One Church's Attempt To Obey God's WordBy Brian Anderson
What would it be like for a church to take seriously its conviction that it must derive its practices solely from the Bible? In some ways the members of Milpitas Bible Fellowship (MBF), a small, non-denominational Bible church located in Milpitas, California, have found the answer to that question. For several years the members of MBF have sought to live by the motto "committed to understanding and obeying God's Word." Their willingness to live out this motto has been severely tested since the fall of 1995. From that time onward, the church discovered in response to serious study of the Scriptures, several truths in God's Word that they were not implementing. Instead, they were simply following traditions which had been handed down from generation to generation without ever questioning them. Making changes is never easy, especially when it comes to changing the very core structure of a church. The changes that needed to be made were in four specific areas:
- the childrens' participation in the Sunday services,
- the observance of the Lord's Supper,
- the creation of "house churches", and
- the nature of the Sunday morning service.
As the people of MBF gained fresh insight into these four areas of church life and responded in obedience they found it to be a scary new journey . As a result, however, this small body of believers has experienced many important and positive effects in the life of their church.
1. Children's Participation in Sunday Services
The first Biblical discovery came in relation to the place of the children in the Sunday morning services. For many years the practice had been to have the children leave the meeting after the worship singing to go to a class with other children their own age while an elder gave a sermon to the adults in the main auditorium. This program had worked fairly well over the years and was never really questioned until the elders of MBF began to study the place of children in the religious gatherings of Israel and the early Christian church. The issue centered around whether there was any Biblical basis for the practice that MBF had adopted for many years of segregating the children from their parents in a different location while their parents were being taught God's Word. After doing an exhaustive study of every Biblical passage where the words "children", "little one", "son" or "daughter" appeared, the elders were amazed to discover that there was not a shred of Biblical evidence for the idea of separating the children from the adults. In contrast, however, the elders found example after example in the Scriptures of the people of God including their children with them when they met to worship God and hear His Word (Deut. 31:10-13; 2 Chron. 20:1-13; Ezra 9:1-4; 10:1; Neh. 8:1-3; 2:27-43; Mt. 14:21; Eph. 6:1-3).
When this discovery was brought before the church, it was decided that MBF needed to adjust their practices to the Word of God in spite of the difficulties it might present. The elders suggested that the children remain in the main auditorium and experience both the worship and teaching together with their parents. There was some resistance in the beginning. Parents complained that their children would be bored, or that the teaching would go over their heads. Other parents frankly looked forward to giving the responsibility of their children to someone else for a time so that they could enjoy the service unencumbered by their children's interruptions and needs. Some children even told their parents that they didn't want to come to church any more if they weren't going to be able to go to Sunday School. The elders, in an effort to promote unity, sought to show the children that they were important and that the "big" meeting was for them as well as their parents. They planned occasional children's Bible stories in the service, and sought to bring practical application to the children as well as the adults in the sermons. One of the elders even held an eight-week class for the children to teach them how they could profit from the sermons.
In March of 1996, the children began to sit with their parents through the entire meeting. Interestingly enough, the children have adapted surprisingly well, even though the meetings often last two hours or more. While many of the younger children draw pictures of what is being taught, several of the older children have learned to take notes. This has allowed the parents to talk with their children at home about what was taught to see how much they had grasped, and to instruct them further. At the same time, the children are learning how to interact and converse with adults with much greater ease and confidence.
Almost as soon as the change with the children in the meetings was implemented the people of MBF began to receive further light on the Lord's Supper. Ever since anyone could remember, the church had celebrated the Lord's Supper by eating a small piece of cracker and drinking a tiny thimble full of grape juice, usually at the end of a regularly scheduled Sunday morning meeting. The elders in their study of God's Word discovered that the Lord's Supper was celebrated as a full meal in the early church (1 Cor. 11:20-22; 33-34). The early Christians referred to these meals as Love Feasts (Jude 12; 2 Pet. 2:13 marg.). On these occasions the members of the early church would each bring food to share with one another. Some time before, during, or after the meal the sacrifice of Jesus Christ would be remembered in the eating of bread and drinking of wine. It was also discovered that the early church gathered for the primary purpose of eating this meal with one another -- not to sing or hear a sermon (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20, 33).
2. The Lord's Supper
With this fresh understanding the people of MBF determined to seek to implement what they were seeing in God's Word. They began to set aside one Sunday evening a month for the sole purpose of celebrating the Lord's Supper. At these meetings, several tables are set up in a rectangular formation with one end left open. Everyone brings food to share with each other. There is much joy, laughter and fellowship as the meal progresses. After the meal, the dishes are cleared and there is opportunity for anyone to share with the rest what God has put on their heart. It may consist of a poem, a song, or a short teaching from God's Word. There is often enthusiastic singing of praise songs, reading of Scripture and fervent prayer. At last one of the elders will break a loaf of bread and pass the two halves around the two ends of the tables, as well as pour a jug of grape juice into two pitchers and pass them around behind the bread. The Lord's Supper has been transformed from a ten minute add-on to a regular Sunday morning meeting, to a joyful time of fellowship, worship, and teaching lasting two to three hours in which Jesus Christ in His sacrificial death is the central theme.
3. "House Churches"
Another significant change, the creation of "house churches", came about as the result of an intense thirteen-week series on the church during the Summer of 1996. During this series it was discovered that the early church met in homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 16:40; 20:20; 1 Cor. 16:19; Phil. 2; Col. 4:15), loved each other intensely (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 1 Thess. 4:9-10), spent much time with one another (Acts 2:42-47), and exercised their spiritual gifts to build up one another at their meetings (1 Cor. 14:26; Heb. 10:24-25). Additionally, the people of MBF discovered several "one another" commands in the Scriptures that were generally being ignored in the meetings of the church. These commands included the imperatives to love one another (John 13:34-35), serve one another (1 Pet. 4:10), encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11), admonish one another (Rom. 15:14), pray for one another (James 5:16), be hospitable to one another (1 Pet. 4:9), accept one another (Rom. 15:7), live in peace with one another (1 Thess. 5:13), be subject to one another (Eph. 5:21), and be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10).
It was decided that if the people of MBF were to capture the radical spirit of these early Christians, that a complete restructuring of the meetings at MBF had to take place. Therefore, all of the previously held mid-week meetings were canceled to make time for a completely new approach to being the church. These meetings were called "house churches." In these meetings the emphasis was to be the deepening of relationships so that each person in the house church could learn to serve the rest by using his or her spiritual gifts. In the beginning, these meetings were somewhat stiff and programmed, but as they continued people began to really get to know each other. These "house church" meetings have gotten to the point where there is no set agenda except to love and serve one another. Often the group eats a meal together before gathering in a circle to share their lives and pray for one another. When the group gathers, somebody generally asks if anybody has been going through a struggle or has been dealing with a particular issue in the past week. Almost always someone will begin to speak of something in their life which has been a source of pain, irritation or confusion to them. The rest will bring passages of Scripture to bear upon the situation, listen compassionately, and pray fervently for the individual in trouble. The "house churches" have been used in a wonderful way to cultivate deeper friendships and a network of caring Christians who will bear one another's burdens.
4. Sunday Morning Service
A final area of growth and discovery occurred as the elders saw in the Scriptures many things that had implications for the way the church would gather on Sunday mornings. The elders saw that the Scriptures reveal that in the early church the meetings were very open and participatory. It appears that when the church gathered anyone could use their spiritual gift to minister to the body (1 Cor. 14:26-33). Furthermore, one of the main activities in the meetings of early church was mutual exhortation and encouragement (Heb. 10:24-25). At the Sunday meetings at MBF in the past, the only ones typically to speak during the meeting would be the worship leader and the elder who was giving the sermon.
When it was discovered that the way MBF had conducted its Sunday services was entirely opposite to the model given in Scripture, again change was necessary. The elders began to communicate to the church that anyone could participate openly during the time of praise and worship by reading Scripture, praying, or starting a song. Moreover, the elders began to ask the members to share with one another the things God was teaching them from His Word during a portion of the service. Additionally, at the end of the sermon, the teaching elder would ask for questions, comments and insights from the rest of the church. To facilitate these changes the seating was restructured so that instead of the chairs forming rows all facing towards the front of the auditorium, they were formed into semi-circles, so that the people could see one another as they spoke to each other. The church has responded very positively to these changes with the result being a much greater sense of mutual participation, openness and spontaneity in the meetings.
What has the overall effect been on the church as a result of these changes? The most profound result has been a deeper sense of community and family experienced at MBF. Spontaneous gatherings of believers take place regularly. Sometimes it might be 20 to 30 people going out to lunch at a fast food restaurant after the Sunday morning service, whereas at another time it might be 44 people spending a weekend in cabins in the snow-covered Sierra Nevadas with no agenda other than to love one another and enjoy one another's company. As a result of the children being part of the Sunday meetings, deeper relationships have been forged between the children and the adults. With the implementation of the Agape Feasts, there is a freer and more open expression of love and fellowship being experienced. As a result of the house churches and Sunday participatory meetings, there is an increasing awareness that everyone has a vital role to play in the life and health of the church. Now, a full eighteen months after the first changes were made, there is a much greater sense of closeness and family experienced at MBF. What kind of changes might there be in the future for MBF? Only God knows the answer to that question. But as the people of MBF have taken seriously their motto "committed to understanding and obeying God's Word" they have learned firsthand that wherever God's Word leads them, joy and blessing will be the result!