In my second book, Reaching The Unreached: Becoming Raiders of the Lost Art I argued robustly for churches meeting in public spaces, noting that “almost all of the ministry done by Jesus and the apostles was done outside.” Who could have known that COVID was right around the corner and about to make the 1st century practice of church in public spaces a present reality?
The problem with discovering something in the New Testament is that we often tend to make that not just “a thing”, but “the thing”.
For example, to those who have discovered house churches in the pages of the New Testament, and see it as the only way forward, I’ve often issued the challenge that the church at its strongest moment actually met “house to house and temple courts” (Acts 5:42).
So where is your temple court gathering? Where is your infiltration of public space? To be truly biblical requires both.
Just to make sure that you don’t misunderstand what I laid down in Reaching the Unreached, I have been careful to compare the ministry-in-public-space concept to the “temple courts” in Jerusalem, which despite being “outside” could still be our modern day Starbucks, libraries, or workspaces.
In studying the New Testament methodology and missional practice, I have long learned that there is “nothing new under the sun”. In fact, in my latest book Church Plantology: The Science and Art of Planting Churches, I spend almost two whole chapters on Paul’s use of multi-use buildings in Ephesus to gather, train, and evangelize in the bustling metropolis.
Consider the following excerpt from Church Plantology and the implications for us in multi-use spaces:
After preaching the gospel in the synagogue at Ephesus for three months, arguing persuasively, Paul left the unresponsive Jews and “took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.” The hall of Tyrannus (literally the hall of the “tyrant,” “absolute ruler,” or “despot”) was probably a nickname given by one of his students, much like the moniker “The Great Knock” bestowed by C. S. Lewis on his tutor because he could give you an intellectual bashing if you weren’t on your toes. “[Tyrannus’s] pupils evidently attended his lectures in the cooler hours of the day and then teacher and pupils alike went home towards noon for their siesta;” then, during the middle of the day, Paul likely had the use of the hall and held public debate there.”9 “This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). During that tenure, Paul was training those disciples to reach their community as missionaries.
The training that went on in the lecture hall (Acts 19:9) resulted in the entire province of Asia hearing the gospel,
“So that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).
Luke amplifies this effect of establishing a hub in the region by repeating it two more times:
‘the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor” (Acts 19:17)
“the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (Acts 19:20)
These verses most likely refer to this spread of the gospel by strike teams that were sent out of Ephesus into the surrounding mountainous regions to plant the other six churches. If you trace the order of churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus addresses them in a northward ascending order, listing Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum, and then in a southward descending order, hitting Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
If you traced the order of churches addressed with a red pen, you would roughly draw a letter “n” on the map. The order of the letters follows the geographic direction one would take to navigate around the finger-like mountain ranges separating the first three churches listed from the final four. If you were to deliver the letters to the seven churches, you would naturally leave Ephesus, go up to Smyrna, and carry the letters in the order in which they are addressed. It’s therefore likely that this was also the chronological order in which those churches were planted. From Ephesus, the churches would have been planted outward in a geographical ring, spiraling outward into a wider ellipse with every successive church plant. It is my belief that Paul intentionally sent missionaries out from Ephesus to plant the network of the seven churches of Asia as the next step of strategic mission deployment during the two to three year stint we read about in Acts 19.
As Paul trained them in mission, Priscilla and Aquila trained the missionaries bivocationally to franchise their tent-making business, like Guy Pfanz’s coffee-roasting empire in the Midwest. Priscilla and Aquila owned homes in which the churches met at Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus, the three most significant church planting hubs outside of Antioch, demonstrating that they served a missiological function in each of them. When they encountered Apollos in Corinth, it is likely that they employed him after Paul left to carry on the work, facilitating future funding for himself as an emerging missionary. Perhaps they trained in the shops until Paul arrived in the hall of Tyrannus. Their bi-vocational tent-making empire that supported missionaries to bring the gospel to new frontiers may explain why Paul wrote of Aquila and Priscilla that “all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them” (Rom. 16:4, emphasis mine).
During Paul’s tenure time in Ephesus, his tentmaking directly funded the living expense of his fellow missionaries: “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions” (Acts 20:34, emphasis mine). This was the antithesis of Paul’s team supporting him financially, freeing him to preach in Corinth, for in Ephesus, Paul became the sender.
If this is an authentic church plantology principle, then it should be repeated throughout church history whenever multiplication movements have arisen. Movement scholar Steve Addison notes that the Moravians established a business in Herrnhut as a “center for prayer and worship” but also as a mission funding powerhouse much like Ephesus.10 The Celtic Monastics in Ireland and Wales established “monasteries” that doubled as powerhouses of prayer and training hubs from which missionaries were sent out. In The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George G. Hunter III noted, “In broad outline, the emerging strategy of Aidan and his people looks familiar. First, they multiplied monastic communities. We have no way of knowing how many such communities the movements spawned by Patrick, Columba, Aidan, and others established in the British Isles alone. John Finney cites evidence showing thirty-two monastic communities in the area of Worcester; that density would indicate many hundreds of monastic communities across the British Isles,” that “sent apostolic teams to reach settlements within the region.”11 Similarly, John Wesley, largely influenced by the mission hub of Herrnhut and his great respect for the Moravians, designed his chapel “The New Room” to be a three-story building with stables on the ground floor, a chapel on the second, and accommodations for circuit riders on the third. Wesley established a similar mission hub known as “The Foundry” in London years later, mirroring Paul’s strategy in Ephesus. From these bases, Wesley strategized a preaching circuit, manned by circuit riders, to cover the whole land in evangelism and discipleship under the name “connectionalism.”12 At the Foundry alone, their base of operations from April to June 1739, the number of disciples grew from twelve to three hundred! Out of this burgeoning growth “lay preaching evolved more out of necessity than by design.”13 Of course, Wesley had already discovered what Jesus had demonstrated by sending the seventy-two, that the best way to train missionaries is to send them on mission.” 1
There are a number of things that can be deduced from this:
- Buildings are not bad or unbiblical
- The way we utilize buildings can and should be for missional training and engagement.
- Sharing building space connects with the community and avoids unnecessary overhead.
- Multi-use buildings are what Paul the apostle used when he hit his stragical zenith during his co-vocational training venture in Ephesus.
- God has repeated this pattern throughout church history whenever the gospel has advanced beyond established boundaries.
To this end, I pray that innovative leaders will apply these principles to the challenges and opportunities presented to us in a Post-COVID world.
1 Jones, Peyton. Church Plantology (Exponential Series) (pp. 395-398). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.