October 27, 2012
I’m always interested in what early Christian gatherings were like. Pliny the younger, who governed Bithynia from around 106-114, provides a fascinating description of his view of Christians and their gatherings. These pesky Christians were regularly brought before him to be charged. At a loss for how to deal with them, Pliny tells them emperor Trajan what he has learned about them during his examinations:
They had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind. . . . A great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. It is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult (Pliny, Letters 10.96, quoted in NTPG, Wright, 349).
Now, Pliny’s description comes from what Christians have told him about their faith during trial. This, apparently, is what Christians felt necessary and important to tell about themselves–this is their self-introduction about their faith and practice. Moreover, Pliny’s account is not based on the description of one, single Christian. Rather, after examining NUMEROUS Christians, this is the general account about their faith that he has been able to piece together. How, then, according to Pliny, did Christian gatherings look? From this brief description, what was important in their assemblies, and what is absent that one would have expected?
Their gatherings consisted of:
- The chanting of verses. This was done alternately, each seems to have taken a turn. By verses, I would guess that means Scripture verses that were set to music–many of which would have been from the OT. What is missing in this reference to chanting? A professional worship leader?
- The chanting was sung to Christ, who was worshipped as God.
- They bound themselves regularly to an oath. Where is the mention of the preacher or the sermon?
- They shared a meal together on a weekly basis. I assume this refers to communion, which was probably part of a full-fledged meal.
- Christianity was contagious. People from all over the empire, from various cultures, and of all ages were putting their faith in Christ.
July 5, 2011
It seems that in almost every sermon I hear lately, mention is made of “small groups.” Whether I’m listening to the car radio, visiting a church, or right at home, “small groups” seems to come up. In each setting, small groups are pushed as possibly THE most important aspect of the church, the place where believers can use their gifts, where relationships are built, where those from the community are drawn in and connected, etc.
I can’t help but ask a few questions about this scenario. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the small group that I’m a part of and am thankful for some good friendships we’ve formed. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder: Where in Scripture do we see any mention of small groups? Why are small groups such a popular thing lately? Is this another trend being implemented simply because “it works,” or is this practice anchored on the solid teaching of Scripture?
More importantly, what deficiencies in our Sunday gatherings are revealed by our emphasis on small groups? Churches are admitting that the structure of Sunday morning does not allow time for believers to have fellowship or to use their gifts or to encourage each other. The fix-all solution is to offer a time outside of the gathered assembly where this can happen. But why should we think that these things must happen outside of the Sunday gathering?
And now for my final question: what is church? That may seem like a loaded question. Let me rephrase it. When believers have gathered, say, in someone’s home, prayed together, discussed the word, talked about their weeks and witnessing opportunities – both their struggles and their victories — can such be considered church? I think the answer is yes. I’ll be honest with you, I often leave small group feeling more encouraged in my faith than when I leave Sunday morning. And so, if what happens in my small group can be considered “church,” then what about Sunday morning? Is Sunday morning’s singing and sermon also church?
I think, then, we can summarize the small group phenomenon in this way. Traditional churches are recognizing that the way church is done is lacking in some VERY important areas. The need for serious change is admitted. Small groups are the attempt to make up for these deficiencies without having to alter anything that happens on Sunday morning. In other words, offering small groups outside of church allows us to continue doing church like we’ve always done it, even though it is lacking in several important areas. We can continue doing things like always, and not have to bother with change. After all, who likes change? Change, much-needed change, can occur in a place we call a small group.
I realize that these thoughts are a little controversial, and that many will not agree with my conclusions. I welcome your thoughts and discussions.
June 17, 2011
The Dallas Mavericks won the NBA championship last Sunday. They weren’t supposed to win — they were less talented, less athletic, and quitesimply the underdogs, especially when compared to the Miami Heat’s star-studded line up. Nevertheless, the Mavs won. Their coach commented on the thrill of victory:
This is a true team. This is an old bunch. We don’t run fast or jump high. These guys had each other’s backs. We played the right way. We trusted the pass. This is a phenomenal thing.
Don’t you love that quote! I think the quote can be applied to the church: We are playing well when we play like a true team. We are not a star-studded bunch, just simple folks who love Jesus. We don’t do any fancy tricks, we simply walk in obedience to his word. We’ve got each other’s backs. And most of all, we trust the pass — we are eager to see another get the recognition and trust the Spirit to use our brothers and sisters.
May 30, 2011
My friend ERIC has written an excellent article entitled “excess or adoration” in which he questions when it is ok for Christians and churches to buy expensive gifts as lavish expressions of Christ’s love. Eric writes,
So my question is this — is there room for material signs of worship? Think of the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. What is it her critics cried — shouldn’t you have given that to the poor! Oh, and that lone critic was Judas. . . . I think most of the modern critique of Churches is fair — I’m just trying to make sure I’m not in the company of Judas if someone really is worshipping God with a right heart.
So, why not read Eric’s post and let him know what you think.
May 9, 2011
I highly recommend you read THIS POST by Jeff, he writes:
I’m a part of this generation that grew up dreaming about accomplishing awesome things for the Lord. And I’ve also snubbed my nose at the “dead” spirituality of my parents’ generation. What made their spirituality “dead”? Well, it just wasn’t successful! I mean, look at the numbers, they don’t lie! Look at all the pastors who were simply content to stay at that little podunk church going nowhere. They’re not attracting new people, they’re outreach events are lame, and their current attempts at becoming more contemporary are embarrassing. No, I want to be a part of a great work of God! I want to be a part of church where the masses are swarming in and being touched with our message. I want to be able to brag…er, I mean share…well, no…I guess I do want to be able to brag about what God is doing in and through me and my church. I want to know that God is using me mightily and that we are successful!
But what if God doesn’t use me like that?
What if I’m a part of a church that’s not bringing them in by the hundreds and rocking the house and seeing dozens come to Christ each week? What if my week is spent mowing an old lady’s yard, and that lady is certainly not going to be someone influential in the community? What if our church’s worship service is attended by the same few each week? What if our old-school door-to-door methods of outreach don’t turn out any converts or baptisms? What if we keep spinning our wheels and end up stuck in the same place as a church for the next 20 years without seeing any noticeable growth other than a few of the kids growing up to replace the elderly?
March 16, 2011
“In each instance, Paul has formed a community that would have been extraordinary in antiquity — one composed of people from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds” (Thompson, Pastoral Ministry according to Paul, 33).
Sometimes I lose sight of just how extraordinary such community must have been. Jews and Gentiles, worshipping together? The rich mingling with the poor? Different ethnicities in one community?
Such a community would not only have been strange in antiquity, it would be radical today. We live in a very diverse, multi-ethnic society. Yet, very rarely do you see genuine interaction that could be called “fellowship” going on between the various peoples. The rich and poor do not mix, old and young tend to view each other as weird, blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians keep their distance from each other. This is why Thompson’s words caused me to pause and reflect on how unique the church really is. We are a group of people who are so diverse and come from such radically different backgrounds. We do not extend an offer for everyone to change and become like us (this, I think, is what is so mistaken about “niche” churches, such as cowboy church, biker church, yuppie church, sr. church and youth church). Rather, we are a living testimony that, although we are all so different, God has given us a common story — he has transformed each and every one of us through Jesus. And he has brought us, different as we are, into such a close relationship that we can be called a family, brothers and sisters. Only God could bring such unity from diversity. The world simply can’t understand it.
January 31, 2011
Check out Jonathan’s post entitled “It’s easier to mimic community than have community.” Jonathan writes:
I believe my thinking is supported by the reality that it’s easier to have a Facebook community than a ‘in the flesh’ community. Why? My guess is that digital communities are easier to control. You can cut in or cut out of the community with the press of a button. You can hide fear, joy, anxiety, disapproval–and so much more–since your face isn’t seen and your voice isn’t heard (I’m sorry, but emoticons like , , and don’t cut it). In short, it’s easier to mimic a deep rooted community than be a deep rooted community.
January 21, 2011
“The Bible is not simply a document of churchmanship with pastoral preoccupations. The particular kind of church of which it is the testimony is an aggressive, subversive, missionary movement. We misunderstand even the practical/pastoral thrust of the bible whenever we compare or equate it with the pastoral concerns of an established religion — with the maintenance of the life of parish and clan in a society where there are no longer any challenges being addressed to the powers that be, no longer any new believers coming in across the boundaries of nation and culture, and no longer any new threatening issues needing to be wrestled with on the missionary frontier. Pastoral care in the established church is quite a distinct operation from pastoral care in the minority missionary movement” (Yoder, To Hear the Word, 53).
January 10, 2011
Make sure you read JONATHAN’S recent post entitled “The way we do church & suffering.” Jonathan asks, “Does the way we do church teach people how to suffer well?”
January 7, 2011
I think it’s reasonably safe to assume that any given Sunday, as we sit in the cozy buildings in which our churches gather, no matter the size of the congregation, we sit within arms reach of someone with serious marital trouble, tremendous financial pressure, a sorrower needing comfort, next to someone grappling with real theological questions, wondering what’s wrong with the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel, next to someone who experienced real victory this week, who experienced new boldness in their witness, answered prayer, victory over sin.
I’m also convinced that within the same building sits one with a word of encouragement, a word of exhortation, a song of praise, a timely Scripture, a genuine desire to listen, to rejoice, to mourn. Yet, because of the structure of the typical “worship service” in America, those needing encouragement and those ready to offer it sit in virtual silence, listening to the same two or three voices week after week.
Unlike our silent services, it seems that the New Testament gatherings were quite noisy affairs–orderly noise, of course–the kind where one person speaks at a time as the others weigh carefully what is being said, and where everyone with something to say takes turns. Yes, I believe that loving, orderly participation is not only possible, it’s biblical.