The idea of the local church or chapel as ‘the house of God’ in the local community has much to commend it. It is an easily identifiable building to which anyone in the local community is welcome. Traditionally in Britain the church was the centre of community life as well as worship. Even though this is no longer the case in secular Britain local churches have nevertheless had an important role in the community.
Yet there is a downside to such a focus on the building. We know that God does not live in temples built by human hands (Acts 17:24). It is all too easy for us and for those we seek to reach to adopt the mentality that what really matters in the Christian life is ‘going to church’. But if, as in the early church, there was such a positive response to the gospel, we wouldn’t even begin to fit people in!
The early church didn’t have to face this problem because they didn’t have buildings. Although initially they associated within the existing structures of Judaism (at the Temple and in the synagogues), they quickly had to find their own solutions for meeting together. They used homes. There was no institutional church, and as we study the book of Acts we see that God worked in homes in amazing ways.
The first believers in Jesus were filled with the Spirit in homes. On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit filled the believers and the whole house where they were sitting (Acts 2:2). Paul was filled with the Spirit in the home of Judas on ‘Straight Street’ in Damascus (Acts 9:11,17). The Gentiles were first filled with the Spirit in the home of Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 10:25,44).
The first Christians prayed in their homes often, on their own and together. Paul prayed in the home of Judas (Acts 9:11). Peter prayed on the roof of the home of Simon the Tanner in Joppa (Acts 10:6) where the Lord gave him a vision (Acts 10:17). And Cornelius was praying at home in Caesarea (Acts 10:30) where he had an angelic visitation (Acts 11:13). Many disciples were gathered to pray together in the house of Mary the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12).
Meeting in homes to pray and worship together was the norm for the first Christians. This is why Saul (Paul) before his conversion went round from house to house and dragged off men and women to put them in prison (Acts 8:3)!
Homes were used for preaching and teaching. The Apostles and Paul went from house to house teaching and preaching that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 5:42, 20:20). Paul taught in Lydia’s house (Acts 16:40), and from his own rented house for two years (Acts 28:30). We also see much hospitality in the book of Acts, especially for itinerant preachers such as Paul. He was offered hospitality by Lydia (Acts 16:15), Jason (Acts 17:7), Titus Justus (Acts 18:7) and Philip the Evangelist (Acts 21:8). We can imagine Paul took the opportunity to teach and to spiritually encourage his hosts.
From this brief survey of the use of homes in the Book of Acts we can see the church was not confined to a single building in the community. As a result it was able to accommodate growth easily:
More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
What might these things mean for us and how could we use homes better for Christian fellowship, Bible study, prayer, and outreach? There has been much talk in recent decades about getting back to a New Testament church. But what might this mean in practice?
These are questions we need to consider as following Jesus in our society becomes more challenging.