In the New Testament there were some “invisible churches.” What? How is that possible? We all know that the church is made up of people and people have bodies, they are not spirits. Jesus stated this truth in Luke 24:39. Since this is so, surely no church can be literally invisible. So I must mean something else, right? Maybe I mean that they were underground. That is, like some churches in China and in other places in the world, they met in secret so as not to call attention to themselves. Some churches in today’s world do that so they will not be discovered by the government. The early disciples of Jesus did on one occasion seek to “hide” themselves from their fellow Jews (John 20:19). However, I cannot think of any text which explicitly says that this was a regular practice of the New Testament church.
If you thought that by invisible I meant the churches were underground that would be a reasonable guess, but that is not what I am referring to. Perhaps I mean that they would be more difficult to find than churches in America today because there were no church buildings. The early Christians met where they could, in the temple courts and houses (Acts 5:42). In fact there are multiple references to churches meeting in houses (1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phlm. 2).
However, what I mean by invisible is that there were some churches that existed but that is about all we know about them. They are mentioned in Scripture but we know little to nothing about them. Churches that fall into this category include “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria” (Acts 9:31 NIV) and the church in Hierapolis (Col. 4:13).
The first seven chapters of Acts are taken up with accounts about the church in Jerusalem. In Acts 8 we learn that Philip went to Samaria (Acts 8:5). He had a very successful ministry there; people were saved, healed, and delivered (Acts 8:6-8, 12). I think it is safe to say that this became a church, a gathering of believers. The Lord really blessed the work there. This should not be a surprise to us because Jesus specifically mentioned that He wanted the area evangelized (Acts 1:8). In Acts 8 we also learn that the apostles Peter and John also ministered to the people that Philip evangelized.
In addition, these two apostles ministered to people in other Samaritan villages as well (Acts 8:25). Though Scripture does not explicitly say so I would guess there were some who believed as a result of their ministry in those cities. Perhaps this is where the other Samaritan churches came from. However, we have no detailed information about any Samaritan churches (except for Philip’s, and that work is never actually called a church). We also do not have information about the churches located in the other areas mentioned in Acts 9:31. And this is not the only case.
In Colossians 4:13 Paul mentions a group of believers in Hierapolis. He does not say much about them, he makes just a passing reference to them. What he does say is that Epaphras was working hard for them. This is very meager information, nothing else is said about them. This church barely shows up in the New Testament record. Paul knew about the group there and the believers in Colossae knew (at least after they received the letter). The believers in Hierapolis have a very low profile in Scripture.
Does this lack of information mean that these churches were not important? Not at all. I am sure they were very important to those who attended them. In these churches people could worship God and be instructed, encouraged, and prayed for. They could be ministered to in a number of ways. Probably the only significant difference between these congregations and the churches in Jerusalem and Ephesus is that they did not have much written about them in the sacred text. But the lack of attention given to these churches in no way minimizes their value, either in the eyes of the Lord or of people. For whatever reason, the Lord chose not to direct the inspired writers to include a lot of information about these churches.
If the truth be told there are a lot of “invisible churches” in the world today; some are very small and others are quite large. Most of us probably attend one. What I mean is that a lot of people barely take note of us. People can find our buildings, the names of our churches, and their addresses and phone numbers, they are available for the world to see but we are not given much attention. We expect that from unbelievers, who frequently have no interest in spiritual things. But many of our churches are not even known by other Christians. I expect that this is quite common today because there are many more churches in the world now than there were during the first century. Most churches do not have TV programs nor are they written up in major Christian publications. They don’t attract a lot of attention. People may know our churches exist but they don’t know much more. We may be faithfully serving the Lord’s purposes and meeting needs in the world and in the church but there is seemingly no account kept of it, there is no fanfare or recognition.
Being “invisible” is not necessarily bad (as long as we are doing our Father’s business), in fact, it may help keep us from pride. But remember there is one who sees and He rewards us according to our works. If we serve with little or no recognition or acclaim that is okay, but let us serve faithfully, for that is what our Lord desires.
John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Zion Bible Institute and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written articles and book reviews for a number of publications including: the Pneuma Review, the Africanus Journal of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Christian Trends Magazine, in India, and Berita Mujizat and Jurnal Jaffray, both in Indonesia. He is also the author of four books.