Right from the beginning of the Christian movement Christians gathered together in homes for encouragement and spiritual growth (Acts 2:42-47, Hebrews 10:25). The scriptures called these gatherings “ekklesia’s” or house gatherings. They were never called churches in the original text because people were the church. The building was never thought of as a church.
Jesus even modeled the first ekklesia for us. It was the training of his 12 future leaders, and they met everywhere! But he started others as well, such as those in John chapter’s four and five. Jesus and his ekklesia ate together and became a spiritual family, which is exactly what he wants our gatherings to be today, meetings of the extended spiritual family. His ekklesia did not last forever, but only until the students were fully trained (Luke 6:40) and ready to go and start their own ekklesias.
What he did is exactly what he wanted us all to do, gather together a small group and train them up as disciples of Jesus through lifestyle, modelling and interaction, then send them out to start a new spiritual family, just as sons or daughters do today once they have grown up and matured.
Early church Ecclesia’s were modeled around the weekly Jewish Passover meal, with the bread and the cup of wine symbolizing the sacrifice of the cross (Luke 22:1-38, Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 11:17-26). It is no accident that this was the original model to follow as meal tables are the best place on the planet for discipline! At a meal people stop, interact closely, share their heart and are open to new ideas, and all the while enjoying themselves with a table full of food. It is a very agreeable experience.
Whichever way you decide to disciple people, try to include food, relationship, and the building of a spiritual family that sticks together, prays together, looks after each other and reaches out to others. Even before your friends come to Jesus you can begin the discipleship process simply by getting them over for a meal and a chat. Acts 2:42 is an excellent example of a city-wide network of ecclesia’s in action.
However, always remember that the ecclesia is the fruit of discipleship and not the root. Our modern system of church is the reversal of the early model. It creates church as an institution first, hoping to disciple people in an ad-hoc passive process. It has failed miserably as a model. Too many people fall through the cracks emotionally or leave via the back door soon after making a decision for Jesus. Discipleship through the ecclesia is a very different creature. It knows its purpose is to rise up disciples and sticks to that purpose.
For the first three hundred years the ecclesia was the only expression of community familiar to the early Christians (Romans 16:3). There were no church buildings, very few professional leaders among the believers and there was no intellectually based theological training. Leaders were servants who poured out their lives as a sacrifice for their flock, and often paid dearly for the privilege (2 Corinthians 11:22-12:10, 2 timothy 4:6). Good character and godliness in leadership was far more valuable than academic credentials (1Timothy 3:1-13). Groups were small and flexible, multiplying frequently. Because of these attributes, the ecclesia’s kept spreading and kept popping up in the most unlikely places (Philippians 4:21-22). The ekklesia’s were like the water of life (John 4:13) that spilt into the cracks of society and healed the wounds of a hurting world. This is why they multiplied. Anywhere a disciple went, he or she would simply start winning the lost, disciple them and begin a new ekklesia (Acts 8:1-8, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
However, this rapid growth, which threatened to bring the whole world into the kingdom of God, was sadly stopped by a master stroke of the Satan. In 312AD, Rome, under Emperor Constantine, officially declared Christianity to be the only legally allowable religion for the entire empire. Pagan temples were then cleared and turned into Christian temples and they called them “Churches”. Priests were put on the government payroll, and the ekklesia’s were banned. A now familiar order of service was concocted from a combination of Greek, Roman and Christian religious traditions. A deliberate and gaping division was created between professionals and the rest of the family of faith. True discipleship-based ekklesia’s gradually died out, numerical growth stopped, and “Christendom”, the kingdom of the church in partnership with the political elite, was born.
Christendom went on to dominate the social, religious and political life of Europe for the next 1,000 years. In the 1500’s Martin Luther was able to bring some people back to a faith-based Christianity, but he left the pagan church structure untouched. Only now is the body of Christ beginning to realize the precious nature of the ekkelsia that has been missing for 1,700 years. On a global level, most Christians are now in poorer or non-European countries that often legally restrict the public expression and growth of Christianity. It is no surprise that the simple ekklesia is once again thriving in most of these countries.
Researcher David Barrett, who edits the definitive “World Christian Encyclopedia”, says the simple ekklesia is now the normal expression of church for the majority of believers globally. The only part of the global Christian expression that is not embracing discipleship through ekklesia to any significant level is the western institutional church and its global offshoots. This will all change soon. Re-inventing the ekklesia as a vehicle for discipleship has taken the China’s church from 1 million in 1948 to 100 million today. It has taken the Iranian church from 500 in 1980 to around 500,000 today. It has gone from one person in India in 1993 to around 2 million today. It is the way of the future.