Two Reasons a Church Shouldn’t Have Multiple Gatherings
I’ve pastored my church for over twelve years. We’ve always had two morning services, and I never gave them much thought. And even if I did think about them, I thought of them positively. To me, they were both a marker and a means of growth. More Sunday services meant more success.
They also served as a pathway to success. I remember one staff meeting in which we debated if we should add yet another morning service, a third. The potential change was partially driven by our growing numbers. But beneath the surface lurked the idea that this change would bring still more numbers. I remember some saying “If you give more options, more people will opt.”
Today, my church still has two services on the Lord’s day. Our building cannot house all of our members at one time. But we’re beginning to explore possibilities to make sure that, in the future, our one church has one meeting.
Why the change? What convinced us that one church should have one gathering?
Let me explain two convictions which began to move our ecclesiological assumptions about Sunday mornings.
1. The nature of membership requires one gathering.
Last Sunday, Carol read a passage of Scripture and prayed. As she did, many of our members were moved by her passion and clarity. Her prayer took on the shape of the gospel and directed our hearts to praise, confession of sin, and appropriation of forgiveness in Christ. Just as Paul envisioned in 1 Corinthians 14, her prayer became our prayer and therefore we all said, “Amen” (1 Cor. 14:16). Well, not really all said “Amen.” Only half of our members heard Carol’s words. Only half joined their hearts to hers. And only half had the opportunity to benefit from her prayer.
While this may seem like a small—even isolated—example, the New Testament abounds with exhortations for believers in the body to play a role in the lives of other members. Here are a few examples:
- Paul called the Ephesian church to sing to one another with gratitude in their hearts to God (Eph. 5:19–20) because corporate singing helps the gospel dwell richly in a body, and even teach the truths we love (Col. 3:16).
- A church engages in true fellowship through which they share the good things they have in Christ (Acts 2:42; Phlm. 6).
- The church selects and commissions elders and deacons through the laying on of hands (Acts 6; 1 Tim. 5).
- Members give prophetic words of encouragement, upbuilding, and consolation (1 Cor. 14:3).
- Brothers and sisters spur one another to love, good deeds, and perseverance (Heb. 10:24–25).
- They watch over one another’s souls so that the lies of sin don’t take root and harden hearts (Heb. 3:12–13).
- And, finally, if a church recognizes how the ordinances connect to conversion and membership (see Bobby Jamieson’s Going Public), then its members will understand that a new convert is baptized into their body and, therefore, into their care. And so they’ll take the Lord’s Supper looking not only at the cross, or even their own hearts, but also at the rest of the body of Christ which the table signifies.
Let me pause and ask some simple questions. Should these member-specific responsibilities be carried out with only half the body of Christ? Should only a few be brought to repentance and joy during a Christ-honoring prayer? Should only a portion of the flock be encouraged by the singing and gratitude of their fellow members? Should a devoted member only have opportunity to pray for, encourage, engage in fellowship with, and even watch over only a handful of his brothers and sisters? Regardless of your view of prophetic words, is it fitting that just half the body hear words that God gives for encouragement and upbuilding? Must we cordon off the baptism of a new believer from half of the local body that will care for him?
2. The nature of the Lord’s Supper requires one gathering.
While our church began to grasp all the responsibilities listed above, I took 40 weeks to preach through 1 Corinthians. Although I knew this would continue to motivate corporate unity and our practical love for one another, I didn’t anticipate the direct blow the book would deal to my view of our multiple services.
The knock-out punch came as I reached 1 Corinthians 10–11, where Paul began to address the nature and practice of the Lord’s Supper. He told the Corinthians that the Supper pictures participation with Christ (10:16). But it also pictures the unity of those who celebrate it together, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:17).
When I moved on to chapter eleven, this theme came on even stronger. There, Paul referenced the church’s gathering five times (vv. 17, 18, 20, 33, 34). What’s more, his teaching focused more upon how they take the Supper together than the nature of the Supper itself. He said that when they come together, they were coming together as a church (11:18). Just as the previous chapter had shown, the Lord’s Supper is a visible sign of the invisible bond of each local congregation. Paul taught that if divisions and partiality existed within the church, the Supper they celebrated ceased even to be the Lord’s Supper (11:20). And, finally, members should discern the body, care for the body, and even wait for the body—as if the ordinance carries with it the ability to mark the borders of a local church.
I began asking questions. Should only half the body signify its unity with one another? If coming together around the Lord’s table is what it means to come together as a church, then what does this mean for our two separate services which celebrate the Lord’s table? When I teach that we should be looking around and considering our care for one another at each celebration of the Lord’s table, is it fitting that the Lord’s sheep can only look around at part of the flock?
Every church with multiple services needs to reckon with these texts and their implications.
Our methodology always betrays our theology. For most of my ministry, I thought very little—theologically speaking—about the gathering of a local church. But that’s all changed. The nature of membership and the nature of the Lord’s Supper have convinced me that God intends one local church to come together in a single corporate gathering.