You can start a weekly service simply by having a meeting with most of the people and deciding where and when services will be and what will be done there. Sometimes, there is great unity in the spirit and everything just falls into place. In other such meetings, there may be one or more strong personalities who want to do almost everything "their way". These people are well-meaning and should be a part of the group, but they are sometimes just difficult to work with. One solution for this is to ask an elder from another established non-denominational congregation to come help the group get started. This guest leader must understand that he is just helping the new group get started - not expanding his congregation. Asking for help can be a difficult thing to do, but it is the right thing to do if it is obviously needed.
As meetings continue, many physical and procedural questions will be raised and they can be dealt with as necessary. Most people who have started congregations in this manner are amazed at how many things that they thought would need much attention at the beginning simply never became problems. As an example, it is easy to spend a lot of time looking for a meeting place, but many groups meet effectively in a member's home. Similarly, it is easy to spend a lot of time scheduling and structuring all the functions of a group, but some have worked effectively for years with volunteers for each task.
This section addresses the most fundamental issue, "How does a group get started?"
Where will the first service be?
What time will the service be?
What will take place at the service?
When will other meetings be held to further plan the church congregation?
Who will do which things?
The entire Bible makes frequent mention of the leadership of Elders (older, mature, capable men recognized by the people they serve). The Bible mentions elders governing in the Church very similar to the way it mentions them governing the physical Israelite nation. Exceptional people, such as John the Baptist and Jesus, could be accepted as elders at age 30. Age 40 was probably more common. An irresponsible person, no matter how old, would never be considered an elder.
This author highly recommends that new groups start as simply and as naturally as possible. People should begin meeting, praising and studying together, and work out the details as they go (not ignore them forever). If a group's beginning is centered primarily on positions, functions and documents, Christ and the Bible can be pushed aside.
If one family invites three other families to their home for dinner, hymn singing and a Bible study, they usually do not need a set of documents explaining how they will eat and study together. There frequently will be no difficult issues, and if there are, most people will defer to a recognized leader or the host of the house where they are meeting.
The Bible contains references to Church decisions being made in a variety of ways: sometimes by an apostle or other single leader, sometimes by a group of leaders, sometimes by everyone. The size of a group DOES make a major difference when meeting to form a congregation:
Groups of 20 and under can almost always meet and discuss issues with everyone present. In any group, there are usually some elderly, young adults, women with children or others who prefer not to take part in such meetings. If they exclude themselves, there will be no complaints. A problem to avoid, for small groups, is selecting a number of people to attend the initial meetings that is almost as big as the entire group. For example, if a new congregation of 16 people somehow selects 12 people to do their initial planning - that effectively means the whole congregation minus four people. Unless those four specifically do not want to be involved in planning, it would be better to include everyone, lest they feel left out. This writer has seen small, like-minded groups accomplish a lot with little formal plans.
Groups of 40 and larger will probably want a smaller body to meet for initial planning. The entire congregation can vote on alternatives proposed by the smaller group. Plans for a formal structure must eventually be made.
Groups with 200 or more will certainly want a smaller body for initial discussion and decisions. A formal means of structuring the group so everything can be done "decently and in order" (1Corinthians 14:40) will be needed very soon.
Sometimes, there are already natural leaders (an outstanding teacher, or maybe pastors or elders from previous groups) that nearly everyone trusts to start the new group. If they have a real love for God and the congregation, they can frequently do the necessary work very efficiently. This is one effective way to get started. But unless these leaders have a firm commitment to developing a "shared ministry", with all of the brethren developing their spiritual gifts, it is easy to end up with another pastor-centered congregation.
In other instances, brethren attempting to establish a new congregation may find major disagreement with leaders or issues. Adjourning the meeting to pray and consult the Scripture can often produce results. If the items of difficulty appear to be dividing the group in the initial informal setting, then the establishment of a fair formal structure of elders, voting and whatever else is necessary should be the highest priority.
The whole emphasis in leadership is to find people with the gifts of administration and service and to let them serve. The Bible does not support either the idea of elders ruling between Christ and believers (2Corinthians 1:24) or the modern idea that every little interest group should "have a voice in decision-making". For example, if a congregation has several left-handed people, you do not have to have a left-handed elder. If left-handed brethren have special needs, they should be able to go to the elders and show them what they are. The same would be true for racial and ethnic groups. Elders should be chosen based on their gifts to serve as elders, not for their ethnic representation. Ask God to help choose people who are gifted at administration and who will serve others.
Finding a meeting place for services
Finding a place to worship is an important decision, but it is not critical in the sense that any mistakes made can be corrected - provided you do not over-commit yourself. A congregation should never think about buying a building until they have successfully met together for a number of months or even years. Do not even sign a long-term rental contract until your congregation is stable. A new congregation's needs may change quickly, or you might not know exactly what they are, yet. You may be offered a cheaper rate for a long-term commitment, but the savings is not worth it if there is any chance that a poor hall choice will divide your group. Even a facility that normally only works with long-term contracts should let you meet there once to "try it out" or give you a short lease the first time.
The type of meeting place you will need depends greatly on the nature of your congregation. Small congregations composed primarily of a small group of brethren can meet in a variety of houses or other facilities and easily inform each other of changes in location. However, others want to visit your congregation without much notice, or if your congregation has begun evangelism, then a stable meeting time and place is important. Also, a building that is centrally located, easy to find and easy to give directions to is important (for example, the Jamestown Community Center may have a nice sign and parking lot, whereas room 217 of a large office building may be difficult to find). If possible, avoid meeting in areas that are known for lack of parking, crime, racial animosity, or other kinds of trouble.
Obviously, the meeting room needs to be large enough to comfortably seat all of the brethren with a little space left over for unexpected guests. If someone has to sit on the floor once in a while, do not worry, our Savior taught people while they were sitting on the ground. Seating should be arranged so that people may enter or exit during the meeting with a minimum of disruption. If small children are present, a separate room should be available for parents to take crying or fussing children that would otherwise disrupt the service. (If you feel that such a room is unnecessary, talk to someone who currently has a child under 2 years old.) Bathrooms should be located where people of all ages can easily get to them.
The facility should be cheerful—both inside and out. It is very hard to be excited about going to a dreary building. Ideally, the meeting room should contain a piano, sound system, speaking stand, and chairs already set in place. These factors should enter into your decision, but not make it since there are ways to work around each of them.
The following paragraphs list possible meeting places, and the pros and cons of each. When a congregation is looking for a new meeting place, the first thing to do is ask each potential member to check the availability and cost of facilities that they already know about. If a suitable place is not found, next try asking the local chamber of commerce in each city where you might meet. Finally, go to the yellow pages (under halls, churches, clubs, etc.) and begin making some calls.
Possible Meeting Places for Church Services
These are the obvious choice to get started. They are private, there is little cost, and bathroom, kitchen and “mother’s room” facilities are always there. Nevertheless, these facilities should not be taken for granted: it is a lot of work to clean a house, before and after a service. The host’s cost for water, telephone, heat, airconditioning, paper towels, tissues, etc. will all probably increase. If one person’s home is continually used for services, the congregation should at least offer to help clean it or to compensate them in some way. (If the host clearly wants to contribute his home for services, let him do it.)
Some cities may have zoning ordinances against church meetings in residential areas, though the government usually cannot take any action unless one or more neighbors complain. Obviously, brethren should be careful not to offend the neighbors of the host—not using street parking that neighbors normally use and not making excessive noise. If you live your beliefs, you will want to be a good neighbor. If your services are creating a hardship for the host’s neighbors, find a solution to the problems you are causing or move somewhere else. On the other hand, if neighbors are complaining primarily to persecute you, you probably do not need to stop. If you state that you meetings are private (not public), but that people who want to worship according to your church covenant are invited, then zoning rules for public meetings probably do not apply.
Existing Church Buildings
These buildings are usually designed to do exactly what you want to do and are available in all sizes. Congregations that are short on money are often happy to rent their facilities when they are not using them. The major difficulty with securing the use of an existing church building is religious animosity: people may not want to rent to believers with different beliefs because that would “legitimize them”.
If you approach the issue like this: “We are all trying to do our best to live as we understand the Scriptures and we will not judge each other,” the chances of sharing a building will be greater. When groups actually work together and get to know each other, it is much easier to see how much they have in common—that they are each attempting to follow the Bible, even though they may not agree exactly how.
It is often difficult to know which church groups would be willing to rent their facilities for weekly services. Some groups may simply have too much trouble getting approval from their governing bodies. Others may have too many activities to make room for another group. When one group observes a Sunday Sabbath and the other a Saturday Sabbath, it can be easy to share the same space. Also, this author has heard of a few cases where one group will have morning services, another group will have afternoon services on the same day, and the two share a time in the middle— either for food and fellowship or for singing praise.
Many church buildings have a “fellowship hall” or “classroom” separate from their main “sanctuary”. These rooms are frequently much better for setting up tables and chairs and studying the Bible in an interactive way. Many congregations are much more willing to rent these rooms than they are to rent their “sanctuary”.
Numerous businesses have meeting rooms, classrooms or open-air office space that could be used for a congregation’s services. Most of these businesses are not using this space at all on weekends. Their biggest concern is the security of their business: will everything in the same place each Monday morning that it was Friday at closing? Most businesses will not let a group use their facilities unless someone who works at the business also attends the meetings to make sure that nothing “goes wrong”. Nevertheless, the people who attend your services should think about the businesses where they or their close relatives might find a meeting room. Sometimes, these facilities are made available without charge. Whether charged or not, you will certainly want to make sure that you leave the facility in the same condition that you found it.
Residential Meeting Rooms
Larger apartments, condominiums, trailer parks and retirement homes may have a meeting room that could be used for services. These facilities usually have parking, rest rooms and other essentials quite nearby. They are inexpensive, but usually someone from your group must live there. Before using, be sure that the sounds from any adjacent laundry, game rooms, pools, etc. will not bother the services. Brethren need to be sensitive to the needs and rights of other tenants. If too much parking space is consumed or if adjacent game rooms are monopolized by “children from church” after services, the tenants will rightfully complain.
Community Centers, Schools and Libraries
From 20-person conference rooms to 1000-seat auditoriums, public facilities are often very good and can be inexpensive. Unfortunately, the people who schedule such rooms may have regulations forbidding their use by church groups. The regulations vary greatly from one place to the other, and are often not based upon any law, or on constitutionally questionable laws. If one is denied use of a facility for a Church service, it may help to ask if it is available for Native American, Muslim or Oriental religious use. Supreme court decisions over the last several years have upheld the right for Christians to have equal access to government facilities available to other religions.
On the other hand, it may not be possible to have a “private” meeting in a “public” facility—which can open up potential problems. Also, consider that some public facilities are hard to reserve on a continuing basis. Civic and school special events take priority over even a regular “renter”. If a science fair, a sports tournament or some other local event occurs when you normally rent the facility, it may not be available.
Clubs and Societies
There are numerous social, partly-political, and partly religious organizations that build halls and may be willing to rent them every week. American Legion, Eagles, Elks, Kiwanis, Knights of Columbus, Lions, Masons, Moose, Odd-fellows, Rotary, and Veterans are examples. Most of them rent their hall as a sideline to defray expenses, and will always put the needs of their own group first (weddings or even parties). Some may have a few annual events that will prevent usage some weeks. Some will have non-biblical symbols and paintings that you may wish to cover up during meetings. Some of these groups have connections with occult and demonism; if brethren in your congregation are offended by them, it would be better to meet somewhere else. Not all of these clubs will be listed in the phone book, but the local chamber of commerce will usually know about them. They frequently have good kitchens, mother’s rooms, and other extras. Make sure several people see the facilities before agreeing to rent them—some have a permanent odor of cigarettes; some are poorly maintained.
Halls for Rent
These facilities are usually more expensive, but dealing with them is straightforward since their owners are in business to make a profit. If you agree to their price and make reservations before other customers, they will usually agree to rent their facility years in advance. There may be extra charges around holidays when hall demand is higher. It is generally better to pay a higher price than to go through the confusion of changing to a different building. Realize, though, that if someone else wants to book the facility for a solid week or more, the owner would not like to refuse them just because a congregation has booked the facility for part of a day. It is important to keep friendly communication open and even ask if there are any fairs or other local events where the facility has been booked solid in the past. The last thing you would want is to show up to your service location, find a convention in progress and a manager who “forgot” that this 2-week convention and your weekly contract have a “point of collision”. A good facility, available 51 weeks of the year, is usually better than a poor one available 52 weeks. But the larger a congregation, the more important is a consistent meeting place.
Hotel and Restaurant Meeting Rooms
These kinds of meeting rooms are easy to find, but relatively difficult to book on a consistent basis. Hotels and restaurants build meeting rooms to attract customers to their main business, not to specifically make money from rentals. A hotel may rent a meeting room for $100 for one day, but they would much rather give it away free to a convention that uses 50 rooms at $50 per night. A restaurant would rather have a room full of people ordering food and drinks, than just a room full of people studying. Other difficulties with these types of rooms include noise from other customers, lack of privacy, no “mother’s room” and often a complete prohibition from snacks or pot-luck meals (hotel/ restaurant food only). The environment just frequently oriented toward worldliness rather than worship. These rooms may provide a place of meeting in an emergency, but usually do not work well on a long-term basis.
Naming a new church
All believers must first and foremost recognize that we are part of the one Church (from the Greek Ekklesia, meaning "assembly") made up of all people with the Holy Spirit. Church congregations should not try to give themselves a name that describes the entire Church (Catholic, Universal, Global, International, All-Inclusive, Transcontinental, etc). One humanly devised group does not represent the entire Church - they do not even know exactly who the entire Church is. Churches that use such names often get mixed up and begin thinking that they are the "one true Church".
The opposite reaction is to say "God knows His Church and our human congregation is nothing, so we will not take any name." Invariably, outsiders will make up a name for a group that does not name itself, even if it is something like "John Smith's Church", "that former-Baptist Group", "the Town Hall Congregation", or "those heretics". It is probably better to choose a name for a group than it is to let others choose a name. Furthermore you will need a name if you want to place a phone book or newspaper add, write any correspondence or literature in the name of your congregation, establish a bank account, etc.
While the word "church" in the Bible sometimes refers to all believers everywhere, it also sometimes refers to a single, local congregation. The names used for congregations occur many places in the Bible. These local names start with the word "Church", frequently add "of God" or in one case "of Christ" (Romans 16:16), and usually conclude with a preposition and place name ("at Corinth" or "of the Thessalonians"). This formula can still be used today. "The Church of God in Seattle", "The Vermont Church of Christ" or "The Southwestern Dallas Assembly" are some examples. (The Greek word for "church", ekklesia, is actually translated "assembly" three times in Acts 19:32, 39, 41.) Unfortunately, there are two reasons why this naming method does not work as well today:
The names "Church of God", "Church of Christ", "Assemblies of God" , "Assemblies of Christ" and others that use common Bible words are used (and owned) by existing denominations. An independent group may wish to avoid those names simply to avoid being confused with those denominations.
Believers are much less unified than they were in the first century. One independent congregation usually does not represent the entire Church in a particular geographic area. There are many other believers in Seattle who do not attend "The Church of God in Seattle".
These problems can be avoided by calling the group a "Fellowship", "Congregation" or "Meeting" rather than "the Church". Greatly limiting the geographic area can also help. The Market Street Seattle Fellowship" is more accurate. It does not claim to define who is in the Church at all - it just declares that certain people get together to fellowship at that place. This kind of name may sound too local or too humble, but that may be exactly what you want: a local, humble group through which God can do great things.
You want to avoid using the same name as another group both to avoid confusion and prevent legal problems. If you include a place-name in your title, it is much easier to be sure you are not duplicating someone else's name - you need only look in your local phonebooks and newspaper church listings to be sure that you are not duplicating another group's name. (If you do not include a place name, e.g. "Congregation of the Almighty God", you would have to search your entire state or country to avoid a name conflict.) To be very diligent in verifying that you are not using another group's name, you can check (in the United States) with your state's Secretary of State to find if you are duplicating a corporate name. Also, counties, cities and states keep records of DBA ("Doing Business As") names.
This author highly recommends that congregations not be named after leaders, dead or alive (1Corinthians 1:11 - 17; 3:1 - 10). Also, do not name a congregation after a particular doctrine or practice (baptism, form of government, speaking in tongues, etc.). While many groups do this, it tends to serve as a point of division. By placing a doctrine in the name, it may attract people who already believe the doctrine, but it will discourage those who do not believe it. Yet, if the doctrine is true, the very ones who need to hear it are those who do not yet believe it. For example, a person who does not believe in baptism might avoid the Hill Street Baptist Church, but be willing to attend the Hill Street Congregation and learn about baptism when someone there simply decides to teach about it.