THE SHAPE OF THE CHURCH – ARTICLE 2: A SHAPE TO AVOID AT ALL COSTS!
When a group of believers – even a very small group – get together to talk about forming, in their area, a new “Called-Out Group” (the literal translation of “Ecclesia” or “Church”), I notice that they usually assume that some kind of “worship services” will be an essential part of their future together.
I HAVE SLOWLY, BUT SURELY, COME TO THE CONCLUSION, OVER MANY YEARS, THAT NEW GROUPS SHOULD STEER COMPLETELY CLEAR OF INTRODUCING “WORSHIP SERVICES” INTO THE CHURCH-FAMILY LIFESTYLE THAT I WROTE ABOUT IN THE PREVIOUS ARTICLE.
I KNOW THIS IS A HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL STATEMENT, BUT PLEASE TAKE TIME TO CONSIDER WHAT I HAVE TO SAY.
(I have actually written on this topic before, on this Website – but it was a long time ago, and you would have to scroll down, well beyond the list of the ten most recent articles, in order to find what I said then. I am going to include a small portion of that earlier material, towards the end of this present article, because I feel this message desperately needs to be heard.)
NOTICE, I AM NOT SAYING: “AVOID WORSHIP”. WHAT I AM SAYING IS: “AVOID TRYING TO CONTRIVE SITUATIONS WHERE WORSHIP WILL TAKE PLACE.” Worship is a vital element in the lifeblood of God’s People. However, in the Bible it is rarely reported as occurring at meetings specifically structured for the purpose.
If you think about it, there is no real indication, in the entire New Testament, that regular, organised, corporate worship took place, and no clear recommendation that it should do so. In the Old Testament period, it had been different. There was the Temple Worship, and, latterly, regular worship services in the synagogues (though that just crept into Jewish lifestyle, and was not a response to anything the Heavenly Father had ever said!) However, in the New Testament era, the Spirit had come upon Believers, and Jesus had taught that “neither in this place (nor in any other specific place) should people worship – but in Spirit and in Truth’”. In other words: Real Worship will happen when people are genuinely moved by the Spirit. Taking this teaching of Jesus into account, I am not surprised that regular organised worship doesn’t seem to be a feature of what went on in the Early Church.
A New Testament writer certainly said: “Forsake not the gathering of yourselves together” – but that was for “encouraging one another”. There is absolutely no mention of Worship in that passage! (In fact, “encouraging one another” is the very “Family Contact and Care” that I talked about in my previous article on “The Shape of the Church”). Then again, there are several reports of Believers gathering to hear straightforward teaching, or to pray together about specific issues – but the worship/teaching/prayer sandwich that is so common everywhere today doesn’t really seem to be reported!
Often quoted in support of “meetings for worship” are the strongly-worded reminders in 1st Corinthians 11:20-22, and 14:26-28, that, when Christian gather together, their gatherings should not just be like those of everyone else, but should he peppered with elements that “build up” those who are present, in their faith. The Lord’s Death should be remembered, and appropriate words-of-advice, in various forms, should be given. There should even be the opportunity for spiritual songs to be introduced by different individuals present. If you look properly at those verses in Corinthians, however, you will see that they are referring to is social gatherings of believers (often round a meal). They do not seem to be talking about the kind of Organised Meetings for Singing/Praying/Reading/Teaching, that are so common today.
Whenever, in the Bible, Worship is reported to have taken place, it almost always occurred spontaneously! Something happens, or something is said, or even something is sung, that gives rise to a spontaneous upsurge of joyous appreciation of the Lord, from the hearts of Believers. (If you don’t believe me, read Chapter 6 of my little book “Custom and Command” – which you can look at right away, if you want, by downloading it briefly, and freely, through this website. That gives a fairly full account of occasions, even in the OT, where spontaneous worship took place.)
Now, I fully admit that a spontaneous worshipful response can occur in the kind of “Worship Services” that are such a central feature of most Christian groups. However, there are hidden dangers and pitfalls in setting up meetings-for-worship, and I believe that people who are seriously thinking about the “shape” of the Church ought to be aware of these dangers and pitfalls! (This is the bit that I wrote about a few years ago.)
The underlying danger is that Church Services and Meetings – with their mixture of singing, prayer, scripture-reading, teaching, and perhaps some kind of response –always seem to settle into a pattern. Even if the ‘church-service’ style is used in a small and informal group, such as a home group, a pattern inevitably develops.
There are two problems about a pattern. The first is that any particular pattern appeals to some people, but puts other people off. So often I have heard Christians speak along these lines: “I couldn’t go to your group meeting because it is too ‘happy-clappy’… or too serious… or too loud and extrovert… or too intellectual… or too introspective”…and so on. No matter what the style, if it appeals to some, it is off-putting to others! The other problem is that many of those who initially like the style of the meeting eventually tire of it themselves, and get itchy feet to join some other group that conducts its meetings in a different way.
If you are at the stage of the people who originally asked me “What shape should a local church have?” I would say that if you try to introduce a church-meeting-style gathering, as part of how you see the future, you will never get everyone to fully agree on what form that gathering should take. Sooner or later your group will divide, and possibly even go on dividing. If, however, you simply see yourselves as a ‘family of believers’, it is considerably easier for everyone to feel comfortable.
I would add to all this that, by including church-style meetings, you are putting extra demands on folks who might become interested in the Christian Faith through contact with someone, or several people, in your group. You are not only asking them to get in line with Jesus, and His ways of doing things, but you are also asking them to get in line with a lot of trappings as well – e.g. a specific style of singing that may not be their taste, or specific ways of teaching with which they may not be comfortable. I put it to you that the way forward is to act just like a normal biological family, except that all the family members happen to be Christians.
Sadly, I find that most Christians (even among those who have left the Institutional Church after much thought and prayer) only believe they are really being a ‘called-out group’, and only feel they are having genuine fellowship, if holding a church-service-style meeting is part of the ‘package’. I have become convinced that that is not the way forward. It is by no means commanded, or recommended, in the New Testament, and I have observed that, in practice, it often leads to dissatisfaction an even to division and sub-division. THIS IS WHY I URGE PEOPLE WHO ARE SETTING OUT ON THE ‘OUT-OF-TRADITIONAL-CHURCH’ LIFESTYLE, TO CONCENTRATE ON THE ‘FAMILY’ SHAPE THAT I TALKED ABOUT IN THE PREVIOUS ARTICLE ON THIS WEBSITE, AND NOT TO BECOME SIDE-TRACKED BY TRYING TO DEVISE SOME KIND OF REGULAR MEETING.
I appreciate that the contents of this present article have not answered all your questions about the ‘Shape of a Local Church’ – so, next month, in the final article on the subject, I shall try to deal with the kind of issues that might still bother you.
TO BE CONTINUED (AND CONCLUDED)…….
Thanks, Randall, for your comment. You are right to emphasize that our ‘social’ gatherings are not like those that most people have, but have the definite purpose of “building up one another”. However, though I may not have used the best word to describe the gatherings, I feel their true nature was made clear in the body of the article. Nevertheless, I admit that, though that is obvious to me, it may not be obvious to every reader. It’s good to make sure that what is written is “fine-tuned”. Stan.