Don’t ask about our meetings

For many Christians church is an event. It is a meeting you attend or a place you enter. Churches may talk about being a family, but most of their resources go into the Sunday morning event. Acquiring a building. Preparing the sermon. Producing the bulletin. Equipping a venue with sound and light. Planning the show. Practicing the band. That’s were their money and their staff time go. We talk about being family and community, but when you look at how we spend our time and money it becomes clear that in practice we view church as an event.

People often ask me about our meetings. ‘When do you meet? Where? What do you do when you meet together?’ But if you ask those questions then you have completely missed the point! We’re not advocating a new way of doing meetings. Actually our meetings are not good! The music is poor and the teaching is nothing you’d go out of your way to hear. What matters to us is our shared life: sharing our lives, doing ordinary life with gospel intentionality.

The church will never out perform TV shows and music videos. But there is nothing like the community life of the church. There is nowhere else where diverse people come together. There is nowhere else were broken people find a home. There is nowhere else when grace is experienced. There is nowhere else where God is present by his Spirit.
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25 thoughts on “Don’t ask about our meetings

  1. While much of what you say is very persuasive on this subject – I think you sometimes may have a tendency to undervalue the genuine fellowship and community that exists within more traditional structures. I know many examples where the ‘housegroup’ etc. is merely a minimum commitment to spending time together around the word – time blocked out in busy diaries for each other. This minimum commitment is then a springboard for further aspects of shared life together, from eating to evangelism, to sharing housing, to helping decorate – all of which are very recent instances that spring to mind in the context of very traditional church structures. Likewise to use the phrase “planning the show” is a bit rough on a host of pastors I know, (like my own!) who preach the word weekly with a remarkable absence of ego or showmanship, and a genuine desire to see folk understand and embrace its truth!

    I am not an apologist for such traditional structures by any means – merely pointing out that your case might be more persuasive to more people if your critique of their present experience was more nuanced, reflecting both the limitations of the usual model along with the good that God is doing within it!

  2. Hi, yes, I recognize that I am painting a caricature. Though I’m not actually trying to make a point of structure. I think structure is neither here nor there. I guess the choice is between community and performance. Many churches with a traditional structure do community really well. Now would I want anyone to get the impression that TCH has got community nailed. Far from it! As we say in the preface to Total Church we describe that to which we aspire, not what is the case! I always warn people who come to join us that they will be disappointed! I remain nevertheless a passionate advocate of the principles.

  3. Shared lives are a series of meetings though aren’t they? Going for a walk with friends is just as much an event as Holy Communion at St Peter’s, and both create shared lives to some degree. One kind of event is mainly informal and the other formal. Perhaps TCH spends more resources on the informal, and traditional church on the formal… is that fair?

    Traditional church will spend a lot of time, money and energy on getting the formal meetings as good as they can be – a noble aim. I get the impression that TCH, with it’s emphasis on Gospel intentionality, spends a lot of resources on getting the informal meetings as good as they can be – also a noble aim. The difference then is in the balance of how we spend our limited resources, not in a choice of one over the other.

  4. Thanks for this, Tim. I quoted it in our service at church last, while bracing people for the fact that they are strong words. However, as a formal church that’s heading towards greater informality (with resistance from within) we needed to hear what you had to say. Only the other week I was having a strong discussion with a former leader of the church in which he was advocating that in order for a church to be “successful” it needs to be well organised, punctual and even well-performed.

    Dave K, I was initially convinced by what you say, but I can’t see how attendance at a shared formal “event” leads to the sort of close life-walk that what Tim advocates leads to. Actually, lots of very formal church meetings lead to many attitudes that militate against sharing lives (I’m sure that’s another caricature, but that’s my experience). And I just can’t find that kind of formality advocated throughout the new testament either… Paul describes himself in 1 Thess 2 as a father, mother and child among the Thessalonians. I can’t translate that into anything other than informal life-sharing.

  5. Hi Tim,

    When you say the music is poor, what do you mean? In comparison to more polished or ‘professional’ efforts made in other Churches or absolutely poor?

    I realise you’re mentioning it in reference to another point, but I found the wording a little distracting as there are no doubt real people behind the statement.

    I just hope the people that help to provide music aren’t disheartened (or indeed those that teach).

    I do think it is correct and refreshing to move the discussion on Church away from what happens when we gather together on Sunday. So I endorse the main thrust of what you’ve written.

    Thanks,
    Ralph

  6. I can’t see any intrinsic reason why a more formal gathering around word and sacrament won’t lead to a deep sharing in congregational life. And I can see every reason from the bible and church history to expect that it will. Can’t it be “date-night” – the pinnacle and nourishment of the day-in-day-out relationship?

    In agreement with Dave K, I’m not sure we can get away from “events” if we’re a community gathered around word and sacrament.

    Now if we want to challenge that definition of church then there’s a bigger discussion to be had than one concerning degrees of formality.

  7. Tim – Thanks for the clarification and linked post on music. It actually sounds like the music side is in keeping with the size and make up of the gathering – so it could be classed as ‘good’ in the context!

    Ralph

  8. Glen asked, “Can’t it be ‘date-night’ – the pinnacle and nourishment of the day-in-day-out relationship?”

    I think it could be, but if we take the analogy given the cost (money and time) of the Sunday service for many, it would be like this:

    *Take many hours researching the best place to take my wife on a weekly basis, keeping it fresh with a new place to eat every time. My wife deserves that. The meal should be no less that the best steak dinner we can find and must end on a weekly basis with an overnight at a classy hotel.
    *Finding a babysitter who will consistently watch our kids and perhaps find a nurse who can watch them – especially if they’re sick, because the date night must happen. You can’t cancel it!
    *Start the date night early (4:30 pm) with, perhaps a trip to a bookstore ($8 on lattes), then to dinner ($75), then to a movie ($30), then to a hotel ($125).

    The result will be that I will not be able to share as much time with the rest of the family and we’ll certainly not have enough money to do any family nights or additional money to give to missionaries, the poor, etc.

    I do know what you’re saying though, Glen. There can be a place for this kind of gathering. But, as these gatherings tend to be, they are like the inflated weekly date night.

    As an aside, my wife doesn’t expect a weekly date night with us having four young children. We spend our babysitting money on the nights when we meet with our Gospel community for intense study (other nights the kids come). We don’t go out that often, but we stay up late in our own home, no less, talking about the Gospel and life and the kids and our trials and our hopes and our dreams. Date night is off our radar deliberately. When we get to go out, it’s a blessing, but not the pinnacle of our relationship.

    Anyone agree or disagree or have caveats to add? I’m not trying to hijack this thread …

  9. Hi Burly – good going with the four kids! :)

    I guess what I’m getting at with the date-night analogy is that “events” matter to covenant relationships. “Essence” and “event” / “Being” and “becoming” belong together.

    To put it most starkly: Marriage *is* one flesh all the time, but there is also an event in which the couple become/re-constitute/renew/insert-word-of choice their one flesh union. It’s commanded in Scripture and it takes time and effort and a measure of ritual and it’s irreducibly an event.

    The degree of ritual and cost and time-expenditure will vary according to many factors. But to imagine I can think of one-flesh the concept without also thinking about one-flesh the event is a big danger in marriage (cf 1 Cor 7).

    And, by parallel, I’m just raising a flag for the maintenance of consciously enjoyed and anticipated and ritualised “events” in our church life together. I don’t think we can do without it.

  10. I didn’t say we shouldn’t have meeting. What I said was don’t ask about them because what we’re advocating is not a new way of doing meetings. Meetings are important, but they are not everything. Church is not an event, but a Christ-centred community of people with a shared life.

  11. Thanks for the clarifiers, Glen and Tim. I had a certain type of “gathering” in mind (big, traditional, show-y) when I made my comment which may have implied that I thought Gospel/Word-centred meetings were not important at all. Didn’t mean to do that. Tim, I agree that “meetings are important, but not everything.” If I comment on this post again, I’ll stay on track …

  12. Hi Tim, thanks for engaging. Not wanting to be a nuisance – I’ve learnt loads from your books, talks and blogging. And I too long for the kind of community you are seeking to foster.

    If the discussion were just about how to apportion resources between various meetings I’d be with you 100%. I also bash out tunes badly on my guitar and preach on a Sunday and I am bemused by how long some of my contemporaries will take to make their Sunday performances ‘just so.’

    But there’s a more substantial issue I feel, and you’ve reiterated it with your last comment:

    “Church is not an event, but a Christ-centred community of people with a shared life.”

    I disagree. I’d say say church is *also* an event and irreducibly so.

    Let me just take one example from Paul – we are one body *because* we all share in the one bread (1 Cor 10:17). That is pretty stunning language – and it’s very ‘eventist’. Here is a consummation of one-body-ness (parallel to one-flesh-ness in marriage I’d say) in which we become what we are. The event and the on-going life of the body are inter-dependent.

    I can’t help but think ‘event’ is crucial to those traditional ecclesiologies that spoke of gathering ‘around word and sacrament’. Yes to shared life, Yes to Christ-centred community. But the way in which our community is “centred” around Christ takes a certain form doesn’t it? The centre is an actual centre isn’t it, not just a Christ-principle? And therefore if it’s an actual, concrete centre, then I’d say we orient ourselves to it (to Him!) by actually and concretely ordering ourselves around the place where Christ actually gives Himself to us. And He gives Himself to us in word and sacrament.

    In word and sacrament there are certain promises of God’s *special* presence by His Spirit that are attached. And I think therefore the language of ‘event’ needs to be held onto.

    And I think it needs to be maintained for the sake of holding onto two other related things:

    1) The grace fuelled-ness of our communities (something I know you’re big on, and I’ve been blessed by your teachings on this). We need to orient ourselves around where Christ is *given* to us, not primarily around what Christ would have us do (i.e. live with gospel-intentionality).

    2) Where we honour the “event” of Church, we honour “proclamation”. I’m with you on John 13 & 17 – our community life preaches to the world. But I’d want to say that this shared-life-gospel-presentation is related to a centre of verbal proclamation. Again, the event and the ongoing life are inter-dependent.

  13. Initially after reading this I was a bit worried I’d stirred up a hornet’s nest, but I think this is a really helpful set of comments of the kind that reminds me why I like blogs. I particularly like Glen’s emphasis on how the event of the preached word and administration of the sacraments communicate the grace of God in Christ that can’t help but shape the community that came under them (that is after all why the Reformers’ made proper preaching/administration of word and sacrament the marks of the church – because they believed that while loving community should mark the church – the Gospel proclaimed would lead to just that).

    I guess, while it is true that “Church is not an event, but a Christ-centred community of people with a shared life”, what I was pointing out is that “shared life” is necessarily formed by “events”. The nature of those events is important, because it shapes us.

    So I do think that it is valid to ask about TCH meetings (both formal and informal) because that is what creates the church community. There is a danger if meetings/events become an end in themselves, but they can’t be bypassed.

    If you asked me to describe my relationships, I would soon start telling you about the events that formed them – and they would all be meetings of a sort. You can’t talk about one without the other.

  14. … and maybe I shouldn’t just say that events ‘shape’, but that they ‘form’ communities. Just like the Lord’s Supper/marriage as Glen points out.

  15. This is an extremely interesting thread of comments. However, I can’t help thinking that there is a key issue here that everyone is skirting around. SIZE MATTERS!
    There is a size of church gathering beyond which I think it is very difficult to sustain the degree of intimacy and fellowship which allows the close relationships between one another to occur. This is key in developing the ‘one anothering’ mutual ministering to each other described in the NT and in developing the strong relationships which result in shared lives outside the usual gatherings of the church. This is something we British are inherently not good at and tend to shy away from.
    My observations from the NT are that most meetings seem to have centred around a shared fellowship meal (as part of which the bread and wine were shared) and that most meetings took place in houses. I’m not saying that ‘house church’ is the only way of doing church, but I am suggesting that it placed some kind of upper limit on the number of people present in the usual meetings of each gathering perhaps as low as 20 – 30. I think the number of people present inevitably has an effect on the informality / fomality of the any activity, including church gatherings, and this has a consequent effect on relationship building.
    What do people think? Does size matter?

  16. Hey Tim,

    Glen’s views are some of the same I’ve bantered with you about in the past. I’d love to hear a response man. Thanks again for pushing and challenging us to consider our life together. Great conversation as usual!

  17. Tim,
    Thanks for the good words. I am comforted that I am not the only one who has resistance when I say such things [and to everyone…you have been very gracious!!].
    Goblin, I agree. Size matters. You said, “I think the number of people present inevitably has an effect on the informality / formality of the any activity, including church gatherings, and this has a consequent effect on relationship building.” and I could not agree more. Therefore, how much more important to make the necessary adjustments needed depending on how many are there. If there are a few, we need to figure out how to honor God in our relationships with one another and if there are many, we need to figure out how to honor God in our relationships with one another. Each present their own challenges.

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  19. Pingback: Church is also an event « Christ the Truth

  20. I Love all this discourse. You all have very good points! ..It reminds me how simple and complete the WORD of God is, while our own musings fall a little short. Stay in the WORD…constant…

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