Consecrated in 301 AD, the Etchmiadzin Cathedral is believed to be the oldest Christian cathedral on Earth,
and the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
As I have been considering what the 21st-century church would look like, I have been looking at houses of worship over the years. The first disciples worshipped in the outer courts of the temple and in the homes of the believers. Worshipping in homes, no doubt, continued through the first century and into the second. Considering the battles going on right now in the United Methodist Church over buildings and properties, I wonder if we would be better off worshipping as the early Christians did, rather than building churches.
Do we need a church building set aside to worship God? In each of the churches, I have served a large part of the budget went to upkeep and maintaining a building that was often used rarely other than Sunday. Is that being a good steward of our finances? Could we invite and disciple new believers better if we simply met them at a mutually convenient place?
When the first disciples worshipped and prayed they did so in people's homes, According to the article below, there is evidence in Rome that Christians met in various public places, possibly warehouses or apartment buildings, also. Even though they weren't in the same building, they still "maintained unity." It isn't where we worship, but whom we worship that unites us.
The other thing that happens with churches is that people take ownership and the building becomes the priority. They do all of their ministry within the building with the same people they worship with, never looking beyond the doors for broken people needing Jesus. We know from the book of Acts that Christianity was not limited because they had no designated building to worship in. During periods of persecution, they often had to worship in places that would not get the attention of their persecutors. But that did not keep them from evangelizing and growing as a Christian body.
According to Everett Ferguson in his article, Why and when did Christians start constructing special buildings for worship? writes that the early Christians probably built churches for the same reason we do, "Special functions, such as daily Bible Teaching, baptisms, and the distribution of gifts to the poor..." And maybe that was a wise decision, but then I think of John Wesley and the first Methodists.
After being kicked out of the Anglican pulpit, Wesley reluctantly tried field preaching suggested by his good friend, George Whitefield. At first, Wesley was not comfortable preaching outside. On April 2, 1739, he wrote in his journal, "At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people." Being banned from the church building benefitted the poor incredibly because it gave Wesley an opportunity to reach those people who were not welcome in the Church of England in his day.
When Wesley realized he needed to organize his followers, he didn't build churches, he built orphanages, schools, clinics, and homes for widows. Then he organized his followers into societies, classes, and bands. Small groups were not a new concept in Wesley's time, but the way he promoted small groups was very different. He expected accountability from his disciples and utilized the laity to lead these groups.
He traveled more than 250,000 miles on horseback spreading the gospel and making disciples. Brian E. Germano, tells us in his book, Christianity the Wesleyan Way: Principles and Practices of Life and Ministry, "What began in 1743 as a single Methodist circuit in England with only a few members had by 1798 grown to a ministry of 149 circuits in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, with nearly 102,000 members..." and even more outside Great Britain.
Wesley's desire was never to form a church, but to reform The Church of England. His focus was always on making disciples and he only bought buildings to that end. I don't believe that he ever built a separate, designated church building for worship. And yet, Methodism grew from 4 to 132,000 members in his lifetime.
The incredible growth of the early church and early Methodism was done without ornate, elaborate church buildings, perhaps we should keep this in mind as we consider the church of the 21st century.