What was the evangelistic mission of the church as it had its beginning in Jerusalem? What was the intent for its growth?
The charter, of course, for the church is the commission of Jesus to the eleven apostles who gathered with Jesus in Galilee following His resurrection. He charged them, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28.19-20). And, so, those men and others began to preach, and converts were won, and local gatherings of believers came into being. And before long, the church wasn’t located only in Jerusalem and Judea, but had spread to Galilee and Samaria, and soon to Syria, Asia, Africa, Greece, Italy, and beyond.
What was the intent as these churches came to be? Were these churches to be exact replications of the original church that met at Jerusalem? Were they to be clones of the mother church, keeping all forms and methods in place? Or, was it expected that as the church came to new towns and countries and cultures that forms and methods would be adapted to these new places and peoples?
I find it helpful as I ruminate on these questions to consider the business models adapted by three American food establishments: McDonald's, Dairy Queen, and Bob's Burgers.
McDonald’s franchisees were bound to strict policies which governed everything from the architecture and décor of each restaurant, menus, staffing, and service. The governing concept was that every McDonald’s restaurant was a mirror of the original. Variance was not permitted. That was the business model, and it helped build McDonald’s into the largest restaurant chain in the world. (Although, today, the McDonald’s business philosophy has changed somewhat, and franchisees are given some leeway on matters that used to be non-negotiable.)
Dairy Queen had a different beginning and history than McDonald’s. The first Dairy Queen was opened in Joliet, Illinois by Sherb Noble in 1940. Its core business was soft serve ice cream, which had been developed in 1938, by business partners of Noble. The DQ concept was soon franchised, but franchisees were given a lot of leeway in the establishment and operation of their restaurants. The core business of soft-serve ice cream connected the franchises, but everything else was left to the customization of the franchisees. Frequent a DQ located in Texas, and your menu options will be somewhat different than a visit to a DQ in Minnesota, and the look of the place will be different, and methods of service will be different, but the soft-serve ice cream will be the same.
Bob’s Burgers is not a national entity. There are many restaurant establishments that are named Bob’s Burgers, and at least two regional chains bear the moniker (and, by the way, Bob’s Burgers is the title of a Fox TV animated series). The name Bob’s Burgers suggests the common business of selling hamburgers, but a Bob’s Burgers chain based in Louisville, Kentucky boasts tacos and burritos as its core business. Bob's Burgers are varied. There is no governing concept directing the business of local and regional owners.
So, is the church to be more like McDonald's, Dairy Queen, or Bob's Burgers? What was the original intent or evangelistic mission of the church? Was the intention replication? Were Christian missionaries to go out and win converts and plant churches, replicating the forms and methods of the Jerusalem church in every detail? Or, was the plan to win converts and plant churches who shared a common faith, but were given some freedoms to express and live that faith in community? Or, was there no plan or central concept? In other words, did the expansion of the church just happen, sporadically, organically, and without direction or intent?
Perhaps the very nature of the New Testament can lead us to an answer. Is there a manual for how to do church in the New Testament? In other words, is there a "How To Guide" for the structure and operation of the church in the New Testament?
You may quickly answer, "The New Testament itself is the guide." And, yes, in a sense, it is, but it is not a guide that provides much in the way of direct details. We have the Gospels, which offer narratives of Jesus' life on earth and his teachings, which concern themselves primarily with the subject of discipleship. The church, as an entity, is rarely mentioned by Jesus, and he certainly does not give details about what is to be the institutional structure of the church or of its routine methodology. The Book of Acts is helpful as a partial historical record of the early church, but its pages are much more concerned with the personalities of Peter, Paul, and others and with the core gospel itself than they are with providing a detailed look at the organization and operation of the church. The letters of Paul and other evangelists are largely reactionary in nature. They are written responses to issues of the day. And, certainly, from these responses we are able to see something of the nature and practice of the church, but the letters are not exhaustive in this regard--there are many holes (matters left to our discerning imagination?).
It seems to me that if replication were the original goal for the church that there would be a rather detailed manual for how to do church in the New Testament. In the context of the church assembling, Paul says that "God is not a God of disorder but of peace" (1 Corinthians 14.33 NIV), Would the God of peace (or order) leave it to his people to seek out and find details about the church in a process similar to finding needles in a haystack and in a process often subjugated to the educational and cultural biases of those who seek? In other words, wouldn't an objective standard for the church be clearly communicated by the God of order if the replication of that standard were the goal?
It seems to me that the intent of the New Testament is to articulate the identity and work of Jesus and the need for salvation on the part of humanity. The New Testament clearly shows how a person is delivered from condemnation of sin by the sacrifice of Jesus and clearly shows how the saved are brought together by God into community. But that community is not a static institution with a rigid set of policies and rules governing its operation. The church is an organism, not an institution. It is a community, a people, a family, and like any living thing it is conditioned by its environment. I'm not saying that it is subjugated to the whims of people, but the church adapts to its surroundings of time and place. Like Dairy Queen, the core business is static--the Gospel of Jesus Christ is formative and operative, but the forms and methods are fluid.
Before you protest my point, ask yourself, is the congregation of which you are a part a replication of the church at Jerusalem in circa A.D. 33? I don't think that I have ever encountered a congregation that mirrors Acts 2.42-47. In spirit, I've found many that do, but in practice I have found none. If replication is the goal, we have failed, right down to the name we pridefully post on our buildings.