You have, perhaps, heard of the “tiny house movement.” If you haven’t, a quick search on the internet for “tiny house” will yield about 55 million results. One could say that tiny houses are quite big these days.
The folks who are living in tiny houses seem to love them, elated over the benefits of simplified living. They speak of how nice it is to live in just a few hundred square feet of space and being free of debt, clutter, major maintenance and so on.
Of course, as much as those of us in the “not-so-tiny-house movement” (still the majority) might admire tiny-house enthusiasts, we can think of a few disadvantages to tiny houses. Like “you can’t have any kids,” and “it’s kind of nice to live in more than one room,” and “forget about having friends come for dinner during inclement weather,” or “can’t let visitors stay overnight.”
In any case, there are definitely “different strokes for different folks.” And although I’m an unlikely candidate for scaling down into a tiny house, I have surprised myself by scaling down into a tiny church (which meets in my not-so-tiny house).
The reason I’ve surprised myself is because during past decades I’ve planted and pastored churches that eventually consisted of hundreds of congregants. And my goal was always to grow to thousands. I dreamed of the day I would be a megachurch pastor. In my mind, the bigger the better and the more successful. (Which is one reason why I counted pregnant women twice.)
But having done it all—that is, rented public school auditoriums, remodeled an old theater, constructed a new church building with paved parking lots, raised funds for building programs, signed bank loan documents, led worship (and tried to cast demons out of worship team musicians), hired youth pastors, led board meetings (and tried to cast demons out of board members), prepared and preached thousands of sermons, organized church dinners, led men’s ministry, directed staff members and committees, officiated at weddings and funerals, recruited new volunteers to replace burnt out volunteers, did hospital visitation and marriage counseling and a host of other standard pastoral duties—and having experienced some degree of “success” in all of it—today I’m loving my tiny church. Really loving it.
So What is a Tiny Church?
Of course, the “congregation” of a tiny church is tiny. The maximum size is about twelve. The minimum is three. Jesus promised, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matt. 18:20). Based on that promise, you might think the minimum is two, but if so, you’ve overlooked the fact that Jesus promised that He would be joining the gathering. So the minimum is three, not two.
Some might claim that such a gathering does not constitute a church. If we are honest with Scripture, however, we will have to admit that when the New Testament speaks of “church,” it never refers to a building. It always refers to a group of believers. The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia, which literally means “an assembly.”
In the Bible, “church” can refer to the assembly of all the believers on earth and in heaven (the universal church), all the believers in a region, such as the “church at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2), or to a small group that meets in a house, like the church that met in the houses of Aquila and Prisca (Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19), Nympha (Col. 4:15) or Philemon (Philem. 1-2).
If we are really honest with Scripture, we must admit that there is no mention of church buildings, which makes church buildings—dare we say it—non-scriptural. (But who could ever be that honest?)
And all of this makes it kind of funny when people who are associated with churches that meet in special buildings tell me the tiny church that meets in my house isn’t really a church. Really? Were the churches that met in the homes of Aquila and Prisca, Nympha and Philemon not actually churches? Is a small group of believers who gather in Jesus’ name and whom He Himself joins not a church? Are the millions of churches around the world that meet in houses not actually churches?
No, in my house, a church meets. A biblical church. It is not just a “Bible study.” It is not just a “cell” or a “small group.” It is a church. End of discussion!
“But a true church needs a pastor!” some may claim. OK, I tend to agree. In my tiny church, I suppose that I could be considered to be a shepherd (which is what “pastor” means). But considering the fact that the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11, 14), the “Great Shepherd” (Heb. 13:20) and the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4) solemnly promised to join us every time we gather in His name, it seems my pastoral ministry is of secondary importance, to say the least. It is quite possible that I could even occasionally be absent and everything might go OK in a gathering of people who are all indwelled and joined in a special way by the Good, Great and Chief Shepherd, who is also the Head of the Church (universal)! Right?
And that is one of the many things I love about the tiny church that meets in my house. I am not the center of the “show.” I often felt uncomfortable with the central role I played in the previous churches I planted and pastored (with the exception of all the times when I secretly loved it…).
I can still remember the rush of being up front, center stage. Lights, and sometime cameras, were directed at me. All the seats in the auditorium faced me. All the people sat at a lower elevation than me. A big cross was my backdrop. Make no mistake, I was THE MAN OF GOD. Called. Appointed. Anointed. My job required supernatural power: to hold their attention and keep them happy, in hopes they would return next week.
And this I did every week in spite of the fact that the Bible I claimed to believe says, “When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26)—all obviously given by the Spirit for the common edification. Those kinds of scripture passages were so embarrassing to “Bible-believing” churches like mine. Apparently, when the body of Christ—of which we are all important members— comes together, it is not God’s plan that only one member, “the mouth,” do everything while all the other members are functionless and sit silently listening.
In the tiny church that meets in my house, I never prepare or “deliver” a sermon. We study the Word together. I don’t send a subtle message via a weekly monologue that only seminary and Bible school grads are qualified to interpret and share God’s Word. On the contrary, I intentionally convey that (1) every believer, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can learn to rightly interpret God’s Word, (2) every believer should be practicing everything they understand in God’s Word, and (3) every believer should be sharing with other believers, whom they are responsible to disciple, what they practice. This is biblical (Matt. 5:19; Eph. 4:11-16; 2 Tim. 2:2).
America’s Got Talent
Because I never deliver any sermons, that means my sermons are never judged on how “good” they are, as they always were in my previous churches. So I no longer have to worry that, although a great performance earns rave reviews, it also raises the expected standard for every performance thereafter. And I no longer crave compliments (or dodge digs) as congregants shake my hand on their way out the door:
“Great sermon today, pastor David!”
“Thanks, layman Joe! I hope you’ll come back next week to hear another well-rehearsed speech, not longer than 20 minutes, full of funny illustrations, and one that is not too convicting, but that makes you feel good about yourself!”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘I hope you will come back next week!'”
“Don’t worry, Pastor David, you’ll always see me in the last pew, just as long as there isn’t a home game that starts at 1:00!”
“Ah yes, I know you’re a big football fan! Do enjoy the game this afternoon! And don’t forget that Jesus died and rose again, and He desires that none should perish. Hundreds of millions of people are waiting to hear the gospel for the first time, which is their only hope of gaining eternal life and escaping hell. And Jesus warned us that, if we are not His committed disciples, we are utterly worthless to Him.”
“What did you say?”
“I said that I so appreciate the five dollars you put in the offering plate whenever you attend our uplifting services!”
“Ah, glad to contribute. It was nothing.”
“You aren’t kidding about it being nothing! Your checkbook is no doubt one more sure indication that you are on the broad road that leads to destruction!”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to stay another five minutes to enjoy some Christian fellowship, a donut and a cup of coffee? It won’t cost you a dime!'”
And that is another thing I love about the tiny church that meets in my house. I am no longer tempted to treat “goats” like they are “sheep” (see Matt. 25:31-46).
First of all, few goats will even consider attending something as strange as a small gathering in a house of people who actually love Jesus. In their religious minds, darkened by tradition, you don’t attend church in a house. You attend church in a church building.
Second, if a goat accidentally did attend, he would quickly realize he did not fit in among true disciples of Jesus who are striving to obey and please Him. He would feel very uncomfortable around people who worship and talk as if Jesus actually is King of kings and Lord of lords. So he would either repent and become a Christ follower, or he would never return. Here’s the biblical norm:
If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you [just like Jesus promised] (1 Cor. 14:24-25, emphasis added).
What I love the most about the tiny church that meets in my house is that we are actually focused on being, making and multiplying disciples. Our goal is not to fill a building with hearers of the Word, but to fill the world with doers of the Word. We aren’t judging success by counting noses and nickels on Sunday mornings. Jesus’ mandate is that we make disciples. Disciples are people who obey Jesus’ commandments. One of those commandments is that we make disciples. All of the members of the tiny church that meets in my house are interested in learning to effectively share the gospel and disciple those who receive it. Sure, we are all battling different degrees of fear in that regard, but we’re all interested and making efforts. Any professing Christian who is not interested in those things is deceiving himself that he is a Christian. Yet those kinds of “believers” seem to be the majority in many churches, and pastors keep preaching to them every week like they are God’s people!
We follow a simple format each time we gather that lends itself to everyone’s individual spiritual progress. We first “look back.” Everyone shares how they’ve done the past week on their spiritual journey, particularly focusing on any commitments they made the last time we gathered—all in response to the impact of the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. Then we “look up,” by studying the Word together and by listening to the Holy Spirit who lives within us. Then, based on what we gain when we “look up,” we “look forward” by making commitments of obedience and by praying for the Lord’s help. It is intentional, every time.
I can’t help but contrast those gatherings with how it was when I was the pastor of a big box church. Even after a watershed personal repentance that occurred late in my pastoral career—one that resulted in many subsequent impassioned and convicting sermons—there was little way of gauging my impact or the personal spiritual progress of any of my church members. There was no method or means of accountability, no way to really measure spiritual progress.
Imagine if any human institution operated as so many churches do. Imagine an army whose soldiers listen to an (optional) weekly lecture but aren’t expected to ever show up for duty, a sales force that never has to report on how sales are progressing, a college in which students are never tested and never graduate. What would be accomplished by such silly scenarios? Very little or next to nothing! That’s a picture of vast numbers of churches, and what is often passed off as “making disciples”! It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic!
It took me quite a few years to realize that teaching, by itself, does not constitute disciple making. Jesus did not just teach or lecture His disciples. He modeled obedience to His Father before them. He also gave them ministry assignments and required follow-up reporting. He let them fail. He corrected them. He ate with them. He interacted with them. He answered their questions. He washed their feet. That is how disciples are made.
Paul wrote, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). You can only imitate what is modeled.
The ultimate goal of our tiny church is that every member will be pioneering and leading a tiny church themselves, imitating what they’ve seen modeled. But they will never disconnect from our tiny church. Rather, I hope to continue discipling them as they launch and lead their own tiny churches, and even as their disciples begin to make disciples. (If you live in the Pittsburgh, PA area, you are welcome to join us! We’re starting a new 10-week discipleship training gathering mid-September [of 2019]. Just send me an email.)
The Love of the Brethren
This brings me to another thing I love about the tiny church that meets in my house. Among ourselves, we’re experiencing genuine Christian fellowship. Rather than looking at the backs of the heads of the people in the pew in front of me, I’m looking into the faces of people whom I am increasingly getting to know and love.
And they’re beautiful. Nobody wears the “Sunday mask.” We share our struggles and our victories with each other. We encourage one another. We pray for each other. We enjoy each other’s company. We’re friends. Some among us are “accountability partners,” who spend time each week together discussing what we are learning, applying and sharing with others from our daily Bible reading.
On a side note, we’ve never “taken up an offering,” because there are no expenses in our tiny church. We don’t have a mortgage on a building, utilities or upkeep. We don’t have any staff salaries to pay. Our friends often bring food to share at our common meal, but even that really isn’t necessary, as my wife and I can handle the weekly meal expense.
Yet all of us are generous givers to the degree that God has blessed us. We give towards what we are passionate about, namely, the furtherance of Jesus’ kingdom. So we support missionaries, and we assist our poor and persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. That way our spiritual family whom we are commanded to love is not being robbed by church mortgage payments and staff salaries. We are actually, according to the Bible, laying up treasure in heaven, rather than paying what are essentially “church club membership dues.”
What About Kids?
There is still more that I love about the tiny church that meets in my house. I love the kids who come.
You might wonder what we do with kids. We only have two very small ones in attendance right now. One is baby Luther, who does baby things. The other is a delightful toddler named Ivy who does toddler things, like playing with toys in a nearby room. Both children fit right in with us. And they have something to teach us, because the Head of Church told us, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). (When I pastored a big box church, we removed those teachers from the sanctuary whenever they had something to say!)
In a healthy tiny church, experienced parents can teach and model good parenting as a service to parents who are struggling with their children. It’s part of discipleship. In fact, parenting itself is discipling—the discipling of children. Let’s face it, one of the main reasons we have to segregate children from adults in big box churches is because neither parents nor children are being discipled! We “solve” the problem by a temporary weekly quarantine!
What About You?
Do I think God is against big box churches? No, I believe that God, being gracious, favors as much as He can anything and everything that bears any resemblance to the biblical pattern. He, unlike so many of us, is much more inclined to draw big, inclusive circles than small, exclusive circles. Remember that Jesus once said, “He who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). Big box churches undeniably bear some resemblance to the biblical pattern, and so God blesses them as much as He can. Of course, however, God prefers 100% conformity to the biblical pattern. And surely greater conformity results in greater blessing and fruitfulness. Why be satisfied with second, or third, best?
Obviously, I haven’t written this article for those who are satisfied, but for those who are dissatisfied, just as I was at one time. There are hundreds of thousands of Christians around the world who are the causalities of big box Christianity. Many are former pastors who have been spit out or burnt out by the system. (Many are pastors still.) And then there are all the deacons, elders, Sunday school and Bible class teachers, and others, who have never quite had what it takes to serve as big box pastors, but who actually fit the biblical qualifications for leadership found in the New Testament. Many of them could be fruitful disciples of Jesus who make and multiply disciples.
If what I’m talking about resonates with you, I’d recommend that you gather 3 to 5 other spiritually hungry believers and commit to meeting together once a week for 10 weeks while using the discipleship training course found at ZumeProject.com. That’s what we’ve initially used at the tiny church that meets in my house. We stretched it out to more than 10 weeks, as the concepts, although simple and biblical, need time to sink in, as they are sadly foreign to Western Christianity. But as we’ve intentionally applied and committed ourselves, we’ve been making spiritual progress. That is exciting to this old, recovering pastor. And that is why I’m totally loving my tiny church!