Previously I shared a little of the history of the gathering I was part of for the last three years or so. Part of that history included some friends of ours actually moving to our town from other places in order to pursue the Lord together.
Does that sound exceptional to you? It isn’t, really. It’s been happening for a long time, actually. Consider…
On the day of Stephen’s execution in Jerusalem a great persecution broke out against the followers of the Way. The ekklesia disappeared virtually overnight as nearly all the saints were scattered to the surrounding towns and villages of the Judean countryside. Unintended as it was (by man if not by God), this is the first example we see in the New Testament of a church transplant. Then about twenty years later we see believers from all different parts of the Empire moving together to the city of Rome, another example (for more on this theory concerning the origin of the church at Rome, see here).
All the churches in New Testament times were organic. That is, they were formed out of spiritual life. They were not airtight organizational entities modeled after a certain pattern or mode of gathering, they were living organisms whose form would ebb and flow according to changing circumstances and the needs of the people. In other words, there was not just one way of doing things but many. So much was up to experimentation as the brothers and sisters sought to follow the leading of the Spirit within.
The few instances we see of church transplantation in the New Testament are examples of this Spirit-led creativity. Odd as it may sound, these are the kinds of things that take place in an organic expression of the church. And why not? Folks move for all sorts of reasons in life. People relocate for a job, for love, or to go to school. Why would it seem strange that some would move for fellowship? It happens all the time, actually, even among saints in the traditional churches.
Now to more recent history: In the 1940’s churches among the so-called “Litte Flock” in China discovered this principle (for lack of better term) from the scripture and put into effect a considerable movement of saints and workers which turned out to be a great blessing to the churches and a benefit toward the spread of the gospel in advance of the Communist takeover. Watchman Nee was instrumental in spear-heading this movement, and when his co-worker Witness Lee moved to the United States in the late 1960’s he cast the same vision with similar results. A flood of “migrations” took place as believers who were pursuing the Lord’s eternal purpose fanned out all across the country in an effort to spread the lampstand of God’s testimony near and far.
Now in our own generation, scores of “organic” churches are taking the torch and running with it as well. Not only here in the U.S. but in many nations abroad one can find assemblies whose initial birth came about by believers moving from other locations to be built together in the same local gathering. It may sound radical to some, but it really is nothing new.
Anyway, as I said before, this is how some of the members of the little church I was part of came together. In addition to our experience, I personally know and have corresponded with a number of other believers who have taken part in similar ventures themselves over the years. Here are my observations:
Historically, the church seems to thrive best in an urban setting. In fact, a strong case can be made that this is why Paul would center most of his evangelistic activity in larger cities like Corinth or Ephesus. More people equals a greater opportunity for the gospel, and once a church has been firmly established the natural flow of life and business in and out of a city is potentially enough to further the gospel’s spread to surrounding areas. Aside from this, heavier populated areas make for more people in close proximity to one another, which is a vital element to any real church life. How can there be daily fellowship if believers don’t live close to enough to see each other regularly? For myself, I’ve now spent time pursuing the Lord with others in both a small country town of about 2000 people and a larger small town of about 20,000. I can say without a doubt that living in the city gave us more of an opportunity to explore the depth and intensity of fellowship we were seeking.
Also, in the event of a church transplant it helps immensely if the area to which people are moving is economically viable. The town I live in is low-income and high unemployment, with very few jobs and not much prospect for the future. Not the kind of place you would think of relocating to. Undaunted, a few of my friends chose to make the move in spite of this, but I’d be lying if I said it was easy for them. What’s more, there were a number of other people who probably would’ve moved in at different points as well if it weren’t for the poor economic situation. Obviously the ability to make a living factors in.
So then, coming to the close of our little experiment I can say that I’m still in favor of the church transplant, but only when it’s something done as the longing for fellowship drives brothers and sisters to come together. Ideally the Lord would raise up a work right where we are at; unfortunately this is not always the case. But as always, let those who come together take care to not become so turned in upon themselves in trying to create the perfect church life utopia that those on the outside are neglected. Most people who move to be part of a community but aren’t native to that paticular locale will not remain there for the long haul. Family, finances, the Lord, or just life in general will eventually take them away. This is to be expected, but the downside (as I am finding out) is that when the transplantees leave, if nothing substantial has been raised up among the local saints then the church goes with them!
Just last week I was talking with an older brother about this very thing. He was part of the local church movement in the 1960’s and personally participated in more than one “migration.” The problem, he said, was that sometimes all they did was transfer their own kind of “church culture” from one city to another. The unfortunate result, I gathered, was that rarely did a truly organic expression of the Lord Jesus Christ ever come into being, nor was a lasting testimony built up that would remain should all the original members move away again.
The church’s radiance comes from her eternal preoccupation with Christ, not from a constant tinkering with her own forms and devotion. If our look is inward let it be inward upon Him and not upon ourselves. This is one of the things I learned from my experience with the brothers and sisters who for a time stood together as fellow members of the church in Portsmouth, and to them, as to the Lord, I am eternally grateful.