Who doesn’t like getting together for a fun dinner with friends and sharing about life? What’s not to love about having deep conversations about spiritual truths with those close to you?
Those things are great and we should do more of them, but—I’m sorry to break this to you—they aren’t church.
Increasingly, I see younger evangelicals (like the one in this Relevant blog post) wondering if they can call their spiritual hang outs with friends a congregation. They are exploring the question: What is church?
That is a worthwhile question and we can affirm various styles of doing church. A different methodology does not automatically mean heretical ecclesiology.
In Asia, house churches are exploding. In America, megachurches and multisite congregations are seeing the most growth. There are positives and negatives about each model, but we can see ways in which each of those can be healthy, biblical churches.
Too many, however, are not driven by a desire to be a part of a biblical church of any model. They simply want an excuse to claim their discussions over dinner as church.
Here are five ways these gatherings of friends fall short of what it means to be the church.
1. They only capture part of the church.
This line of thinking reduces all it means to be a church to one or two functions. At most, it includes sharing biblical doctrine and forming community.
Those are two vital aspects of what it means to be a church, but other parts are required before a gathering of believers becomes the gathering of believers as the church.
Before it could be called a church, there would need to be some practice of ordinances, biblical roles of leadership, evangelism, and discipleship among other things.
2. They raise questions of self-centeredness.
When someone desires to break away from being an active part of a local church and instead wants to substitute a gathering of friends in its place, the question to consider is not “Can we?” but rather “Why would we?”
It’s a matter of motivation. If you and your friends feel called to plant a biblical church in your home that reaches the surrounding community, then perhaps God will use your group that way.
But here is where you need to pray and examine your heart. Because if, on the other hand, you are more driven by personal preferences, a desire to be the one calling the shots, tired of being around others, or a host of self-centered reasons, you need to get back involved in a local church as soon as possible.
3. They open our hearts to heresy.
Recent history is replete with dangerous warnings of what happens to those who leave and downplay the necessity of gathering as a local church.
Different aged and different culture Christians are much less likely to be tempted in the same way. A multigenerational, multicultural gathering can serve as a spotlight for temptations more common in specific groups.
When you serve beside those different from you in the church, they can help illuminate blind spots in your life and protect you from drifting into heresy. We help each other.
4. They prevent us from growing as we should.
You and I need other people to be the church. We need other people who aren’t like us to be the church. We need other people who aren’t like us to help us become more like Christ. And part of that process is the natural spiritual sanding that results from this type of gathering.
Other people who are in different life stages than us, have different personalities than us, come from different backgrounds than us, not only protect us from heresy, they help chip away and sand off our self-centered traits.
When we only gather with friends and those like us, we remove much of the way God uses others in the body to refine us.
At its heart, its a lack of humility. The desire to be only with those like yourself assumes that only they can teach you and help you grow. It dismisses the contributions others can (and would) make in your sanctification.
5. They rob us of places of service.
We miss out on so much when we remove ourselves from a local body of believers gathered together as the church. How do you express your spiritual gifts or engage consistently in service?
There are so many avenues for growth and service that can never be yours if you exchange being a part of a church with hanging out with friends.
The church comes together to serve one another using the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has given us and goes out to serve others using the equipping of the saints the church provides for us.
Much like the oxymoron of an “inactive church member,” substituting gathering with friends for church steals so many of the joys and blessings, even if they are unseen, that come from being a part of the local church.
Will you be hurt within the church? Absolutely, but who is to stay Christ will not use that to conform you to His image? In fact, He’s already promised to do so.
I understand the desire to feel connected to God with other people like you, but that’s why churches have small groups and God provides us with friends.
Jesus has promised to be in the midst of even two or three gathered in His name, but He has not called that the church.
If you are gathering with a group of friends to talk about life and the Scriptures, don’t stop. But don’t confuse it with church either.
You and your group should seek to build up the bride of Christ, not try to replace her.