open as we pursue a deeper understanding of God’s intention for His ecclesia. (Please see the article entitled, What does ecclesia mean?).
For this reason, we use the following terms interchangeably in the hope that we avoid the box: simple church, organic church, missional church, relational church, redeemed communities, Kingdom communities, home church, house church, etc. (Do you want to add a few of your own?) None of these terms by themselves are sufficient and all of them have their limitations. However, together they’re helpful and workable … for now.
Again, the question is: what is simple church?
Perhaps the best place to start then in answering this question is to clarify that we are not referring to a new methodology or structure. We’re not talking about re-arranging the furniture of the church—and I mean this both metaphorically and literally. Some seem to feel we’ve gone far enough by bringing some innovation into our church experience … so in come comfortable couches, multimedia presentations and interactive sermons. While any change is refreshing, we’re convinced more is required. We’re looking for transformation not just innovation, even though innovation can often be the first steps towards transformation.
Thus, simple church is not a new way of doing small groups; it’s not merely an adaptation of the cell group model or an improvement of the G12 strategy. We’re referring to a new way of life, not a hip new method. We’re pursuing a communal, missional lifestyle, not a revamped schedule of meetings.
Then what is it? Come on, spit it out…
By simple church we refer to a values-based approach to being a Kingdom-shaped church; viewing church essentially as organic, relational, missional and fluid rather than institutional, hierarchical, attractional and rigid; a Kingdom family rather than a business enterprise or religious organisation. And thus, while every simple church certainly won’t look the same, we’re all whistling the same tune.
For us the main thing is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20); that is, being about our Father’s Kingdom business, and doing so in a no-nonsense commitment to the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-39). Fuelled and informed by the love of God, our hearts desire is to make disciple-makers; followers of Christ who in turn make disciple-makers (who in turn make disciple-makers who…), multiplying the life of God. In other words, simple church communities are alive, in love and on mission together.
And there’s no better Biblical passage that captures the heart behind simple church than Paul’s passionate plea in 2 Corinthians 11:3:
But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”
And we’re convinced that God’s chosen “vehicle” through which His life multiplies is a reproducible missional community; a spiritual family that finds its covenant and communal life revolving around their homes and places of influence. As we demonstrate the Gospel of the Kingdom—alive, in love and on mission, cooperating with the Lord of the Harvest—our communal life becomes the launch pad for Kingdom exploits: whether this is into a specific neighbourhood, niche of society or another nation of the world.
We’re often asked if we’re the “house church” people. The honest answer is … no!
While we’re fully persuaded that communal life 24/7 week-in-week-out is the meat and potatoes of a Biblical church experience, we’re certainly not saying that transferring a weekly meeting from a building on the street corner to a lounge room somewhere is the whole ballgame. This is not a case of “Honey, I shrunk the church“.
Shrink wrapping “big church” into “small church” will not change the world and, in our experience, can easily lead either to an ingrown group of “us-four-and-no-more” or, when hurting people leave “big church” to find salvation in “small church”, many eventually settle for “no church”. To be clear, the answer is not found in bringing all the problems of “big church” to a living room near you.
Yet true community is the result of believers who fan their passion for the King and His Kingdom come into full flame. Engaged with Christ and His mission, fellowship is the wonderful by-product of a community in love with their God and one another, and who are thrilled to be a part of His work in their world. Discipleship becomes a vital ingredient in the recipe and releasing one another to begin new Kingdom communities is not only expected but celebrated.
If we’re not the “house church” people, then what are we?
I’d like to think that we’re simply “followers of Jesus” or Kingdom people … or as the early believers were called, those “of the Way” (Acts 9:2). The first century believers had found a new Way to live centred on Christ and His mission. We’re pressing out for no less than this.
Do we really need any other designation than that?