This week a few high-profile followers of Jesus have put forth their thoughts on whether we should “go to church”. Donald Miller began the conversation with I Don’t Worship God by Singing… and his follow-up Why I Don’t Go to Church Very Often. Ed Stetzer posted his thoughts on Miller’s ideas: Should I Stay, or Should I Go Now. Carlos Whittaker responded to both with To GO to Church or BE the Church. These are all good reads, and the comments are (mostly) civil and also worth at least a skim.
The original post by Miller, in short says that he doesn’t connect with God by singing and being in a large group. That for him, worshiping God is better done in nature instead of listening to sermons and singing songs since his learning style is kinesthetic, not auditory or visual.
Even before these posts showed up in my reader, I have given much thought to these aspects of worship because I have a similar way to Miller of connecting deeply with God – in nature, reading the Word, by myself. Next week, I’ll address singing as worship. Today the topic is worshiping God together in a large group.
Here are my thoughts….
1. Individual and Corporate
There is a difference between personally connecting with God and worshiping Him corporately, and both are essential to the Kingdom and to each individual in it. In Miller’s blog mentioned above, he emphasizes personal connection to God… at the exclusion of large gatherings. Throughout Scripture individual praise to God is commanded, and so is the corporate gathering to worship God. Both are required. We are to worship him at all times – as His child and as His Church.
From the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple rites, to the Feasts in Jerusalem for the entire Jewish nation, to the new church in Acts 2. Jesus got away from the crowds to commune with his Father, but that wasn’t his only way of worshiping God. He went to temple worship, the Feasts in Jerusalem, and preached to thousands on hillsides. In short, followers of the Triune God coming together to worship him is God’s idea, and it’s not our place to decide whether that is for me or not.
2. Large and Small Groups
Again, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Small groups have their purpose in the Kingdom – Jesus, after all had a group of 12 disciples. Small groups are where deep, heart-connections happen– difficult in a large group. I’m not minimizing the small group– both are crucial to the Church.
The large group aspect has taken big hits lately. It’s impersonal. Half the world’s population is made up of introverts who’d rather stay home (see Facebook and Pinterest memes!) Large congregations look more like a business empire than the Kingdom. These and others may (or may not) be true, but gathering together in large groups to worship God cannot be dismissed as unnecessary, irrelevant, or “not for me, thank-you.”
As already mentioned, Jesus went up to Jerusalem to observe the Jewish feasts and taught in the Temple. The new Church met together in small groups, and worshiped God in the synagogue. It’s quite ironic that the end of Acts 2 is used to support the position for small house churches and to be critical of large worship gatherings, when Acts 2:45-47 clearly states that the early Christians not only met in each others’ homes– they attended temple together!
3. Critical mass is important
We cannot ignore the fact that large numbers are important to God. In the Old Testament lists of names and totals for each tribe, family by family, take up an entire chapter of Scripture. As the nation of Israel traveled through the wilderness setting up camp around the Tabernacle at night, the Israelites are numbered. In Acts 2, “they were all together in one place” as the Spirit came upon them – many spoke in tongues and several thousand believed the Gospel.
Descriptions of heavenly worship contain numeric totals: the angels are numbered as myriads and thousands upon thousands; the number of the sealed is 144,000; and the great multitude that no one can count worships God before his throne day and night… with the numberless angels!
If large groups are important in worshiping God, does that mean that three believers in the mountains of Nepal who meet to worship God are not following God’s command to gather together for worship? Of course not. Jesus said “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Their worship is just as valid as a groups of thousands. In a countries hostile to the Gospel two or three people worshiping God is their large gathering. We are only responsible for what we have, not what we don’t have.
4. Individuality within the Kingdom
While it’s true that we come to the cross as individuals before God, there is also a time when individuality takes the back seat of the bus for community. The Word of God was written to an (often very large) group of people. The exceptions are some of the New Testament letters written to individuals, but even then the expectation was that they would be read to the church. (The fact that we have the letter to Philemon in the Bible strongly suggests that it was circulated through the church. Otherwise, the letter would have stayed in Philemon’s possession and remained obscure.)
Many languages, including ancient Greek, make a distinction between the singular and plural “you”. In English, however, they are one in the same. This makes understanding the corporate nature of Scripture difficult for us to grasp. Several years ago, a friend encouraged me to assume “you” to be plural when reading Scripture unless there is a solid reason it should be singular. Since most of us can’t read the original Greek, this is good advice. Try it and see how the meaning of each passage changes slightly when it is understood as being addressed to a group of believers instead of to an individual. In the Old Testament and early Christian church, the community came first, the individual second. Our culture is the opposite. Somewhere in the tension of the middle is the truth contained in the Bible. We are individuals within the Kingdom community.
Even severe introverts who want to run screaming from a room filled with lots of people cannot deny the power that emanates from a large gathering, especially when each individual is engaged in the moment doing the same thing as every other person in the group. In the 1980s I remember a news report in a secular paper on the Promise Keepers’ gathering at a the local stadium. Thousands of men singing Amazing Grace could be heard for blocks. Their unity demonstrated by singing together was noticed and noted. More about singing next week.
Is worshiping God in a large group the only way to worship him? Definitely not.
Is worshiping God in a large group something he desires from us?
READY FOR SUNDAY
As worship leaders, we have a responsibility to make sure we connect with God on a deep level. For those of us who are able to do that in a large group, Sunday morning can provide that. But if, like me, being alone outside in nature with the Word is how you connect with Him, we have to make sure we plan time for this in our schedule during the week.
If a corporate worship experience doesn’t provide you with a deep connection with God, figure out your worship style and engage with your God. Check out Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas for ideas.
We can’t lead people into a place or a relationship where we haven’t been.