Just a quick note here–I’ve been doing so much writing for my Fuller Seminary studies for the last few months that I haven’t had much time for blogging. I thought this paper from my Biblical Theology of Mission Class might interest a few of you however.
Are large Christian gatherings anything more than Christian entertainment? Mega-ministries fill stadiums with Christians enjoying highly produced worship bands presented with state-of-the art technology. Charismatic speakers in skinny jeans skilled in the art of rhetoric thrill the crowd. Do these exciting meetings signal revival or the church’s contamination by popular culture? Dr. Paul Hiebert warns us, “The postmodern church is pulled toward becoming entertainment” (Hiebert 2008, Loc 5029). The hate bloggers and the hurt are quick to decry these gatherings, with perhaps legitimate concerns about money wasted, shallow relationships, and ego-centric pastors. This is a question that global church is asking, and church leaders need to be able to answer.
Most of my ministry experience has been gained on the front lines of large churches. I’ve asked myself this question before in moments when I felt tired, and I knew my volunteer team was tired. People who attend big churches seem to fall into one of two categories: a larger group of people whose connection to church life is their attendance every other week, and those who are deeply connected into community, perhaps even serving. The few facilitate church services for the many. The attenders-only group comes to church to be refreshed in their faith, and at times, I’ve resented them for it, perhaps unfairly. This emphasis on receiving doesn’t reflect healthy Christianity, so does that mean that our churches are inadvertently facilitating immaturity, even in their apparent success?
The spiritual climate of the Western world has changed, and the prevailing attitude of society toward the church has changed. The highly publicized downfall of notable Christian leaders in the eighties and the pedophilia scandals of the Catholic church have bred suspicion toward the church and slick presentations instead of trust. Social media is full of Christians like Wendy Van Eyck who have decided that they love Jesus, but are opting out of church on Sunday (Van Eyck, 2016). We have instant access online to the best sermons and all the Bible training that we’ll ever need—without ever setting foot in church. In today’s world, is it time to consider letting go of the tradition of Sunday church? Is a casual home Bible study enough?
Church leaders must have an answer from the Bible. Our cultural expression of corporate worship should be shaped by loving deference to God’s preference. This paper will study God’s purposes for Christians gatherings. Eliminating church gatherings would cause us to miss a vital component of God’s design for his Kingdom people. Church meetings are the primary vehicle for imparting our corporate identity as God’s people and his assignment. The thesis of this paper is that when Christians assemble together as a local church, God unites individuals together in a new corporate identity as God’s people that contains our primary assignment—participation in God’s mission to reconcile with all of creation—and gives us the Holy Spirit’s power to accomplish it. Churches today should shape their meetings around these purposes, and have worship experiences that are both attractional and missional. Churches missing these elements are in danger of stagnation, which leads to atrophy.
This paper will examine four passages of the Bible that describe gatherings of God’s people, and extract shared principles from those descriptions. The paper will conclude with a prescriptive model based on those principles.
The word “church” appears first in the New Testament as a translation of the Greek word, ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia), which means “a group that meets together for various political, religious, and civic purposes” (Davis 2014, “Assembly, Religious”). In Greco-Roman society, the ekklesia was a political assembly. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word, קָהָל (qāhāl), as ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia); this word is frequently translated “assembly” in the Old Testament, and describes the assembling of the entire nation of Israel as God’s people (Davis 2014, “Assembly, Religious”). Raymond Zorn explains that for the Jews, to be part of the ekklesia was far more than simply a town hall meeting. These sacred gatherings defined the covenant people of God and established their calling as a priestly kingdom of God and a display nation (Zorn 1962, 15).
The New Testament writers likely borrowed this concept from the Septuagint to describe the gatherings of the church. Dr. Michael Goheen asserts that the use of the term ekklesia shows a direct connection between the Old Testament assembly and the New Testament church (Goheen 2011, 162). Because the early church borrowed the Old Testament model for assembly, we too can glean insights from Old Testament gatherings for church today.
I will examine two Old Testament examples of ekklesia. The first is 1 Chronicles 13:1-16:43, when David and the people of Israel escorted the Ark into Jerusalem. The second is 2 Chronicles 5:2-7:10; Solomon’s dedication of the Temple. I will also study two New Testament passages. The first gathering is Luke 10:1-24, when Jesus commissioned the Seventy-two. The second is Acts 1:13-2:47, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost.
First and Second Chronicles are books of history. These books preserve the covenant identity of the Jewish people and reminded the original Jewish audience of what produced God’s blessing, and what removed God’s blessing.
The occasion of 1 Chronicles 13-16 is a joyous celebration. David, the undisputed king and conqueror, conferred with his leaders and decided to inquire of God. In 1 Chronicles 13:5, David assembled all of Israel, and together they decided to transport the Ark of the Covenant from Baalah, in southern Palestine, to the new capitol, Jerusalem. The atmosphere was festive until the frightening moment when Uzzah reached out to steady the Ark and died immediately in front of the entire gathering. The party broke up, and the ark was abandoned, surprisingly, in the care of a Philistine man, Obed-Edom (Elmwell 1988, “Gittite”). Despite his despised pagan race, Obed-Edom was blessed by God as result of the Ark’s presence in his home. David’s abandonment of the Ark to a pagan seems almost defiant, indicating a faith crisis in David. He was angry and fearful, wondering why God would reward his efforts with such harsh dealings. Uzzah’s act of steadying the ark, while at first glance seems honorable although misguided, also demonstrates a lack of faith. He presumed that God needed a hand, which added dishonor to disobedience. Instead of demonstrating humanity’s dependence on God, this act arrogantly supposed that God was dependent on man for protection.
In chapter fourteen, the author establishes rhetorically that David had not lost the favor of God through this debacle, as evidenced by his fruitful lineage, his dominance over other city-states that sent him tribute, and various victories in battle. In chapter fifteen, David humbly acknowledged his disobedience to God’s specifications about transporting the Ark. After the Levites consecrated themselves, the assembly set out again on its mission to be reunited with the presence of God, this time correctly. Interestingly, David included Obed-Edom the Philistine in the group of Levites who would escort the Ark, an indicator of the missional nature of this gathering (Curtis and Madsen, 215). The people gathered and worshipped God; David worshipping so demonstratively that he shamed his wife by his lack of dignity.
This time, the venture was successfully completed, and chapter 16 describes the joyful gathering. The people made offerings to God, and David gave food to all the people. Some of the Levites and Obed-Edom the Philistine were appointed, “to extol, thank and praise the Lord, the God of Israel” (1 Chronicles 16:4). Including a Philistine in the Levite duty roster must have been shocking to the people and communicated Israel’s identity as a display nation.
Asaph led the assembly in a psalm, presumably written by David, which instructed the people to praise the Lord, and “make known among the nations what he has done” (1 Chronicles 16:8-9). Through this song, David reminded a new generation of Israel of their identity as a display nation. Music grabs attention and recalls easier than prose. This exhortation to sing to reveal God’s goodness to the nations was repeated in 1 Chronicles 16:23-24. God used a musical performance to reveal his goodness to people. The message got even more overtly missional in verses 25-26, convincing idol-worshippers present at the assembly that “[Yahweh] is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols.” This mission is driven home in verse 31: “let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns!’” The assembly responded by joining in agreement and praise to God.
After that day, David appointed Obed-Edom and 68 of his associates, presumably Philistine, to minister alongside the Levites in perpetuity. The Jews not only heard about their identity as a display nation, but saw a real-life result of that calling—the inclusion of Obed-Edom the Philistine into God’s chosen people. He wasn’t a second-class citizen either, but given a role of the greatest possible prestige: ministering before the presence of the Lord. Obed-Edom’s name is mentioned nine times in this passage, showing the author’s emphasis on this foreigner’s role. This history reminded generations of Jews that God welcomes foreigners who honor him.
This gathering demonstrated Israel’s centripetal mission: outsiders attracted to and included in the community of God by hearing the people of God sing praise for his exploits. The display of supernatural power in this gathering reminded Jews of God’s omnipotent power, and established worship marked by humble dependence and obedience. At the same time, this was an atmosphere of great joy, because the presence of the Lord produced blessing for both Israel and the Philistine family.
2 Chronicles 5:2-7:10 occurred a generation later, and contains a description of another ekklesia of Israel around the Ark, this time to dedicate Solomon’s Temple (2 Chronicles 5:6). The gathering began with animal sacrifices too numerous to be counted, then the Levites moved the Ark into the Temple and the singing began: a simple, joyful refrain. “He is good; his love endures forever” (2 Chronicles 5:13). Solomon stood on a platform before all the assembly and after introducing the Temple, he knelt, and raised his hands toward heaven. He prayed that the presence of God would come and live in the Temple, and that God would forgive Israel’s sin and bless them. Solomon prayed that when foreigners hear about Yahweh’s greatness and goodness and come to seek him at the Temple, that God would answer their petition, “so that all the people of the earth may know your name and fear you” (2 Chronicles 6:33). This prayer reminded a new generation of Israel of their identity as a display nation.
God’s response was immediate and intensely dramatic. Chapter seven describes how fire from heaven consumed enormous piles of sacrificed animals. The heat and smell must have been dizzying. The glory of the Lord filled the temple and was so physically overwhelming that the priests could not even go into the Temple. The Hebrew word, כָּבוֹד (kā·ḇôḏ) translated glory, means a manifestation of power (Swanson 1997, 3883). This was so tangible that it was visible above the Temple, and all the people assembled could see it. Their all-too-appropriate response was to kneel with their faces to the ground and worship, singing the same song that the musicians had led them in at the beginning of the ceremony, and to offer more sacrifices. The significance of God’s response could not be missed. He answered Solomon’s prayer, and showed his pleasure with their gathering. Yahweh led Israel through the desert with a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud, so this demonstration of fire and power was clear evidence that the Temple wasn’t just another political institution set up by Solomon, but that God himself had taken up residence. Their covenant with Yahweh was secure, and they went home joyful. In chapter seven, the Lord spoke to Solomon and confirmed that he would answer Solomon’s prayer for Yahweh to dwell in the Temple. However, if Israel worshipped other gods, failing to be a display nation, then God informed Solomon that instead of being a nation to be emulated, they would become a nation to be ridiculed.
Chronicles records that Egyptians were present at the seven days of feasting that followed the dedication of the Temple, perhaps having heard about the dramatic demonstration of power, and come to acknowledge the sovereignty of Yahweh (2 Chronicles 7:8). Solomon conscripted 153,600 foreign men living in Israel and forced them to build the temple (2 Chronicles 2:17-18). These men would likely have witnessed this demonstration of power at the Temple they had labored to build. They were not the only foreigners to be attracted to this gathering. Two chapters later, a foreign queen heard about Israel’s blessing and visited Solomon. She gave praise to Yahweh, and her faith was a fulfillment of Israel’s mission as a display nation (2 Chronicles 9:8).
This assembly put God’s power and favor over Israel on full display before many nations. Like the 1 Chronicles passage, this gathering includes the elements of sacrifice, worship, feasting, the power of God, prayer, joy, and centripetal mission: establishing Israel’s identity as a display nation, and inclusion of outsiders.
The New Testament contains similar themes. Luke chapter ten describes a gathering of Jesus’ followers. The book of Luke was probably intended to be read to Gentile Christians after the fall of Jerusalem (DeSilva 2004, 309). This gathering took place while Jesus was traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, apparently with a large group of followers. This journey had been marked by difficulties. Luke 9:52-55 describes a Samaritan village’s rejection of Jesus. He sent messengers ahead of him to prepare things for his arrival, which likely meant Jesus intended to stay a few days and do some ministry. He wasn’t simply passing through. The disciples were frustrated by the village’s rejection and wanted Jesus to destroy them, but Jesus rebuked the disciples. Given the disciples’ likely opinion that Jesus’ ministry to Samaritans was demeaning, then the Samaritan rejection would have been infuriating. Jesus calms them, however, indicating his desire to minister to the Samaritans, not alienate them.
After this rocky start, Jesus gathered his followers and selected seventy-two to represent him directly (Luke 10:16), and do ministry in villages where he was planning to go (Luke 10:1). This must have been a fairly large group of followers because Jesus weeded out unfit followers before selecting the seventy-two (Luke 9:57-62). He gave them power and authority for a specific purpose: to heal the sick, and to preach the good news of the gospel (Luke 10:9). Jesus instructed them to pray for more workers and then sent them out with some instructions. They were not to take supplies for the journey, presumably instead to depend on God as their source. They were not to dawdle in side conversations, but to stay focused. Jesus instructed them to come in peace, and not try to make demands about food requirements. Luke was hinting that change was coming about dietary restrictions, and would perhaps have included this instruction to the early Christians so that they would be seen to include themselves in the Pax Romana, and not as disruptive social outcasts.
In Luke nine, Jesus had a similar conversation with the twelve disciples, so it’s possible Luke was juxtaposing the numbers 12 and 72 as a rhetorical device. 12 may represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The ancient world recognized 72 nations, so the number 72 may have alluded to a mission to Gentiles, or possibly the 72 translators of the Septuagint, who first enabled Gentiles to read Hebrew scripture (DeSilva 2004, 319).
Jesus prophesied doom for the Galilean villages of Chorazin and Bethsaida, who had seen Jesus’ miracles but did not repent. He had a different attitude toward the Syrian cities Tyre and Sidon, predicting repentance from those cities. This contrast of Jewish villages and Gentile cities paints the Gentiles in a positive light, and reveals Luke’s agenda to include the Gentiles into God’s people. It is likely of rhetorical significance that the parable of the good Samaritan follows this passage. For early Jewish Christians reading this missional call and struggling to love the Gentiles, this parable was the perfect follow-up.
After a time of ministry on the road, the seventy-two returned to Jesus with joy and were excited at the level of power they had over demons. Jesus explained that Satan’s power is over, which would have comforted the beleaguered early church reading Luke’s monograph. Jesus refocused them, affirming the value of eschatological salvation over their newfound power. Luke emphasized that moment of revelation and success with a description of Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy, worshipping God.
This assembly in Luke ten included a call to centrifugal mission, an impartation and demonstration of power to do ministry, prayer, worship, and joy. This call to mission is also a call to dependence on God and sacrifice.
The final passage to examine is Acts 1:13-2:47. Acts is a sequel to Luke, likely also written by Luke to Theophilus and Gentile Christians, and shows further progression of Gentile inclusion into God’s people (DeSilva 2004, 307). The occasion for this gathering was a prayer meeting after Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
When the apostles returned to Jerusalem, they gathered about 120 of the followers of Jesus to pray, and during that meeting, the Holy Spirit came and filled them. The Holy Spirit revealed himself as Yahweh through the use of the Old Testament imagery of fire and wind. F. F. Bruce pointed out this continuity: wind represents the Spirit of God and appeared in Ezekiel 37:9-14, causing dry bones to come to life (Bruce 1988, 50). God revealed himself in fire on multiple occasions in the Old Testament. Like Moses’ burning bush, this fire didn’t consume but hovered over individual people. This outpouring of God’s power touched three senses; they could see the fire, hear and feel the wind. This was a physical, tangible experience, and as the Holy Spirit filled each of them, they began to speak in other tongues.
This must have been loud and in a relatively public place, because a crowd of 3,000 formed around the gathering. An early church theory posed that the upper room was in the Temple itself (Glasser 2003, 153). Acts 2:46 says that after this event, they continued to meet in the Temple every day, which lends strength to this idea. The gathered crowd was made up of Jewish pilgrims visiting Jerusalem from all over the world to celebrate the feast. They could understand the glossolalia as proclamations of the wonders of God—spoken in their native languages. They were completely confused, but clearly very interested and attracted to the visible display of God’s power.
Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, stood up and gave the church’s first altar call. The old Peter denied Jesus just a few weeks earlier, but this was a new Peter, full of boldness because of the Holy Spirit. In that moment, Peter’s identity changed from awkward fisherman, bumbling and frequently corrected; to Peter the Apostle—audacious, full of power, and articulate to share the gospel. He became a man of God with a mission. Harry Boer said, “The descent of the Spirit at Pentecost made the disciples apostles, i.e., missionaries” (Boer 1961, 62). The gift of the Holy Spirit caused Peter to discover a new identity within this new corporate missionary responsibility. According to Glasser, “Peter saw the age of the church and its worldwide missionary responsibility as the beginning of the penetration into human history of the eschatological Kingdom of God” (Glasser 2003, 153). This revelation gave him an urgency and passion to lead this meeting.
The results of Peter’s sermon went beyond the conversion of the crowd; his message initiated a strategy for the followers of Jesus that waited, gathered in prayer. Peter’s message signaled to them that the wait was over, and the moment had come—tell everyone about the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus told them before he left, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7). The pistol had gone off, and they were out of the starting gate, on mission, and this time with the Holy Spirit to guide and empower them.
That day, Peter preached about Jesus, the resurrected Messiah, and the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s account foreshadowed Peter’s coming revelation of inclusion for the Gentiles: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). Peter called the Jewish pilgrims to repentance, baptism, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke made it very clear that the gift of the Holy Spirit was more than just one powerful moment. It was indeed for the new believers that day, but also for their children and the next generation (likely Luke’s audience), for those who are yet far off (you and I), and for anyone that the Lord calls. They baptized 3,000 that day—people from different cultures all over the world with possibly nothing else in common except their faith were fused together into a new collective identity: Christians, the people of God.
This gathering was marked by the sensory power of God, and that power was attractive. Other elements of this meeting included preaching, prayer, and centripetal mission. Luke describes their future gatherings briefly before the close of chapter two. In their meetings, they included teaching from the Apostles, fellowship, eating, prayer, sacrifice, joy, praise, and miraculous signs and wonders. These meetings attracted outsiders.
The Holy Spirt changed things forever; gatherings of God’s people would never be the same. “[The Holy Spirit] creates a world of his own, a world of conversion, experience, sanctification; of tongues, prophecy, and miracles; of up-building and guiding the church” (Berkhof 1946, 23). The Holy Spirit’s presence has empowered God’s people to do his mission of reconciliation and healing in a way that the Ark of the Covenant could not.
Justo Gonzalez points out that these gatherings in Acts were marked by joy. They met on Sundays to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, not for the purpose of repentance (Gonzalez 2010, 107). These were happy occasions. From this point forward, Luke uses the term ekklesia to describe the gathering of the church in Acts 9:31, and 15:22. Paul frequently used ekklesia to describe the gatherings of the church, notably in 1 Corinthians 11-14, where he outlined the proper use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit inside a church gathering. Matthew quoted Jesus using the word ekklesia in Matthew 16:18, possibly prophesying Peter’s sermon in Acts two, and foretelling the power that God would give the church.
These Old and New Testament gatherings have shared characteristics. All of these gatherings share themes of prayer, worship, joy, teaching, and sacrifice. These gatherings all were marked by a demonstration of the power of God. In the Old Testament passages, when God’s mission was almost entirely centripetal and attracting followers to his display nation, Israel, the power demonstration seems to have a centripetal purpose. The power of God that killed Uzzah sent a clear message: God is all-powerful and untamed. This message focused David and all of Israel’s attention on worshipping God, and the resultant blessing was attractive to their neighbors. At the Temple dedication, God’s power display demonstrated his supremacy to all of Israel and the nations represented that day. These power encounters established and reminded the Jews of their identity as God’s people, on display before the nations.
In the New Testament, mission became more centrifugal, and God used gatherings to empower people to do the work of persuading people to be reconciled to God. In the gathering described by Luke chapter ten, Jesus gave the disciples power and authority to heal the sick, drive out demons, and preach the gospel. In Acts, the Holy Spirit empowered the new church to do these works after Jesus ascended. These demonstrations of power revealed God’s goodness. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:22 that tongues are a sign for the unbeliever. As people encounter the power of God, they learn to believe, and so this dispensation of power is intended to convince the world of God’s existence and worthiness.
The Luke and Acts passages show people learning a new corporate identity as the church. Once they were fisherman, tax collectors, businessmen—ordinary individuals. After these gatherings, they were a select group, entrusted with the power of God and authority to carry the message of salvation. Peter’s life and identity were transformed by this power.
God’s mission is still both centripetal and centrifugal, and that balance should be reflected in our church meetings. We should experience a constant current of movement both into the gatherings of the church and out of the gatherings of the church, reflecting Old Testament centripetal mission as well as New Testament centrifugal mission. This flow is what produces life instead of stagnation. Richard Bauckham said, “the mission of God’s people is both centripetal and centrifugal. It is first of all centripetal: the people of God are to ‘manifest God’s presence in [their] midst’” (Bauckham 2001, 77). We invite people into church community to learn a new shared identity, membership in a group purposed by God to do his mission. Inside this gathering, people experience the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and then we send them out to do God’s work. We regularly re-gather to refresh our corporate identity through worship, and this current flows cyclically.
Church gatherings are then both for the believer and for the unbeliever. In these environments, the believer is empowered, trained, and commissioned, and the unbeliever is attracted and sees first-hand how to begin a journey of faith.
Our church services need the elements presented in these four passages for us to walk out our missional calling. Christian gatherings should be attractive, joyful events where we worship God, give sacrificially to support the work of God, pray, hear teaching, socialize over meals or coffee, and welcome God’s presence and power. Michael Goheen says that preaching should never just be for our Christian consumption, but should propel us toward mission (Goheen 2011, 206).
One of the greatest compliments our church ever received came in the form of a negative Yelp review. This young woman said that she was looking for a church where she could take a break from a busy workweek and be refreshed by enjoying a service and good teaching, but that City Church Chicago distastefully encourages people to activate their faith in serving and giving. Goheen’s response for this woman is profound. “When the church takes up the role assigned it within a consumer culture and allows itself to be shaped by that story, it becomes merely a vendor of religious goods and services” (Goheen 2011, 14). Our church services must not be reduced to spiritual oases, rather be empowering centers for mission. Urban and suburban churches not growing with new believers should reexamine the content of their gatherings. Services focused entirely on meeting Christians’ needs are more likely to stagnate or see predominately transfer growth, competing with the church down the street rather than partnering.
Although meals and social interaction are important for building community, our primary purpose for gathering should be to corporately meet with God. We can seek God individually, but we will not learn God’s intended identity for us outside these gatherings. Dr. Lingenfelter noted that “vision is given not to individuals but rather to the body of Christ” (Lingenfelter 2008, Loc 622). I propose that God is far more interested in what we can accomplish together than what we accomplish individually. This is why unity is a dominant theme of the New Testament, and perhaps nothing creates richness of relationship quite as effectively as this mutual identity and mission.
Our church services should experience the power of God. For some, this may sound intimidating. Sherwood Lingenfelter explains that if we deny the power of God a place in our church services, then we deny our own dependence on God. If the sum total of our church experiences are of human creation, then church gatherings are simply a human religious exercise. We must avoid Uzzah’s mistake of thinking God depends on us, and reaffirm our dependence on God’s power. For the Western mind, the idea that we can heal the sick, even in the name of Jesus, can be pretty intimidating, but this power is an essential part of ministry. “Kingdom work is impossible without power and authority from God” (Lingenfelter 2008, 501). God uses gatherings to give us power to do the work of ministry—both to heal and to share the gospel. Our dependence on God’s power keeps any ego in check.
On the other end of the spectrum, some charismatic/Pentecostal churches get so caught up in pursuing the power of God that they also become stagnated, lacking an outward flow of mission. Jesus’ correction to the seventy-two in Luke ten is a prescriptive for these churches; focus on eternal salvation first. Dr. Arthur Glasser explains the necessary balance; any activity that claims to be the mission of God should produce disciples of Jesus Christ. This is the only real test for whether a work is genuinely of God (Glasser 2003, 13). Perhaps it’s time to measure church success differently. Traditionally, the church has valued “the three B’s: bodies, budget, and buildings” (Stetzer and Rainer, 2010, 26). Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer call us to measure beyond this, to look for tangible measurements of discipleship and true life change, including how engaged church members are with the mission of God in their community—both the healing touch and the message of the gospel (Stetzer and Rainer 2010, 31-32).
Glasser also points out that the way our ministries look will change as we grow and develop (Glasser 2003, 207). We can’t look to tradition alone as the formula for church services. In John chapter four, when the Samaritan woman asked Jesus whether the Samaritan method of worshipping on the mountain was more correct than the Jews’ worship in Jerusalem, Jesus picked neither option, and instead told her that true worship comes from the heart. She asked the wrong question. What mattered to Jesus was not a formula, but engagement, which was a dramatic departure from the religious activities of that era. Jesus gave permission for our worship to creatively reflect our hearts, rather than forcing our heart to follow a set tradition. Our church services should be more than rituals, but be joyful, living expressions of our worship. They should adopt new and fresh methods that connect with the culture around. “Church people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see the church change the world” (Glasser 2003, 198). To those who worry about the slick presentations and view them as evidence of the secular world’s influence: Jesus gave us the freedom to express our worship from our own cultural framework, as long as it authentically expresses our hearts and is not simply ritual.
We do need to be smart about how we steward our financial resources, but what cost is too high when it comes to worshipping God or a person’s soul? When Solomon dedicated the Temple, he didn’t think that a sacrifice too big to be counted was wasteful. Jesus instructed Judas not to correct the woman who anointed him with expensive perfume. “You will always have the poor among you,” he said (John 12:7-8). As long as our gatherings initiate mission, then spending money to facilitate them should not be viewed negatively. If we neglect the poor, we are in disobedience, but how we spend should be in balance.
God has been leading my church, City Church Chicago, into mission, and we have begun to practice the principles from this study in our church services. We have focused heavily on ministering to felt needs in years past, and are making changes to walk in obedience. Our leadership team is encouraging every person in our church family to take a step forward into the mission of God. We want our Sunday church services to inspire and empower Christians into mission through encounters with the Holy Spirit that fill us with faith, and shape our identity as a church as a people called by God to love people to new life in Christ.
Last month, we launched a church-wide theme of Missio Dei as a prescriptive. This theme is a multi-layered approach. May 1, we began a six-week teaching series about the mission of God. In tandem with that series, our pastoral ministries team wrote a small-group curriculum that our Life Groups are all working through together. Each week’s small group lesson expands on Sunday’s topic around Missio Dei and provides questions for thoughtful conversation.
In order to experience the Holy Spirit’s empowering, we need to create margins in our programming to make space to listen to him speak. To this aim, our church held five Missio Dei corporate prayer meetings this week, inviting God to speak to us about his mission in our world, and what he is asking us to do to. We have sensed the Holy Spirit in those meetings, speaking to our hearts, bringing refreshing and miracles. About a quarter of our church attended these meetings, and we will continue a weekly corporate prayer meeting, in addition to praying together for a half an hour weekly as a leadership team. We want to see those numbers rise as people make prayer a priority.
Corporate worship has been an important component to these meetings, and as we worship, we have had a powerful sense of the visitation of the Holy Spirit that brought refreshing and miracles. One of our families gave birth to a baby, 18 weeks premature, four days ago. His doctors gave him a one percent chance of survival, but he is miraculously thriving. Another member found out yesterday that her breast cancer is miraculously in remission. We are seeing things that can only be explained by the powerful intervention of God. We teach our church that the touch of God is always for the task of God, and so we are mobilizing our church as well. We are praying that God moves in every heart in our meetings, prompting them to join with the church and take a step forward toward God’s mission.
In our Missio Dei church services, God has been speaking both to individuals and to the entire church through prophecy, and people are beginning to respond to his call. We have planned projects throughout the summer for our church to serve our city, and inviting each of our Sunday services to join us. We had our first event, Faith in Action, over Memorial Day weekend. 150 volunteers brought free food, kids games, face paint, basketball and fun to a violent neighborhood in west Chicago that has experienced five shootings in the past month. We partnered with another local church to provide a safe haven for children to play and eat for free Memorial Day weekend. The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel, came and we prayed together for peace and unity in Chicago. Our future events focus on serving our community, and mentoring young people. In one of our Missio Dei services, a dozen people sensed God calling them to full-time mission work. We’ve planned mission trips to Peru, Ethiopia, and Thailand over the next twelve months—the first teams our church has ever sent on the mission field in other countries.
Part of our Missio Dei initiative this year is fundraising to expand our auditorium. We believe that sacrifice is an important part of the way that we support the mission of God. In the same way that Old Testament animal sacrifice demonstrated dependence on God, financial sacrifice does today. On a practical level, we have four services Sundays and we are nearly out of room. This year, an average of 52 people per Sunday have made decisions to follow Jesus in our church services, and we need to accommodate the growth. We are a diverse church, with immigrants from all over the world, and our prayer is that God continues to knit our hearts together as a church as we seek him together. We plan to revisit this theme of Missio Dei every year.
Church services can be large or small, but should gather both Christians and unbelievers in worship, prayer, teaching, fellowship, and sacrifice, and lead Christians to receive the power of the Holy Spirit and a new corporate identity as the people of God tasked with partnership in the mission of God. The measurement for successful gatherings is new converts joining the community. These meetings bring people together in community through a united purpose and identity who may come from very different cultures and have very little else in common.
It’s only through these gatherings that we understand the true nature of our calling. Dr. Mark Labberton says that, “My vocation can be discovered only in the context of our vocation…Being part of ecclesia—the called ones—means practicing this identity of belovedness together” (Labberton 2014, 103). To those who discount the importance of church attendance today, heed the encouragement of Hebrews 11:25. According to Scripture, God uses the gathering of the ekklesia to teach us our identity as a church called to his mission, and to empower us to be obedient to that call.
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Berkhof, Louis. 1946. Systematic Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Boer, Harry. 1961. Pentecost and Mission. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Bruce, F.F. 1988. The Book of the Acts: Revised Edition. Vol. of The New International Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Curtis, Edward Lewis, and Albert Alonzo Madsen. 1976. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Chronicles. Vol. of The International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd.
Davis, Derek Leigh. 2014. “Assembly, Religious.” Lexham Theological Wordbook, edited by Douglas Mangum, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, and Rebekah Hurst. Lexham Bible Reference Series. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. Logos edition.
DeSilva, David A. 2004. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. 1988. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Book House.
Glasser, Arthur F., Charles E. Van Engen, Dean S. Gilliland, Shawn B. Redford. 2003. Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. Kindle edition.
Goheen, Michael W. 2011. A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. Kindle edition.
Gonzalez, Justo L. 2010. The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Hiebert, Paul G. 2008. Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. Kindle edition.
Labberton, Mark. 2014. Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Lingenfelter, Sherwood G. 2008. Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. Kindle edition.
Stetzer, Ed and Thom S. Rainer. 2010. Transformational Church: Creating a New Scorecard for Congregations. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group.
Swanson, James. 1997. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
Van Eyck, Wendy. 2016. “Why I’m Coming Out as a Christian Who Doesn’t Go to Church.” The Wendy van Eyck blog, accessed Monday June 5, 2016. http://www.ilovedevotionals.com/2015/03/why-im-coming-out-as-christian-who.html
Zorn, Raymond O. 1962. Church and Kingdom. Philadelphia: P&R.
All Bible references are from the 2011 New International Version, published by Zondervan.