This article is very simplistic. It deals only with a few suggestions as to how a group of Christians may begin meeting together for worship and encouragement. In other words, it presents the essential form of a "church.
What is the nature of a church?
Those coming together to form a church should agree as to its nature. From the New Testament description of the church of the first century, we will observe that the church is distinguished as
A believing community. As a believing community, the church is distinguished by its "faith" character. Its members, through acceptance of biblical revelation, hold firm confidence in God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
A proclaiming community. As a proclaiming community, the church is that divine creation set for the announcing of the acts of God. Its proclamation is on behalf of the redemption of mankind and the glory of God.
A worshiping community. As a worshiping community, the church is called to offer devotion to God and service to men.
A holy community. As a holy community, the church is a manifestation of God's image among men.
An encouraging community. As an encouraging or inspiring community, the church functions to mature and sustain the human spirit.
A community of compassion. As a community of compassion, the church enables persons with deficiencies by serving their physical and spiritual needs.
The head of the church is Christ, for the church is his "body. Those who form the body of Christ have dedicated their lives to righteous living. Hence, they revere God; they honor his Son; and they are empowered by his Spirit. Individual members of the body of Christ are united in him and have a common goal”to love God with all of one's being and to prefer others to oneself. Unbelievers are treated with respect. Harsh treatment receives kindness in response. Self-centered ambitions are set aside. Immoral thoughts and activities are transformed into wholesome, spiritual ones. The church is a reflection of the mind of Christ and, hence, glorifies God in the manner it appears to the public.
The church may be identified with the kingdom of God inasmuch as it understands itself as allied with God in the spiritual battle against Satan and the evil that he inspires. As the letters to the seven churches of Revelation indicate, God calls his people into a spiritual kingdom. It is insufficient to simply defend doctrine; one must live it. A church may be sound in the faith, but if it loses its essential love, it may cease to be a true representation of what God calls the church to be. A church may hold outward faith in Christ, but if it compromises with the worldly order, it can lose its place in God's family. Understanding the nature of the church is a prerequisite to starting one.
Who constitutes a church?
First, we should recognize whose church we are talking about. Certainly, people can come together, call themselves a church, put up a sign, rally around a powerful leader, and then do whatever they wish. But this is not the kind of church we are speaking of here. The subject of this article is the church that belongs to Christ.
"The church may appear in two forms: the church universal, that represents all of God's saints in Christ, and a local assembly, which consists of believers in a particular location who meet on a regular basis. The local assembly is part of the larger body. It meets separately by necessity of limitation placed on humans as physical beings”matters of time and space. The local church is a microcosm of the universal church. We are speaking of starting a local church, one that is necessary by virtue of limitations of time and space.
So, a local church consists of those who have been cleansed of their sins by the blood of Christ. The group may be as small as a family unit. These are those who have believed that Jesus is the Son of God. They hold that God has accomplished our salvation through the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ to his right hand. Having believed, they have repented of their sins and made a commitment to be followers of Christ. These are they who have confessed publicly that Jesus is the Christ. These are they who have been buried with Christ in baptism so they could be clothed with him and have their sins washed away by Christ's blood. These are they who have been raised from the waters of baptism to live to God's glory, possessing the mind of Christ. These are they in whom the Spirit of God dwells, being assured of victory against Satan and enabled to uphold their faith claims in a hostile world.
Why start a church?
People of faith have a divine right to assemble and worship. No permissions are needed. In fact, God automatically adds every Christian to the church at baptism. All you are doing in starting a local "church is finding others with whom you may worship and draw encouragement. You are merely doing what is natural. Already part of the church of God, church of Christ, family of God, or the kingdom of God, you are forming a local assembly so you can participate in the functions of the universal church. Or, to put it another way, starting a local church is a matter of deciding how, when, and where a select part of the universal church can meet to fulfill their mission.
When and where to worship?
The question of when to worship is a matter left to the worshippers. The earliest believers appear to have had contact daily. As the church spread across the Roman Empire, they certainly met on the First Day of the Week, which is Sunday on our calendar. The length of a service is less important than the quality. Choose a time on Sunday that is convenient to the people involved.
As to where to meet, that again is a matter of local preference, convenience, and opportunity. In places where Christians are free to assemble and invite their friends, the location may be in a public building or under a tree. In areas where Christians are persecuted, a more secluded place may be sought”a home or some other secure place. Churches may construct special facilities when they are able to do so. The place of meeting is unimportant. It is what goes on during the worship that matters. Do not fear that people will not visit an assembly and hear the gospel of Christ if you do not have a fine building. Few churches of the first three centuries owned buildings. The church is not a building; it consists of the believers themselves. If people are attracted just because you have fine facilities, they are attracted for the wrong reason. People interested in spiritual matters are attracted by spiritual food, not by the beauty of the plates and saucers.
What about leaders?
Churches were formed in the first century as men and women were born anew in the kingdom of God. In time, spiritual shepherds were appointed. That presupposed there were men who possessed the qualities necessary to be overseers. These qualities are outlined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. It should seem obvious that in the absence of men with these qualities, the church would have to manage as best it can until it reaches idealized circumstances. Elders, shepherds, pastors, overseers, presbyters”terms that point to different aspects of the same function”were put into place to guide the church and keep out elements that were foreign to the gospel. But one need not wait until fully matured leaders are found to begin meeting together to praise God.
What is a worship service like?
The New Testament does not provide a detailed plan for worship. Perhaps that is intentional. What we do know is that when the local saints came together, they prayed, they sang songs of praise, they edified one another, they observed the Lord's Supper, they read from the Scriptures, they contributed to the needs of other saints, and they exercised discipline as needed. There were also times when they fasted and jointly sent out from their midst those who would evangelize other areas.
Their prayers emphasized the spiritual aspect of their calling. The model prayer of Jesus, Jesus' prayer in the Garden before his crucifixion, and Paul's prayers at the beginning of his epistles teach us much about the nature and content of prayers. The epistle of James adds a notation about prayer for the sick, as well as the proper attitude toward others.
The songs used in worship are described as "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. This suggests they may have been drawn from the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible or they may have been new compositions that reflected faith in a triumphant Christ. The evidence suggests that for quite some time after the beginning of the church, singing was without the accompaniment of musical instruments.
Edification and encouragement would come through proper words spoken to the assembled church. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians offers some insight into how worship is not to be conducted”people speaking out of turn, demonstrating rivalries and division, and acting disorderly. Encouragement should be uplifting and helpful to people who face difficulties in life.
The Lord's Supper was observed regularly”seemingly every Lord's Day (Sunday). There was reason for this. Since the Lord's Supper is the most powerful means of helping the saints focus on their Savior and upon the unity they enjoy as the people of God, the Supper becomes a blessing that should not be pushed off to an occasional occurrence. The Supper recalls the sacrifice of Christ, emphasizes his presence with the saints, and fortifies future hope.
Public reading of scripture makes known God's will for his people. Contributing of one's finances”as one has prospered and as one is willing to give”can assist those who have needs and can extend the mission of the church. Unruly members occasionally need to be disciplined by the entire church. However, the church is not to become a cult, where people are forced to comply to human rules. Fasting may be done as the occasion arises. From the New Testament perspective, worship should be spontaneous, yet orderly. There is no set form or order, but there are elements that make the worship essentially Christian. There is no set ritual to be observed.
Through worship, the church celebrates the salvation enjoyed through Jesus Christ and shows its dependency upon God. In doing so, it reflects the holiness and love of God. It bears witness to the testimony of Jesus Christ to a world that does not know God.
Is the church for believers alone or for unbelievers as well?
The church per se is a group of believers. Here, these believers worship God. However, the nature of the Christian mission is to declare the good news of Christ to a lost world. Just as children are invited to worship, so it is appropriate that unbelievers be invited as well. It is not that unbelievers are invited to lead in that worship, but they can certainly be invited into the assembly of the saints to experience the presence of God with his people. After all, Christians are not a secretive sect; they are a public spectacle.
What about security?
Christians are to be bold and unashamed of their faith. Yet, they are not expected to invite martyrdom. They are to use discretion, yet not shrink from telling the story of Jesus. Street-corner preaching may not be effective in any society today. So one should not necessarily feel guilty for refraining to preach openly on the streets. One-on-one teaching may be more effective in the long run regardless of public policy about teaching others. The principle is this: Live your life as a Christian openly, take advantage of those opportunities that come your way to teach, and, if you are opposed for the testimony of Jesus, be loyal to Christ. The cause of the gospel may be better served by surviving and through secret teaching than by an entire church marching before the officials and demanding to be killed for their faith.
Is the church a subversive group of which the government should be concerned?
Absolutely not! Christians pray for their governmental leaders; they do not rebel or encourage rebellion. Christians pay special attention to morality, to honesty, to the payment of taxes, and to peaceful purposes. Those who follow the teachings of Christ could never become terrorists, murders, or robbers. They do not harass their opponents, but treat them with fairness and equity. Governmental hostility demonstrates that the government is either ignorant of how much Christians have to offer to society, or it offers evidence that an evil spirit drives its representatives. In any case, Christians may suffer, but they are to suffer patiently.
Should we align with other Christians?
If a newly formed local church is part of the universal church, it stands to reason that it will want to have fellowship with like-minded Christians. Opportunity and common purpose should dictate the extent and level of fellowship you will have with other churches. Since denominationalism is a creation of man and works against the intentions of Christ, you should not rush to put yourselves under a denominational umbrella. Whatever advantages you may find may be offset with the limitation imposed by the denomination body. Restrictions and rules are often those of men, not those that derive from Christ. Denominational names, titles worn by the leaders, creeds, and/or forced doctrinal beliefs can be detrimental to being simply a church of Christ, a church of God, the family of God, or the kingdom of God.
For more on how to baptize and on the Lord's Supper, see articles under Public Courses & Topics of Interest. This link can be found in the green footer of every page.
May God grant you the power and the grace to execute his will and serve to his pleasure and glory!