Recently, my attention has been called to a number of groups of Christians who have been discussing – in connection with the future of their own particular group – the above question.   Someone, from one of these groups asked me if I have any comments to make on the subject.

My first reaction was to say: “You don’t need to know what shape your local group-of-believers should take.  A local church should never be a human creation.  It should be the creation of Jesus, the Builder of the Church. It is not necessary, or even wise, to have a “Blueprint”.  Sadly, church-building (or church-planting) is far too often a humanly contrived operation – and that’s where things go wrong.”

Now, I firmly believe what I have just said, and I wish that local groups of believers (especially those who have recently come out of some highly organised denominational church, and are seeking to establish something new) would keep that biblical truth in the forefront of their minds.  At the same time, I have to admit that the New Testament does give us a hint of the ‘shape’ that a local church will have!

On a number of occasions, the Apostles mention in their letters that the church should look like a FAMILY.  Jesus Himself had introduced them to the ‘family concept’: “Whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50.)  In Galatians 6:10, Paul writes: “Do good…to the family of believers”. In two other letters, he says: “You are…members of God’s household”. (Ephesians 2:19; 1st Timothy 3:15.)  Peter talks about “the family of God” (1st Pet. 4:17.) and urges his fellow Christians to “Love the brotherhood of believers”. (1st Pet. 2:17.)  In one way or another, each of these apostles seemed to suggest, to local groups of believers, that – as a body – they should look like a Family.

I think it is reasonable to conclude that, if there is only a tiny handful of believers in any one place, we can think of them as something like a “nuclear family”; whereas a larger group would have the characteristics of an “extended family”. Bearing in mind that, in New Testament times, as nowadays, there were some extended families that functioned well together, and some families that didn’t, I think it is also reasonable to conclude that the New Testament writers were referring to a “functional” family, and not a “dysfunctional” one! All in all, the message seems to be that A LOCAL CHURCH SHOULD LOOK SOMETHING LIKE A REASONABLY-WELL-FUNCTIONING EXTENDED FAMILY!

(By the way, I don’t think I’ll be raising any issues, in this particular article, that I haven’t already raised somewhere or other in one of my two books, or on this website.  However, I’ve never before looked at these matters from the angle of considering what “shape” a local church should have.)

Well then, if the New Testament seems to answer: “A local church should look something like a reasonably-well-functioning extended family”, what does a reasonably-well-functioning extended family look like?  What are its characteristics?  I would say they are “Contact” and “Care”.

CONTACT. In the first place – unless there is some kind of breakdown in family life – family members make quite a lot of effort to keep in touch with one another.  This is done in a variety of ways. They might pop into one another’s homes, either by previous arrangement, or unexpectedly. They might agree to meet somewhere (perhaps over refreshments).  They might fix up an outing together.  They will almost certainly chat on the phone, or exchange text-messages or e-mails.  There will be times when they will have meals together, in each other’s homes, or elsewhere.

Often only two people will be involved in a “family contact” situation.  Sometimes, however, it will be a foursome, or some other kind of small group.  Sometimes too, there will be what can be described as a “family gathering” – occasionally even a gathering of the entire Extended Family. There are, in fact, numerous “channels of socialising” – numerous ways of keeping in touch.

Needless to say, you can’t keep in touch with everyone in a big family with the same intensity, Some family members you will see quite regularly, and others less so, in varying degrees.  But that’s OK – so long as everyone in the family is in touch with some of the others.  People seem to know naturally what level of contact to have with each member of their extended family.

It should be exactly the same in a local “family of God” or “brotherhood of believers”.  “Family Contact”, of one kind or another, should be a high priority.  There will, of course, be different levels of contact; and Christians will learn – this time supernaturally, because the Holy Spirit will gradually make it plain – who are to be their “immediate family” within the wider family. Surely this is how it was among the very first Christians, when the Holy Spirit came upon them.  Acts 2:46 shows that they were in and out of each other’s homes, yet verse 41 had indicated that three thousand people were involved in this process! It is obvious that, for everyone concerned, some members of that enormous spiritual family must have been more “immediate” than others!

CARE.  That brings me to the other feature of what an extended family looks like.  In any reasonably-well-functioning family, family members don’t just contact one another.  They also care about one another.   They care about each other’s physical health; about whether they are coping with life or not; about whether they are managing to make ends meet; about whether they are making wise decisions along the way – and, usually, fellow family members give what practical help they can.

If we are to heed the advice of the New Testament, this care should be mirrored in any local “family of God”.  We are urged to “comfort one another”, “build each other up”, “admonish one another”, “carry each other’s burdens”, “never fail to help a brother in need, if we have the means to do so”, and, generally speaking, “love one another”.

Among believers there is, of course, a very important additional dimension to this “Caring”.    For want of a better term, let’s call it a ‘spiritual dimension’. We are exhorted to strengthen one another in our Christian discipleship.  “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach one another”(Col.3:16); “Encourage one another, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13); “Spur one another on to love and good deeds” (Heb.10:24); “Let there be encouragement to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (Phil.1:14); “Report in detail what God has done” (Acts 21:19,20). Caring, among believers, is more than Family Friendship.  That’s why we call it “Fellowship”.

Unfortunately, many believers confuse “fellowship” with “going to meetings”.  Although you may get an opportunity to chat with fellow-Christians before and after an actual meeting, fellowship is not the primary purpose of meetings.  Meetings are generally arranged for Teaching, for Worship, or for Decision-making (or a combination of a couple of these activities).  In-depth Fellowship really only occurs when Christians engage in “Family-Style Socialising”.

It saddens me that, when a like-minded group of believers thoughtfully and prayerfully decides to move away from a local church that they are convinced is no longer right for them, and starts considering what their new church should be like, their thinking and talking is almost always along organisational lines. What I am trying to say, here, is that their thinking and talking should be along relational lines.  I PUT IT TO YOU THAT THE LOCAL CHURCH SHOULD NOT BE AN ORGANISATION, BUT AN ORGANISM – A FAMILY-SHAPED ORGANISM.

I am going to stop there, because I feel that this article has already been too long. However, about this time next month, on this website, I am going to take up the theme again.  I am going to argue that when groups of Christians, who are considering the setting-up of a ‘new’ church, start discussing along organisational lines, the result is nearly always ‘fragmentation’ and further sub-division.  Having all agreed on what was wrong with their old church, they find it very difficult to agree on the ‘form’ that their new church should take!

Next month I shall go into why that is inevitable, and suggest how it might be avoided.  In the meantime, I would urge those of you who are talking about the “shape” of the church, to concentrate on the biblical picture of the church as an Extended Family, and to ensure that – however certain your future may in some respects be – your group is already living in a deeply relational way.