Our church still does the traditional gathering, albeit in a modern style, but we also have a meal every week. I strongly believe that the meal is the real church gathering. During it, friendships are developed and relationships nurtured. The disappearance of the fellowship meal in the modern church is a disturbing thing. I wrote on that once: The Disappearance of the Fellowship Meal.
Yet we still provide a typical worship service, although I call it a worship gathering because I don't want to confuse service with sitting and listening and standing and singing. We try to provide real service opportunities that go way above and beyond sitting in a worship gathering. The Sunday morning gathering is really giving the people what they expect. If they expect a circus and peanuts, I'll give them it wrapped in a package that I hope will show the true intention of Jesus. I have no problem doing something that is not outlined in Scripture if it is effective at doing what we are called to do and isn't contrary to Scripture. It's like Paul going to teach in the synagogues. During that time I urge the people on toward greater fellowship and deeper discipleship. I would be remiss to ignore the fact that something happens to a lot of people in a large, group corporate worship. I remember when I wasn't a Christian and a girl brought me along to one. God did something in me during that time. Providing a worship gathering, which I think is not church, might be an area where I fall into disagreement with both groups of people, people who are in "traditional" settings and people who are more "organic" settings. I do struggle with whether giving them what they expect distracts them from really experiencing God. So far it seems to be an effective tool that funnels people into deeper fellowship, something they want but just don't know how to go about acquiring.
When I was part of our house church, we struggled to grow numerically. We were in deep fellowship with one another, living our lives together daily. And they still are today. Some have even moved into the same houses together. But many house churches are just smaller versions of the typical church. That is disappointing. After our experience planting the house churches in Lansing, we came down here exciting about that format of church. Then I realized after encountering a few house churches that it wasn't the format we liked; it was the deeper commitment to fellowship and service. I have tried to bring those into our larger church experience because those are elements that should not be exclusive to a small group.
And I must admit, our larger church experience is small. Our house churches had around thirty people when we left. The current church that I minister at had a little over fifty yesterday.
But going to a church gathering centered around a meal at a house is intimidating. The potential new people almost have to be fully committed disciples before taking that step. The worship gathering, despite being a farce of what church is, allows new relationships to be built with people who are already in fellowship with one another. It's almost like a first date that allows a message to be shared that could challenge them to a deeper faith and provides worship to be participated in through which they might encounter God. There is a reason that the spoken word and corporate worship are effective tools. It also allows absolute strangers to take a leap and experience God in ways they might not normally experience Him. Some of our most committed people were strangers prior to coming to an event or Sunday service. I would hate to lose that outreach.
The Sunday Worship Gathering does take a lot of time and energy, but it has proven itself to be the most effective tool we have. Now, that does not mean that we don't do loving acts. Currently, we have activities that are collecting books for prisoners, replenishing the town's food pantry, giving clothes to the needy, organizing a fundraiser for the new Christian youth center and the community baseball association, and planning a music festival to raise money for an organization providing safe drinking water to Liberia. What I have found is that doing loving things like these need to be part of who we are, but the loving actions, despite my desire that they would, are not all that effective at bringing in new people. Loving actions can be just manipulative evangelism if our motive is wrong. Our wrong motives can turn something beautiful into a polluted goal. We just provided a family who had both members released from prison with many of the household items they need. They haven't visited our church; I doubt they will, although I hope they do. But we will gladly bring our church to them. Loving actions should be an outgrowth of who we are, but they don't seem to grow the church. I have found that the Sunday worship gathering does, and I would hate to discard it.
We do have people who remain on the fringe who just come to the worship gathering, and they are welcome to do that. Most of the fringe are the people who were already part of the church I minister at. The new people have really caught on to community. Some more so than others. But we are on our way to being a better reflection of Jesus' intentions. Still a long way to go, but it's a way I want to go.