When the Grace Family of Churches in Georgia planted a new church in the heart of Atlanta, it wanted that church to be like the one described in Acts 2, devoted to fellowship, to prayer and to breaking bread together.
It wanted to see what house church pastor Rob Kaple called “the expression of the first century church.” It wanted to empower people to do the work of the body of Christ – to be not just a church of staff people, he said, but a church of people.
It wanted to make disciples in the neighborhoods, the nations and the next generation.
More than anything, the house church pastor said, it wanted to be the church.
Nearly a decade later, Grace Midtown Church is being the church in Atlanta, meeting in house churches throughout the week and a large gathering on Sunday; reaching out to its Muslim neighbors, the students on the city’s college campuses and marginalized communities like the homeless and sexually exploited; and launching the worship band Housefires.
“It’s been an experiment and adventure for the past few years as we’ve been growing and seeing God use us,” Kaple said.
To Grace Midtown, he said, being the church isn’t about a building or event or program. It’s about people.
“We believe God wants to minister to us through each other, and so that has to do with caring for each other’s needs, and it also has to do with reaching out and expanding the Kingdom of God in the world, activating the members of the body of Christ,” he said.
One way Grace Midtown has done that is through its house churches. It started with one group that met midweek; then two, Kaple said. Then students began asking what the church was doing at their colleges, and the church responded by activating them, training students to start house churches on their campuses.
Like the church in Acts, he said, those house churches “read the Bible and they prayed together and they ate and they laughed and they told stories and they worshipped. They went out on mission together.”
The church now has about 40 house churches that meet in different neighborhoods of the city and on every major college campus. Most have about 10 to 12 people. Its college groups are among its largest, he said – some with 50 or 60 people.
And those house churches have created a “culture of worship,” an environment where people can come together in the presence of God and sing songs and use their gifts without a stage or a screen or a microphone, he said. Housefires, which released its second album last September, grew out of that environment.
One house church of about 35 people even is relocating to Washington, D.C., this summer to plant a new church there, he said.
‘Family on mission’
Kaple described those groups as “family on mission.”
“Family is a big part of the gospel message. To follow Jesus is to be part of something bigger than yourself. What better way than to suddenly find yourself in the middle of a family you didn’t know you could have as a part of the message of the gospel itself?” he said.
And it makes sense for those families to meet in a house, like the early church, he said.
“That’s where life actually takes place. It’s become an amazing holistic picture for us of what God wants to do in our lives: He doesn’t want us to go to church and then come home and go back to our real lives. He wants to be a part of our real lives,” he said.
With its emphasis on being the church, Grace Midtown has encountered many people who have been wounded, for whom the word “church” comes with negative connotations, Kaple said. But that word is too important, he said, to abandon completely.
“We talk a lot about the church. We talk about being the church, and we’re committed to reframing that for our generation,” he said.
The Atlanta church wants to reframe church not as a building or event. It’s not meant to be an institution or a machine or “a factory that spits out little Jesus followers,” according to the house church pastor.
“The church is an organism. It’s a living, breathing thing,” he said. “I think people have to experience it to really understand it, but when they do, it’s so refreshing.”