A church like Bethany

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To declare that Jesus wasn’t a Christian is not just a familiar truism –  Christ couldn’t be a follower of Christ.  But I want to challenge another oft-repeated truism.  People say, with apparent wisdom, that Jesus didn’t found the church. I disagree – and Bethany is part of my reasoning.

Most Christians believe that the church started on the Day of Pentecost (Whitsun). On that day, we are told, 3000 people were “added to the church[1]. A few days later the number of believers grew to 5000[2].   Sceptics have cast doubt on these numbers, but they seem entirely reasonable in the context of the whole story of Jesus. I suggest that some of these people were entirely new converts, but many of them had already been convinced about Jesus by Jesus.

Jesus had method in the way he conducted his mission. During his 3 years of public ministry, he attracted many disciples and built numerous faith communities. We see examples in Capernaum, in Jericho, in Bethsaida, in Cana, at Nain, in Jerusalem, and even in Samaria.  When he visited those places, he didn’t book into a local B&B. He accepted hospitality from whoever invited him, and he taught in their houses. That’s how Jesus worked, and that’s how he told his disciples to work when he sent them out to preach – first as a group of 12, then as a group of 70[3].  To call Pentecost the ‘birthday’ of the church is to ignore what Jesus achieved during those 3 years. We aren’t told much about the faith-groups that Jesus founded – except for one – the household of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary in Bethany.

You may object, “But, the church hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit”.  True.  But these groups had the personal presence of Jesus. They benefitted directly from his teaching and example and, together with the small band of disciples who travelled around with him, are the foundations that Jesus laid in person. After Pentecost, the mission moved into top gear, with many people empowered to do what Jesus had been doing almost single-handedly. But those earlier discipleship groups were authentic models for ‘church’ as Jesus meant it to be.

A church like Bethany is a good idea – it was Jesus’ idea!  Bethany’s influence is crucial to the gospel story. Though, as a model of church, it wasn’t unique, it stands out because Jesus had a special relationship with the Bethany family – and because the Gospels describe it in detail.  They were sincere, devoted, committed and loyal – and they provide a beautiful model for church – 3 people, gathered together in Jesus’ name[4].

Small groups, meeting in houses, were the norm in the early churches and have been the starting point for renewal movements over the centuries. The simplicity of the model provides an ideal setting for mutual encouragement and discipleship – but there’s a limit to how many people can meet in a house. Healthy start-up churches eventually outgrow their accommodation and need bigger premises. As groups grow larger, they start to develop structure and organisation – which may be where problems begin.  Structure and organisation are necessary but, in some senses, they are necessary evils.   They present opportunities for corruption and power-play, and they create distractions that can turn churches into mere organisations. I’m not saying that churches shouldn’t grow. Growth is part of God’s plan for the church. But we mustn’t outgrow the simplicity, sincerity, devotion, and commitment that characterises a church like Bethany.

So, what was the Bethany fellowship like? It was small, but united in devotion to the Son of God. They were capable of disagreement (the argument between Martha and Mary) but humble enough to resolve disagreement and restore fellowship. Church is a human relationship and involves human feelings – and human failings. If you’ve never been hurt or disappointed in the church, you’ve probably not got close enough. When you get close enough, a church like Bethany is a source of healing, comfort, encouragement, and strength.

Bethany is the simplest of models for church. It had little structure or organisation; it was light on ritual and tradition; and it had limited premises or resources. Ritual, tradition, premises, and resources aren’t necessarily harmful but, if you have them without loving relationships, personal devotion, and practical care, you may have religion, but you don’t have church.  A church like Bethany is one where each member is devoted to Jesus. It’s a fellowship where individuals count. It promotes true discipleship. It attracts people to Jesus. And it serves its local community. The Bethany family demonstrated all these virtues, whilst remaining practical and down-to-earth. It’s a place worth studying – and emulating.

Let’s be practical. This kind of close-knit relationship weakens as numbers increase. Relationships are crucial to a church like Bethany, so you need to do something to maintain that energy. If all the church does is to hold big meetings, it’s not so much a church as a performance centre.  By fostering small groups[5], relationships can be maintained so that no individual is lost from sight. Small groups provide scope for people to disciple one-another – which is a more effective way of supporting faith than just listening passively to a sermon. Energised by the commitment that small groups foster, churches grow stronger – and increase in numbers.

However much our churches grow (and I hope and pray that they will grow) let’s always retain the close relationships, and the simple virtues that make the church distinctive. Let’s be a church like Bethany.

Learn more about Bethany from the book, and from the film of the stage musical:

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Little Church of Bethany
Paperback or Kindle
Available from Amazon
Bethany the Musical
Film of the premiere performances
In 5 short episodes on YouTube

[1] Acts 2:41 – NB by saying these 3000 people were “added to the church” does it imply that the church already existed?
[2] Acts 4:4
[3] See Matthew 10:5-15; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-7
[4] Matthew 18:20
[5] Variously called “cell groups”, “home groups”, “life groups”, “discipleship groups” etc.

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