Sometimes I want to go where everybody knows my name. Don’t you?
Before you finish the jingle to Cheers, it’s hard to deny that there’s something special about being in a place where you are known and loved. Belonging is central to our humanity. Whether it’s finding another Philadelphia Eagles fan (like me), going home for Christmas, or sharing a meal with friends, most people enjoy feeling connected to a group.
But community in its truest form is more than getting that “peaceful, easy feeling.” Community that finds its roots in living in and living out the kingdom of God—that’s the kind that transforms people, cultures, and history. Jesus was fully aware of this. So was the Early Church, the community of believers that formed between the first and fourth centuries.
What characteristics of community did the first generations of the Church display, and should we, as the 21st century Church, follow in their footsteps?
Focusing on people (not place) defines community
Early on, the Church was understood to be a group of people, not a place of gathering. When the temple curtain was torn at Christ’s death, there was a fundamental shift in the perception of the presence of God. God would no longer simply dwell in a structure near His people. Now, He would dwell in His people. The Church would be the new “body of Christ,” a living, breathing, dynamic community of people.
Only centuries later, after Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity, in 313 C.E., did the meaning of “church” morph from a people into a building for most believers. And for Brethren in Christ, who met in members’ homes for the first 100 years of their history, it didn’t change until even later!
Lack of dependence on resources promotes community
The Early Church did not hold many assets or have money for attractive programs. According to The Didache, an early Christian treatise written circa 100 C.E., the Early Church gave their tithes and “firstfruits” to provide for two primary areas: supporting their prophet/teacher and caring for the poor (13:3–7).
While this may initially strike us as a negative, what we see is that the Church grew exponentially during this period. Why? When people joined the Church, they joined a community of generosity and selflessness, of courage and sacrifice, rather than of special privileges.
Today, having resources often means we can pull off top-notch programs in large buildings. While these aren’t inherently negative things, the more resources we have as a Church, the more temptation we face to attract people by those resources, instead of by the spirit of God present in our body of believers. Relying on many programs, if we’re not careful, allows us to circumvent selfless community, leaving us with transactional relationships that still gather people but don’t lead to transformation.
Shared responsibility beyond the educated few spreads community
In Acts 4:13, Luke offers this account: “But when they [the rulers, elders, and teachers of the law] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”
As the Early Church was spreading, sharing the Good News of Jesus was way too important to be left to a few professionals! Leadership wasn’t about being impressive or educated; instead, each of the earliest followers of Jesus saw themselves as partners in the Gospel and were willing to follow Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s leading. Shared vision, purpose, and responsibility led to a courageous community that spread the Good News.
Getting away from the crowd deepens community
The Early Church met in oikos, the Greek word for large households that included extended family, friends, and servants. And the fellowship of these home-based gatherings was simple, centering around eating together, praying together, and getting to know one another deeply. In Romans 16, Paul greets a number of these household communities and their leaders.
There must be an element of smallness present in any church family where one can be known and loved. If the only exposure someone has to Christian community is in a group of several hundred, she misses out on being able to do all of the “one-anothers” that the Scriptures so clearly invite us into as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Selflessly meeting others’ needs makes community tangible
In Acts 4:34, Luke tells us that “there were no needy persons among them” because they shared their belongings not only with each other, but also with those in the greater community. Consider this quote from Roman Emperor Julian, known for his antagonism toward the Christian faith: “[Christianity] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not one single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.” What a reputation our ancestors had!
In Acts 2, we learn that the Church enjoyed the favor of all the people. This community had a balance of inward relational focus and outward blessing of those in need. This balance of inward and outward drew people!
Openness to new people and revelation revitalizes community
A final point worth reflecting on is the diversity that emerged in the early years of the Church. The Jewish, male-dominated makeup of the earliest followers of Jesus gave way to a community that consisted of Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free people (Acts 2, 17). As the disciples realized exactly how far reaching the Good News of Jesus truly was, the Church became a place where people of vastly different backgrounds followed the same Lord together. And, as in Peter’s experience with dietary restrictions in Acts 10, strongly held cultural assumptions were challenged by new revelations of God’s openness. God’s kingdom is hardly homogeneous, so it’s a joy when our congregations and denomination can reflect that same reality!
Go and do
So we’re left with the simple question, Why did the Early Church’s community look like this? The answer is just as simple: It’s the way Jesus did it. The community Jesus created did much more than listen to Him teach. They walked with Him. They ate with Him. They fed those in need. They healed the suffering. They prayed together, worshipped together, talked about tough questions together. They shared their dark moments with Him, their times of doubt, and their wonderful breakthroughs. They did life together.
And then, as Jesus was preparing to leave, He told them to follow His example: “Go, do to other people what I have done with you, and my spirit will be there every step of the way.” And they did. Although there were some hiccups along the way, the Early Church was able to foster Christ-centered community that grew and expanded over age, race, cultural customs, gender norms, and religious backgrounds.
Let’s take our cues from the first followers of the way of Jesus, incorporating these important dynamics into our faith communities today!