In a telling post, Chris Wienand, speaks about formatting Christian gatherings to serve the 80% those not-yet-Christians. I’ve heard this kind of thing many times, and I’d like to talk through some of the questions that have arisen for me from this discussion.
The first thing to note, is that Chris gives some very helpful tips on being “user” friendly in our gatherings, and I can probably go along with all of them. But the critical ideas here are not necessarily the one’s being addressed, but rather the one’s being assumed (an echo of C. S. Lewis, for those with ears to hear). A question that is immediately raised for me is the following:
Why do Christians gather?
It seems to me that the overwhelming reason Christians in the New Testament times gathered was for worship, fellowship and mutual edification (1 Cor. 14:26; etc. and then think of Pliny’s description of early Christian gatherings). Now, I don’t want to apply a naïve hermeneutic that says that just because that’s the way the first Christians did it, that’s the way we should do it, but I do want to say that’s probably been true of most of Church history, and at least the New Testament writings provide a exemplary model of this in action.
In a telling comment after the main article, Chris makes the claim that “there are so many examples in the scriptures of people coming to faith in their gatherings.” I’m afraid without careful qualification, this statement is false. 1 Cor. 14:25 provides the only example of people coming to faith in Christian gatherings, and I can’t think of any in the Old Testament scriptures either (I’d be interested to hear if there are any specific responses if I’m wrong on this point). The book of Acts provides numerous examples of people coming to faith, but this does not happen in Christian gatherings, but rather in market place settings, philosophical gatherings, and open air preaching.
So why do Christians gather? Well, that’s a specific decision we have to make. If we decide to follow the model of the New Testament, then we have to say that we gather for worship, fellowship and mutual edification and this probably isn’t the best context for mission. Although the exception of 1 Cor 14:25 is instructive, as they weren’t trying to be user friendly, they were pursuing the gifts of the Spirit and the byproduct was mission. There is nothing in Scripture that suggests that gatherings must be missional.
However, if we decide that the gathering is the best place for mission, we must then ask where are the other elements necessary for Christian gatherings (worship, fellowship, edification) going to happen? My concern with making the gatherings for the 80% is that we dumb down what’s available for the 20% and the focus shifts from worshipping God, edifying and encouraging one another, to a missional focus. Some may suggest this is a false dichotomy, but I’m not so sure.
Another concern I have with making the Christian gathering the focus of mission, is that (whether intentional or not) mission becomes the job of the pastor or speaker, with the congregation merely playing a “supporting” role. This is the complete opposite of what we see in the first centuries of early Church. As Rodney Stark has described:
Christianity did not grow because of miracle working in the market places (although there may have been much of that going on), or because Constantine said it should, or even because the martyrs gave it such credibility. It grew because Christians constituted an intense community, able to generate the “invincible obstinacy” that so offended the younger Pliny but yielded immense religious rewards. And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbours to share the “good news.”
Of course, the ideal would be to have all elements of worship, fellowship, edification and mission present in our Christian gatherings. And yes, that would be ideal. But I just wonder if we should privilege one of these elements, so that it becomes the “focus” of our gatherings.
I’m not pronouncing judgement on either of the options, and I’ve seen many of them work. I’m just raising a question that I think is worth pondering. What are your thoughts?
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western Word in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 208.