As I often do, I send off a proposal and then let my mind wander. But I'm very close to finishing another chapter of my proposed book Generous Ecclesiology. Chapter 3 is titled, "How and Where We Meet" and I have written three posts in the chapter here on previous Mondays:
3.1 Houses and Synagogues
3.2 Cathedrals and Homes
3.3 Saturdays and Sundays
So here's the final installment to this chapter.
We have argued in this chapter that the early church generally met on Sundays to celebrate Jesus' resurrection and that Christian Jews probably continued to worship on the Saturday Sabbath. Most assemblies probably met in houses, but we have no basis to say that all of them did. The long and short of it is that the New Testament does not lay down hard and fast rules for any of these things. Far from telling us where and when we have to meet, the New Testament does not even suggest that the early churches had hard and fast practices themselves.
One take away from all this discussion is that we can welcome the great creativity that churches today are showing in how and when they meet. Certainly nothing stops us from having the now tried and true meetings in church buildings on a Sunday morning. There is something to say for having a default. When the apostle Paul went to a new city, he could count on finding a synagogue gathering of some sort on Saturday. Similarly, there is something to be said for being able to find a worship service on Sunday morning when you are visiting a city you have never visited before!
But starting new services at new sites or even church "plants" are usually a sign of a growing, flourishing community of faith. Indeed, in some instances, the "core" congregation has so dwindled and is so anemic that grafting in a new branch in a second service or site may be the only way for that church to survive. That dying church whose neighborhood now looks completely different than the few still coming might do well to allow those in the community to start an afternoon, evening, or other day of the week service in your church building. That older congregation watching its grandchildren go elsewhere might do well to have a second service with a music and worship style they themselves cannot stand.
One thing that the house church movement has recognized so well--and that even mega-churches like Willow Creek have even come to realize--is that Christians do not usually grow if their only real "Christ time" is in a large group of people one hour on a Sunday morning. Even beyond "personal devotions," Christians need to be engaging other believers in small enough groups for accountability and the synergy of the Holy Spirit to take place. You cannot be a lone Christian for long under most normal circumstances before you wither away.
Such small groupings of Christians can take place in all kinds of different ways. The Sunday School and Wednesday night "prayer meeting" were unique American ways to create this important discipleship dynamic. Today we have cell groups meeting in homes, Starbucks, or wherever the group in question feels most comfortable.
John Wesley, the father of Methodism, had smaller accountability groups where the members allowed others to ask them the most intimate of questions. Are any sins ruling over you, either in your outward living or in your inward thinking? There was no "cheap grace" or sloppy excuses for someone who really had no interest or intention of allowing God's Spirit to help them grow. There was an optimism that God could and would give them the strength to defeat temptation in their lives when it might come.
It is hard to imagine any truly healthy Christian not longing for this sort of growth. And it is hard to imagine this sort of growth taking place if a person is not willing to submit to the loving accountability of the body of Christ. Willow Creek found out that this sort of growth will not likely take place in a large "seeker sensitive" service where the sermon and worship is primarily aimed at inviting those outside the church in. Discipleship and maturation are normally the stuff of smaller groups of believers. Here we remember that the entire church of Corinth, to which Paul addresses 1 and 2 Corinthians, probably consisted of less than 50 people who could fit in a single home.
Starting worship groups in other places and times allows the church to be in the community even before the community comes to the church. We resist the trend of some today who seem to think that the "church" need never be in the church, so to speak, whether the church be in its own building or in a home. The church is not the world, and from the New Testament till today Christians have always made a distinction between one who believes and one who does not yet believe. While God will decide the eternal fate of us all, there is a distinction between "not yet in the church" and "in the church," and the church is "in the world but not of the world." To think otherwise is to depart from what Christians have believed for two thousand years. We'll see what staying power the new trend in thinking has!
At the same time, certain cultural trends in America afford us some great possibilities today. In a pre-modern, traditional context, we might have assumed that there was only one right way to worship--our way or the way our tradition had always done it. "We've always done it this way." In the modernist era, we became ecumenical. We wanted a worship service that appealed to everyone. And in the process, we watered down that same single service to where it was blase and appealed to no one.
In a post-modern context, for lack of a better word, we can have multiple services with multiple styles. No longer is there any reason for a younger preacher to alienate an older congregation by making them abandon the hymns they so much enjoy. One group likes clapping and saying "Amen." Another likes to speak in tongues and have spontaneous prophecy. Another likes to say the liturgy Christians have spoken for most of these last two thousand years. Another likes to run the aisles shouting during a testimony time.
There is no basis for any of these groups de-Christianizing or de-spiritualizing each other any more than there was when the church of Corinth so long ago played the "I'm more spiritual than you are game." In a post-modern context, we not only can have different churches with different styles, all of whom serve our Lord with their whole heart. But in our context we are free to have different worship styles going on in the same congregation.
My own church, College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, has two services and up to six or seven venues every week. The first service has a main congregation that leans toward the older generation. They sing hymns and have typical American evangelical worship as it was in the sixties and seventies. At the same time, there is an ancient-future service in the chapel where we say the Apostle's Creed, the Lord's Prayer, take communion, and have open prayer surrounding the very same sermon, which is piped in on video feed at the appropriate time.
The second service is more contemporary, with songs the older crowd have never heard before. The songs go on a lot longer than most of the older people like--the music is as much or more the focus than the sermon. And they stand the whole time they are singing!
During the first and second services, there is a 30-40 something age service where they sit at round tables, drink coffee, sing guitar music, and have discussion questions around their tables before the same sermon is also brought to them on video feed. There is an evening service at 7:47pm for college students. There are services for teenagers where testimonies are given. Certainly most churches do not have enough resources to do this much, but most churches could do more than they are currently doing to let the good news of Christ take on whatever form speaks most to those they are starting with and those in their community who might hear God's voice through them.
So diversity of worship is far from a bad thing. Hopefully we will only move further and further away from the days where each group insisted that their way was the only right way at the only right place and time. And hopefully we can move beyond the "unity in diversity" view that melts down everything to vanilla, where we try to find the common denominator between everyone coming and only worship in that way at that place and time. We are now in a world of "identity within diversity," where we have our worship at our time and place in our way--we know who we are. But we worship alongside others who worship in other ways at other times and places.
And we think as highly of them as we think of ourselves. We know that we are serving the same Lord!