I believe a public worship gathering is only a part of a church’s political presence in the neighborhood. (By ‘political’ I do not mean national politics. I mean the social presence of a way of life together in a neighborhood that witnesses to the inbreaking Kingdom and salvation in Jesus Christ). It is part of something much larger going on or else it is nothing at all. Nonetheless, such a space that is open to the public (Paul call them outsiders – idiotes – in the public gathering 1 Cor 14:16,23) often helps make sense of everything else the neighbor observes going on in the neighborhood (even if he or she never attends such a gathering). For sure, such a gathering requires the careful grafting of the uninitiated into its organized life. Nonetheless, without such a place, new believers face high hurdles to entering the formation of life with the King because ( and I contend for this despite the current emphasis on one-to-one discipleship in missional circles) the the Table, the proclamation of gospel, the practice of reconciliation, the five fold gifting and being “with children” and the “poor” are essential to discipleship and are often best learned in the gathering. Since ‘ecclesia’ in the greek refers to that public meeting to deal with the affairs of the polis, likewise, the local body of Christ must have a public place from which we discern the Kingdom in our neighborhoods. At some point therefore, I argue, a public gathering makes sense for every community seeking to witness to the Kingdom in their neighborhoods.
Having said all this, in my experience, we need careful discernment in understanding the dynamic of when to “go public” with a worship gathering. I am writing to church planters in particular because I have noticed two impulses at work in the decision to “go public” with a Sunday worship gathering that work against the formation of missional community in the neighorhood.
1.) There is the impulse to go public TOO EARLY with a worship gathering. Sometimes there’s a rush to have a public gathering before a group has had proper time to develop rhythms in the neighorhood, relationships in the community, and a way of life that seeks the Kingdom in the context. Instead, even a small leadership group of 5 to 10 people ruches to begin a public gathering, in a public space, and now the focus turns on doing this gathering so as to attract people to come. We find ourselves trying to keep people, especially Christians, coming. We start to respond to people’s needs. The entire formation of the church in the neighborhood can become engulfed in this dynamic. This is bad.
2.) Then there is the impulse to RESIST going public with a worship gathering. Sometimes there is a reticence to have a public gathering because we have spent a year or two meeting as a small group in a home and a significant gospel communal culture has developed. A community of 25-40 people has formed with deep and growing relationships. We live close enough to develop deep friendships maybe for the first time in our lives. We do not want to upset this wonderful equilibrium. We’re meting in a basement (a crowded one at that) and everything will change once we open our lives to the public.
To give in to Impulse One creates a gathering which by default puts too much focus on the Sunday gathering. It creates a “Come to get” dynamic in the community. It shapes a cultural dynamic where people “come to get” something from the gathering. This in effect defeats the cultivation of the Kingdom in our neighborhoods.
On the other hand, to give in to Impulse Two creates a ghetto effect which in essence keeps some of the best of Christian life to ourselves. It will inevitably lead to a narcisstic community which eventually implodes because it is unable to grow from the challenges enforced upon it by those outside it. It becomes eventually another form of fundamentalism.
On the other hand, if a community develops rhythms in the neighborhood, seeks God for what He is doing, establishes lives and jobs in the context and are living for the Kingdom in the city (Jer 29:4-7), then (and only then!) we can gather so as to are to bring with us all that God is doing in order to submit it all to Him, the Table, the hearing of the Word. We do not “Come to get,” we “Come to bring.” The gathering becomes a place in which we encourage one another and see all things differently to be caught up again into the Trioune work of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit. And we are sent out. The gathering becomes part of the weekly neighborhood rhythm and it energizes it, refocuses it, breathes new life into it. It does not become an end to itself. It is a “come to bring” dynamic. (This “come to bring” versus “come to get” dynamic I learned from my pal Cam Roxburgh of Forge Canada, although I have worded it differently).
Does this make sense as to why we must carefully discern the right time to go public? It can make all the difference in the world. What say you?