The Rhythm of Gathering

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, NRSV)

This week I want to devote my entire column (and a little bit more) to a wonderful article by Brad Andrews that appeared recently in Urban Tulsa Weekly.  Please read this article carefully and listen what it says to us as Christians and as members of the church.  There is plenty to think about.

The Rhythm of Gathering: a messy yet indispensable necessity of the church

I grew up in the church.  Every time the door was open, my family was there.  Sunday morning Sunday school and worship, Sunday afternoon discipleship classes, Sunday night worship, Wednesday night youth group, revivals, children and youth choirs, youth conferences, youth choir tours, summer camps.  All of the above.  Gathering with God’s people was a way of life.

It wasn’t until I got to college and could make my own decisions about going to church that I really began to wrestle with a nagging question in the back of my mind: if the church is the people of God, why go to church?  If the church could be defined “where two or more are gathered,” what is the purpose of a brick-and-mortar institution called the church?

In fact, my questioning only seemed to be supported by the type of community I was experiencing in a singing group I traveled with regularly during college.  This collection of Christian men and women, I believed, was my real “church” and I struggled to be a regular participant in any congregation.

After a brief stint in Nashville pursuing a career in the music industry, I found myself in my first ministry job at a mid-size congregation in Columbia, Mo.  I was a green 27-year-old, leading worship in a college town in a church filled with brilliant people, and these brilliant people began to ask me tough questions about why we did what we did.  Questions I had difficulty in answering.

I began to pore over the Scriptures and ask myself, “What does the Bible say gathered worship should really look like?”  I started reading every book on worship gatherings that I could get my hands on from Calvin to Webber.  But something interesting happened on the road to answering my questions.  My inquiries about gathered worship began to push me to ask deeper questions about the church.  What is the church?  What should the local church look like?  What is it about our current evangelical conception of the church is man-made and not centered on Scripture?  Are there things that we do that we shouldn’t be doing?

In Acts 2:42-47, we find the apostle Luke describing what the early church began doing after the ascension of Jesus.  It says they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching — which was for many, the eyewitness story of what Jesus had done in his life, death and resurrection.  They fellowshipped together.  They broke bread together.  They prayed together.  They shared what they had with one another so that no one was in need.

But beginning in verse 46, it says, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.”

The early church was living in a pattern of gathering together regularly in the temple and in their homes.  I believe the early church was showing us a rhythm of why gathering was important.  They were showing us that getting together regularly was an overflow of what God was doing in their hearts.

Look, there are a lot of things about the organized church that I don’t care for.  But in recent years — especially since I’ve been here in Tulsa — I’m growing concerned when I hear this sentiment: “I love Jesus but the church turns me off so I’m going off the grid.”  Again, I get it.  The church is messy.  It is imperfect.  But many times the expectations we bring to the church say more about our idols than they do about a genuine concern for our souls.

Bob Thune, pastor and author, says, “The reason our attempts at gathered community are often shallow, stale and unfulfilling is that we have made community about ourselves.  Perhaps we could call this community idolatry.  We jump into the vehicle of community and use it to chase our own false gods.”

Thune is right.  We have made the church community about us.  In today’s cultural and church milieu, faith is what you want it to be.  The church is what you want it to be.  Your faith can be expressed in the church or outside of the church.  It can be with a bunch of people, a small group of people, or by yourself.

We need to be honest about our hang-ups and obstacles with the church.  It is through wrestling and letting Scripture inform our thoughts — not our emotions or past hurts — I think, that we begin to find why we regularly gather with God’s people.

See, the genius of God is that he does not see a separation between the visible church and the invisible church.  The New Testament word ekklesia means “the called out ones.”  This means that all Christians everywhere from all time are part of the universal church.  But this same word is used to describe a local church assembly.  So, not only does church mean all believers everywhere from all time but it also means a group of believers in a specific area — the local church.

So why would God use the same word?  Because in the mind of God, it’s the same thing.  Pastor and author, John MacArthur says, “God never provided in His design that there would be a difference between those believers in the world and those in any local church because He always assumed that any true believer would be a part of a local assembly.”

In other words, there is no dichotomy between being a Christian and being a part of a gathered Christian community.  And if you’re not regularly gathering with God’s people, you’re not living in the rhythm God has designed for you.

© Urban Tulsa Weekly, February 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

Thanks for reading this.  I hope to see YOU in church this Sunday.

May God’s word today truly disturb us,
Pastor Don