For many years, among saints with whom we gathered, I had grown accustomed to defining churches by activities. (If a group of Christians is a church they will do this and that and the other and if they don't do those things they are not a church.) This manner of thinking allowed me to have a "measuring stick" by which to judge other gatherings of saints and determine in my mind whether or not they were a church!
But when I looked for such an "activities based" definition in scripture, I became troubled that no such definition could be found! I knew then that if my thinking on the church were to be truly scriptural, I would have to find a scriptural definition, even if my former thinking about the church would have to be radically altered!
It was then that I began to notice that every time the apostle Paul, the NT writer who writes most about the church, defines the church - he does it by relationships rather than by activities. See I Corinthians 1:2; II Cor.1:1; Ephesians 1:22,23; Philippians 1:1; I Thessalonians 1:1; II Thessalonians 1:1 etc.
It is for these reasons that I was deeply impressed by the following article by Bill Hoffman which I found at http://www.story.house2house.com/2009/05/06/church-at-table-number-two/
“Would you like us to pray for you about something?” I asked. Immediately the eyes of our waitress opened wide as she blurted out an answer in the affirmative. It was Tuesday evening and our men’s accountability group had gathered for our regular meeting at a local coffee shop. For the past several months we had been offering to pray for those who waited on us. Most of the requests we received were fairly superficial. “My grandma is sick.” “I have a test coming up tomorrow.” “My boyfriend needs a job.” But when “Fran” began to share her needs with us it was like someone had backed up a garbage truck to our booth and dumped its contents out onto our table. Her daughter was suffering from cancer. A grandson had been born with serious medical problems. And her adult son had been thrown out of his home along with his three-year-old daughter. Fran had sacrificed financially to set them up in an apartment nearby but they had no furniture and her son had no job. She was working two full-time jobs to support them all and was still sinking quickly into debt.
“We will certainly pray for all of these requests,” I promised, “and we will see what else we can do to help.” Over the next few days we managed to come up with some leads for employment for her son and found a few items of furniture for them to use. On the following Tuesday Fran, who turned out to be the night manager at the restaurant, was again our waitress and once again we offered to pray for her. By the third week Fran was sitting down with us in our booth and joining us in our prayers. This was the evening she dropped the bombshell that has revolutionized the way we’ve been doing church.
“Thank you so much for your prayers and for all your help,” she gushed with a huge smile. “You guys have meant so much to me! I look forward to Tuesday night all week. Other people have invited me to their churches but they all meet on Sunday mornings when I am always working. So, God brought you guys to me on Tuesday nights.” After spreading out her hands toward the rest of us sitting at the table she joyfully declared, “This is my church!”
I’m afraid the first thought that crossed my mind was, “No it’s not! This is a men’s accountability group.” But the Lord suddenly revealed to me that this is exactly what we had been praying for. For months we had been moved to fervently pray for “workers for the harvest” asking the Lord to specifically connect us to a “man of peace.’” These prayer directives came from our study of the book of Luke, chapter 10: 1-7. It dawned on us that we had just found a “man of peace” even though the “man” was definitely a female and her house was not a house at all but rather a restaurant.
At first we attempted to invite her to our weekly house-church fellowship that meets at our home on Sunday evenings. However, her schedule made this impossible and her own apartment was in a community some twenty miles away. So, we just resigned ourselves to accept the fact that the Lord of the harvest had just morphed our men’s accountability group into a rather unique church. Early on Fran provided the name for this special gathering when she related to us a conversation she recently had with a fellow employee.
“You’re doing drugs, aren’t you?” Fran asked one of her co-workers with a tone of compassion rather than accusation. “Don’t try to deny it because I’ve been around and I know the signs.”
The young waitress just stared back at her through dilated, bloodshot eyes waiting for the expected pronouncement of her termination.
“Don’t worry,” Fran continued, ‘I’m not going to fire you or turn you in to the police. I’m just concerned about you and I know that whatever your problems are this is not the answer. Jesus is the answer! We need to change your work schedule so you can be here on Tuesday nights. Then you can go to church with me.”
Feeling somewhat relieved, the drug-addicted waitress responded by asking, “Where is your church located?”
As her face erupted into a huge smile Fran pointed over to a booth in the corner of the restaurant and proudly proclaimed, “Table number two!”
From this point on our gathering has been called “The Church at Table Number Two.”
Not long after Fran revealed to us that our gathering was in fact a church, she told us she had a surprise for us. She then excused herself from the table, went back into the kitchen, and brought out the cook and his assistant. After we all introduced ourselves we asked the two men what we could do to help them.
“We have heard all that you have done to help Fran,” began one of the Hispanic men speaking in heavily accented English. “We both live in very small apartments and have very large families. Could you perhaps find us some furniture? We especially need beds for our children.”
“I don’t know if we can help you,” I responded. “But I know who can. Jesus was the one who found help for Fran. Would it be okay of we asked Jesus to help you, too?”
Within a couple of weeks we had found some used furniture for these men and we began to connect every Tuesday evening with the cook. He led us to another family in a nearby community who was also in dire need of help, a young, recently widowed Hispanic woman with three young children and very little means to support them. We soon began meeting regularly in this woman’s home taking the Love of Jesus with us and doing what we could to help. Before long we were also traveling regularly to the cook’s home and “doing church” with him and his family. The cook, his wife, and her mother have all placed their faith in Jesus and God continues to open up doors through them into the Hispanic community. This has all been truly amazing to us since neither my wife nor I speak any Spanish and most of these new acquaintances speak little if any English. I’m not even a fan of Mexican food, but God’s Word tells us to “eat what is set before you.” (Luke 10:8) So, I’m learning to sacrifice my tongue and digestive tract for the greater good of reaching out to a people group in our area who are in desperate need of the Gospel of love. We are learning that the love of Jesus can break through any ethnic barriers.
I believe it is significant to note that not one of these individuals have ever attended our own home gathering. However, we are perfectly content with this development. It’s not that we wouldn’t love to have them; it’s just that they would most likely have a difficult time adjusting to our way of doing things, not to mention our food. Besides, the Lord has been teaching us to change the direction of our focus. For years our goal was to grow our home gathering to the point where it would be obvious we needed to split off and start another group. We would then commission a few of our members and send them out to plant the next church in another home. It’s not that this concept is terribly wrong; it’s just terribly slow. Meanwhile, the harvest is ripe and waiting.
These days we are not asking people to join the group that meets in our home. When we come across a “man of peace,” or discover someone interested in doing simple church, or lead someone to the Lord, our first instinct is to plant a new church in their home. We ask them to gather together their family and friends, especially those who are not yet Christians or who don’t attend church anywhere else, and we proceed to help them plant a church in the surroundings they know best, where Jesus can make the biggest difference, in their homes and workplaces. The results have been truly remarkable. But why should we be surprised? This is exactly how Jesus taught us to do it.