The room was massive. Around me sat almost 8000 other Christians. The vast majority, of course, were complete strangers. Yet sitting there, ahem, in the "Kentucky Yum! Center" for this year's Together for the Gospel conference, belting out songs like "In Christ Alone," I caught a vision for the powerful joy someone just might experience in a massive single-site, single-service church.
Don't get me wrong. Christians require intimate fellowship, and I am a huge proponent of elders being able to "oversee all the flock"—down to the last member.
Still, there was something uniquely heartening about sitting in a room together with almost 8000 others singing the same song to the same Lord at the same time. Together you pray. Together you hear and feel the impact of words of life. Together you respond once more in songs of confession and praise...
I don't say this primarily for people in small churches, but for people in big churches who divide themselves up into multiple services or sites. Do you know what you just might be missing?
Let me get existential for a moment. Imagine all these preached words about Christ swirling through the air. Then picture the wind of the Spirit bringing those words down into our minds and our chests, taking hold of our rational processes with undeniable logic and our affections with exhilarating power, thereby recalibrating the direction of our desires. Then listen as we sing out those same words in one voice with gusto. Listen as the melodies of our hearts echo off walls, their vibrations pressing back into our bodies. Then watch as 8000 heads drop and eyes close. Peek and look around, if you must.
Now, amidst all these words and movements, tell me that the unity of the moment is not bodily palpable.
I'm not one to typically reach for mystical language, but as I confessed sin and praised God with this massive throng of like-minded believers, I felt strangely, indeed, mystically, united to them. I was with them, and they were with me. We were together because we all wanted the same thing—to see Christ's glory and fame spread, and to enjoy him together. We all wanted our lives, our families, our work to be about him. Somehow, these 8000 anonymous faces didn't feel like strangers or enemies, but friends. I felt no desire to compete with them, or prove myself to them, but to embrace them, and be embraced by them.
Honestly, it was like sitting together at the family dinner table.
And now you want half the family to get up from the table, and either walk down the street to another building, or come back in two hours? And you don't think that will change things?
Presently, I often enjoy this kind of experience on Sunday mornings with my own much smaller local church. Indeed, there it is more profound, more complex, more sweet. But what struck me about this conference experience was that it was nearly 8000 people whom I did not personally know, and yet still I felt this strange sense of Holy Spirit-indwelt, Word-driven unity.
For the first time, I imagined what the church in Jerusalem with its 5000 men (and how many women and children?) must have been like. First, they enjoyed the power of the crowd as the all met together (Acts 2:46a; 5:12; 6:2). Then they separated for fellowship and met in individual houses (2:46b). Power and unity together, followed by a more intimate fellowship when apart.…It’s not a bad formula. Throw some elders into those individual house meetings and you got pastoral oversight as well.
So back to you pastors with multiple-services and sites. It’s no good to say, as some do, “Once your church grows beyond 1000, you might as well split into two services or two sites. What’s the difference?” The difference is that people live in bodies. And bodies together is a different thing than bodies separate. Just ask your spouse or kids. How well can you build a marriage or raise your kids over Skype?
Perhaps the lesson here is, if your preaching will bring that many people, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to build the big building after all.