John MacArthur has been in the news recently because he has defied California’s government and begun holding regular Sunday services. I have read some about his decision, his denial there is a pandemic, and his very public legal battle. I understand the struggles churches are facing as they deal with returning to normal worship routines. I have dealt with several pastors and congregants who are navigating the various issues and as I do I have noticed one reality exemplified by Mr. MacArthur, a stunning lack of theology and creativity.
Jesus said, “Where 2 or 3…” not where 2,000-3,000. We in the Western church seem to have made an idol of numbers. Church “growth” is defined in cracking a numerical barrier, rather than in the spiritual health of the congregation. But as I look at this country urban centers with large mega-churches do not seem to be home of spiritual renewal. And yet, for so many, including pastors like Mr. MacArthur, we are not having “church” unless the doors are open and the place is packed. We cannot preach to half empty sanctuaries. While I truly understand the need for familiar space and comfort as we approach God, and honestly want to be in the comforting walls of the sanctuary, I cannot see a theological mandate for such worship. We do not, like Israelites of old, hold as dogma that worship must take place in a temple. Paul saw nothing wrong with worshiping in places other than the building
On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. Acts 16:13
It seems as though we are establishing idols within our worship. I do not know what the specific idol is– and they might be different for individuals. Perhaps we worship the building, or the numbers, or the freedom to gather; but somewhere we seem to be loosing sight on the mission. I look around the world today and throughout history at the number of Christians forced to gather in small house churches and I think that we have been so spoiled by our circumstances that some explode in rage over not being able to gather by the thousands. We seem obsessed with the idea that if worship services are not the same as January 1, 2020 they are somehow less. Are we really that limited in our ability to connect with God? sadly, I think much of the problem revolves around Christians being unable to hear Jesus’ words, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20). We get it into our heads that if we do not gather in large crowds with the exciting music and the preacher strutting on stage God cannot show up. I exaggerate but could it be we argue about “coming back to church” because we are not creative enough to follow God?
Thinking outside the box. Perhaps there is another way of approaching the dilemma surrounding opening churches. What if house churches popped up around houses or small groups? Why not see the epidemic as an opportunity to spread the Gospel in new and creative ways, instead of being stuck in four walls. Maybe a digital pastor combined with wise friends producing disciples in the home. Why is this model so difficult for MacArthur and others to wrap their heads around? Are pastors worshiping the numbers coming to hear them? What is wrong with going small and in homes? The earliest Christians met in groups of twenty or less with circulated letters from Apostles as their guides. Why would today be any different except the letter comes in the form of video. Frankly, MacArthur is doing that already with thousands, what is important about the full arena? But he is not alone, I find many in churches feel very uncomfortable with such ideas for a number of reasons. But when I push the common response is, “It just wouldn’t feel like church.” I get that; but it might feel like church to people who have never been in church. It might feel more comfortable to many who are unsettled by Sunday morning worship. Why not temporarily reinvent ourselves to try to further the Gospel?
Perhaps there is another reason why so many Christians want to gather by the hundreds. Maybe it is because many in our churches have little relationship with God? Could it be Paul was writing to us and not Corinth?
1 Corinthians 3:2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,
Is it possible Hebrews is directed at us?
Hebrews 5:13 for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness.
It is possible that many American Christians want to go to church so badly because they are full of infants unable to connect with God in any other way? Sadly, I think there may be truth in this idea. For generations American churches cultivated the idea that “church” is coming to a building to listen to a pastor pray and preach. We have not cultivated the need or desire for Christians to be leaders in prayer or care. What a sad reality. Frankly, John MacArthur and other televised preachers should already have cultivated a system where their message forms the backbone of small group worship. Such systems take place all over the world (to say nothing of the United States).
Yes, I have been in the stadiums packed with people singing in worship and it does produce chills. So I get the concept of large groups of people worshiping together and how that reflects Revelation 7. But why not approach today’s reality with humility, asking God what is the best way to spread the Gospel in our world. Is the best way defying government restrictions when other courses are open? Are we truly suffering religious persecution? Is there no other way for us to spread God’s message? Or could it be that God wants us to use this time wisely to reinvent how we reach people. Christians should constantly be working on discovering the best means to further the Gospel and make disciples, and yet sadly we have “leaders” who seem to have lost that vision.