When thinking about fresh expressions of church, it is of foremost importance to re-engage the Scriptures and seek to discern a biblically and theologically faithful ecclesiology for this new era. A great deal can be learned by reexamining the Scriptures from the vantage point of the developments in the area of networks and mapping those back onto the activity of the early church. The past can be re-visited for the sake of the future.

Many authors have assessed the cultural milieu of the twenty-first century as similar to the cultural milieu of the first century. The globalization, pluralism, and marginalization of the Christian faith are three contextual components that the early church holds in common with the church of the present age. The manner in which the early churches collaborated also provides various guideposts for determining what a mission-focused, grassroots denomination might look like.

Church-as-Network in the New Testament

The primary way in which the early church provides insight for the denominations of the twenty-first century is through an examination of the development of the Christian movement and its pattern of self-organization.

Second, within that self-organization, the activity of key churches that acted as “Apostolic Centers” in the book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul is particularly insightful (Acts 13 – 15, Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy). Specifically, special note should be taken of how these centers related to other churches and other Apostolic Centers.

In addition, because all missional activity is carried out through the leadership of the churches, it is also helpful to examine the work of individuals who fulfilled “Apostolic Roles” though they may not be considered part of the original Apostles.

Paul’s Description of Church Networks

The biblical and theological starting point for church collaboration is the gospel itself. Though expressed in different forms throughout the New Testament literature, the good news that God has come to rescue and renew all creation in and through Jesus Christ is the central narrative and activating factor for the development of the first church network.

This is clearly evident in Paul’s words at the end of 1 Corinthians 9. After giving a short synopsis in verses 19-22 of his missionary framework and the adjustments he is willing to make for the sake of winning those not yet won, he states, “Now I do all this because of the gospel, that I may become a partner in its benefits.” For Paul, the gospel generated his missionary activity, and he understood that through his work he joined in the gospel’s activity himself.

As the gospel advances into a context, it creates what can called a “field” or “sphere” for church collaboration. There is no need for church collaboration where the gospel is not present because all church collaboration that is true to the Christian movement must focus on following the activity that the gospel creates. This is the case in the scriptural narrative itself.

The biblical and theological starting point for church collaboration is the gospel itself.

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Mission Extending Through the Jews

In looking at the chronology of the book of Acts, before any church planting or collaboration can begin later in the text, the good news of Christ and his Kingdom begins to break out into the visible world.

Acts 2 is the preeminent example of this reality. The Holy Spirit fell upon those gathered in Jerusalem, the gospel was proclaimed through the declarations of Peter, and the gospel captured into its movement some three thousand people. The early church network began to show itself here as a result of the gospel activity on the day of Pentecost.

In Acts 2:42-47, those who had been impacted by the gospel devoted themselves to the “apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers.” While there is some merit to the claim that these aspects of Christian community took place among the larger group of three thousand, it is far more likely that some level of seminal organization began at this point, as believers gathered together in smaller communities throughout Jerusalem. It is quite certain that fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer took place in these smaller communities as is indicated from verses 45 and 46. In addition, while it is quite clear that apostolic teaching took place in large gatherings in the temple complex, it is also clear that the apostles dispersed themselves throughout the city of Jerusalem to instruct the believers in smaller settings as well.

Following their arrest and trial, described in Acts 5, the disciples continued proclaiming the good news in the temple context and in “various homes” (vs. 42). This represents the genesis of smaller churches that met in homes with a shared commitment to one another, but also with the breadth of that commitment extending beyond their particular local house assembly to the other house assemblies in their particular city.

In this case, the local assemblies were within the city of Jerusalem. These local assemblies were seen as gatherings in particular homes but were also viewed as part of the wider network of the church and, thus, could be addressed by someone of the stature of Peter or James or Paul in concert with the other assemblies in that region.

Often, the letters these traveling apostles wrote were the means of addressing these smaller assemblies as part of the overall network. This was certainly not just a reality in Jerusalem, but eventually in Antioch, Rome, Colossae, and several other key cities. The fact that the church in a particular city had both a collective and a dispersed or “house” identity can hardly be disputed. In the time described by Acts 1-7, the early church network existed only within the initial city of Jerusalem and likely the surrounding region.

This stage of the church’s development is marked by a key verse that occurs three times in the Acts narrative. It is a summary verse of the activities taking place within the church at Jerusalem. Acts 6:7 states, “The word of the Lord kept on spreading and the number of disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” In the book of Acts, these summary verses (the others being found in Acts 12:24 and Acts 19:20) function as transition verses between texts dealing with centers of strength and texts dealing with a movement of the gospel, resulting in new disciples and faith communities. The markers help us identity particular Apostolic centers and then the subsequent Apostolic leaders who together initiate a gospel movement that creates this network.

The spread of the gospel at this juncture is now expanded by the onset of persecution, beginning with the martyrdom of Stephen. Following his martyrdom and the persecution of Paul, the church begins to disperse throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. As this happens, it is clear that the gospel begins to work again and a new field or sphere for the expansion of church collaboration is created in a new region (Acts 8:4).

The work of the new region maintains a clear link to the church in Jerusalem. As the apostles in Jerusalem hear of the advance of the gospel, Peter and John are dispatched to authorize and affirm this work and establish a link to the initial church.

In the midst of their trip, they also initiate gospel communities in many other villages within the Samaritan region. Philip, one of the original deacons and apparently also gifted as an evangelist, spawned a new gospel community in Caesarea, as well, and uses it as a base of operations to reach that particular coastal region. As will be discussed in future posts, a strike to the initial operation center or founding church of the network does not impede the advance of the network; it only serves to increase its growth.

This is one of the marks of the early church network as a semi-decentralized organization. It is not an association that operates strictly through the directives of its leadership or headquarters, in this case the apostles and the church at Jerusalem. It also demonstrates, though this will be more apparent as the narrative develops, that there are multiple leaders guiding the developing of the expanding church and that those leaders had various gifts.

When the narrative reaches Acts 10, a further step forward is taken in the development of the early church network. A significant boundary is crossed within this wider missional community. The network begins in Jerusalem and extends to Judea and Samaria. The unique aspect is that the people of Samaria are a step removed from the original participants (i.e. Jews), and yet the gospel continues to advance as an ethnic boundary is crossed, though it is crossed into the realm of a “God-fearer.” The conversion of Cornelius and his household represents the necessity for a church network to cross boundaries and welcome collaboration with those who do not experience the reality of Christ in exactly the same way. In other words, there is now diversity in the kinds of church communities that are part of this early church network.

They are no longer strictly Jewish or Jewish-related, and, therefore, would likely have a slightly different mode of operation as a Christian community, than the initial network members.

How would thinking of your church or denomination as a network change your approach to life and mission?

How would thinking like a network change your approach to mission?

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Chris Backert
About the Author

Chris Backert

Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase.