Review: “One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite & Multiservice Church Models” by Jonathan Leeman

I’ve occasionally listened to Jonathan Leeman’s Pastors’ Talk podcast, and he seems to be a likable guy (although perhaps given at times to overly provocative rhetoric). And I would agree with many of the author’s concerns about the exegetical assumptions made by some proponents of multisite churches, and the problems with some forms of the multisite model. I, too, am passionate about seeking the most biblical ways of faithfully being the church. One of our church’s core commitments is that we’ll first seek biblical principles of doing church, and then try to determine how best to apply the biblical principles in our context. So I’m intrigued by this kind of book, and somewhat inclined to read it sympathetically.

But, even if I were convinced by Leeman’s arguments, I find the manner in which he has written to be extremely troubling. He doesn’t just describe problems with multiple church services or sites, or explain the reasons why he believes single-location-and-time churches to be healthier and more faithful to scriptural principles. No, Leeman insists that those who don’t except his narrow definition of a church “repudiate the Bible’s definition of a church [emphasis in original].” [I read the ebook version, so I won’t be able to reference specific page numbers.] He doesn’t merely note the unintended danger of pursuing a model of church that may differ from the scriptural design; no, he boldly declares that multisite pastors (and Presbyterian pastors, for that matter) are “picking a fight with Jesus!” I think we should all agree to table this kind of heated rhetoric except for cases where people are knowingly and intentionally defying Christ. We can be more nuanced, and much more humble, about the dangers of unintentionally slipping into unbiblical models of church life. Is Leeman’s argument so convincing that to differ from his conclusions would be to fight Jesus? We’ll see below.

Unfortunately, the author doesn’t get around to actually making his case until the second chapter of a three-chapter book. Before getting to where Leeman even attempts to establish his basic premise, we first read through a fairly lengthy introduction and first chapter. And that’s a problem. If the fundamental question is truly a lexical issue (the meaning of the word ekklesia), one would think he would want to get to that discussion as quickly as possible, and then follow with his applications and implications. Instead we’re given extensive criticisms of multisite and multiservice models, and arguments for a single-service-and-location model—all firmly based on a premise the author has yet to establish. What this amounts to is a whole lot of question begging. Leeman is assuming his conclusion before he has made the case for his conclusion. This is classic circular reasoning. It’s like trying to begin the construction of a house before laying the foundation. It can certainly be rhetorically effective, but for all the wrong reasons. This is unfairly stacking the deck, prejudicing the reader toward your conclusion before you’ve actually made your case.

Compounding the problem is the way he describes other models of being the church. Apparently those who would differ with the author view the church primarily as either the building, the Sunday morning performance, or the church leadership. They sever their concept of church from the gathering of the church. He does briefly acknowledge that some of these churches are more biblical than others. But these aren’t the ones he describes. No, he gives us descriptions guaranteed to push the buttons of those of us with misgivings about multisite megachurches: churches that beam video of one rockstar pastor to other locations; churches that adopt church models with little or no theological reflection; churches that emphasize passive access via online streaming and apps at the expense of actually gathering; etc., etc. Why doesn’t he describe multisite churches that have a team of pastor/teachers? Why doesn’t he describe a church much like his own church—except one that has two services on Sunday morning rather than just one—and then show how this sole difference can adversely affect the church? I can’t presume to say. The way he’s written this introduction may certainly be more persuasive to some. It’s also unfair, uncharitable and prejudicial.

So just what exactly is Leeman’s claim? The author’s basic premise is that the word ekklesia (commonly translated “church” in the New Testament) is by definition an “assembly.” And since this meaning of a singular “assembly” is so core to the meaning of ekklesia or church, then that one, single assembly or gathering of believers narrowly defines what constitutes a local church. So a “church” that, for example, has services that meet Sunday mornings at 9:00 and 11:00 would actually constitute two distinct assemblies, or two churches, and it would therefore be inaccurate—even unbiblical—to think of these multiple services or multiple sites as collectively constituting a single local ekklesia or church. So let’s examine the author’s evidence for this claim.

We quickly run into a significant problem for the author because, as he admits, trusted lexicons such as BDAG explicitly contradict his premise! He even shows that this contradictory definition of ekklesia (contradictory to his view, that is) is found in a lexicon from 1794, so this isn’t some new interpretation intended to justify multisite churches. If he can find little or no support from standard lexicons, this should certainly cause one pause before accepting Leeman’s narrow definition of ekklesia.

Leeman also undermines his own argument by acknowledging that the biblical understanding of ekklesia transcends the narrow concept of one specific gathering. When a church body meets together and then leaves the meeting place, they don’t stop being the ekklesia, they don’t stop being a church. If someone gathers regularly with the assembly, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re part of the church; and if someone is unable to gather with the assembly, it doesn’t mean they are no longer part of the ekklesia. In fact, Jack may attend the assembly much more regularly than Jill, and yet Jill be part of the ekklesia and Jack not. This shows that there’s something more primary to the meaning of ekklesia than the physical gathering itself. There’s an essential aspect to what we mean by church that is more fundamental than attending a specific assembly. There is a core criterion for who is part of a church that is more principal than attending an assembly. If this is true, it would be inaccurate for us to make a singular assembly the sine qua non of what it means to be a church the way Leeman is doing.

Now, it is very true that the ekklesia is an assembly that actually assembles or gathers. I can’t think of anyone who would disagree with this. But the fact that the church regularly gathers simply does not require that it gather in only one gathering at one place and one time. It doesn’t matter how many times or in how many different ways the author states this; you can state something over and over again, but it doesn’t establish your premise. The word ekklesia undeniably has a much broader and more primary meaning than a single physical assembly or gathering. This is confirmed by the lexicons with which the author struggled. This means there is no lexical basis for insisting that a church can only meet in one place at one time.

Another problem for Leeman is the way the New Testament authors used the word ekklesia. There are too many places where New Testament usage contradicts his narrow definition. In Acts 12:5 we’re told that the church (singular) in Jerusalem was praying for Peter while he was imprisoned. As we read through the following verses, it’s clear that the church was praying for Peter at multiple locations. Peter goes to one location after he’s freed by the angel, he sends a report to James and some others at a different location, and then goes on himself to yet another location. This is the church not only existing, but functioning in ministry simultaneously in different locations.

1 Corinthians 11:18 speaks of when they would gather together or assemble “as a church.” Now if, as Leeman argues, the definition of ekklesia is fundamentally grounded in the idea of one specific, physical gathering of the people, then this sentence becomes so redundant as to be essentially meaningless. It would be saying: “when you assemble as an assembly,” or “when you gather as as a group of people who gather.” But the way Scripture is actually worded—“when you gather together as a church“—shows that there is something much deeper to the meaning of church than merely the idea of assembling, something closer to: “when you gather together as a community of believers.”

We even see this distinction where it’s clear from the text that the whole church is gathering together. In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul describes a scenario “if the whole church gathers together.” (See also Acts 14:27.) But to be able to speak of the whole church gathering together means the church has an identity as the church that is independent of any particular gathering. It already exists as the church before it gathers together. Yes, it’s true that the church is to gather regularly. Again, no one disputes this. But we know this because of clear biblical instruction unambiguously telling us to do so (Hebrews 10:25), and because of the consistent model of the New Testament church. We’re not required to base this necessary aspect of the life of the church on an artificially truncated definition of church that isn’t supported by the lexicons or New Testament usage.

Leeman actually admits much of this. But, he insists, the word ekklesia is still inextricably tied to the idea of a single assembly in one place at one time. He seems to be saying, “Yes, ekklesia has a much broader meaning in the New Testament than one specific assembling of people—but it still must always mean one specific assembling of people!” Hopefully he can understand why many of us will find this contradictory and confusing. And, again, he repeats this claim throughout the book but never actually establishes a basis for it lexically or scripturally. But he does take his peculiar understanding of assembly and then use it as a standard by which to evaluate all other churches. So he concludes at different points in the book that a multisite or multi-service church is “an assembly that never assembles.” This is blatantly circular reasoning, assuming his unique definition of assembling to then conclude these churches don’t assemble!

Sadly, there are many other examples of poor reasoning, and even faulty exegesis, in the book. He admits that the classical meaning for ekklesia isn’t directly relevant to the New Testament usage, but strangely continues to inappropriately refer back to it. He badly misconstrues the editors of BDAG, seems to imply the lexicographers who disagree with him do so because of denominational presuppositions, and assumes scholarly support for his case when it is decidedly missing. He speculatively imports the idea of “place” into the meaning of ekklesia, and then uses this as an established fact to support other arguments. (This is like claiming that “place” is intrinsic to the meaning of “family” because families need to live some place!)

Leeman spends a great deal of time in chapter 1 exploring the church assembly as a kind of embassy of the kingdom of heaven, what he calls the “geography” of the kingdom. I don’t know of any church leaders who would disagree with this, but is the church uniquely an embassy of the kingdom? Would not a faithful Christian household also be a manifestation of Christ’s kingdom? Does not faithfully living out a genuine Christ-like life in the workplace, school or neighborhood, proclaiming the gospel of Christ when we have the opportunity, does this not make the rule of Christ visible? I’m not arguing there is nothing special about the gathered church, or that it doesn’t beautifully manifest, enact, and make visible the kingdom. But Leeman seems to be assuming the gathered church—and only the gathered church—does this, but he never gets around to explaining why, or why this would somehow necessitate a church meeting in only place at one time.

A key passage for Leeman is Jesus’ participation in the church discipline process in Matthew 18. Jesus’ presence gives authority to the gathered church to make decisions involving issues such as church discipline. Leeman admits that in a church with multiple services Jesus would also be present in each service and would authorize each service in the same way. But, Leeman asserts, Jesus’ presence and authorization somehow make it an ontological, inescapable reality that these multiple meetings are actually separate churches. And he repeatedly asserts this. Of course, he never actually establishes why this must be so, but he is very confident in his assertions. It’s almost as if saying something over and over again somehow establishes it as a logical conclusion.

This insisted emphasis also leads him to a strangely reductionistic understanding of the church:

A church is a church ultimately because of the authority of Christ and his declaration that he would identify himself with gatherings: “I’m there in the gathering of two or three in my name.” That was his decision, not ours. Consider, therefore, what a church gathering is: it’s a group of people bowed in submission to something. To what? To Christ. Their physical togetherness, then, testifies to his lordship.

Does Leeman really believe this to be an adequate explanation of what constitutes a church? If so, maybe he would agree with those who say periodically hanging out with a few other believers at Starbucks is their church! My guess is Leeman would see much more than this as essential to the church qua church. But then that would mean he’s using an artificially restricted understanding of church to make his point when he knows the reality is actually more complex. Either way, this is a big problem.

The book is loaded with all kinds of strange assertions, far more than I could list in a review. He claims:

You can no more be a multisite church than you can be a multisite body.

But what of the body of Christ? Is not the universal church the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:4, 15-16; Colossians 1:18; etc.), and isn’t the universal body of Christ by necessity a multisite body? And how can we even currently have a universal ekklesia if inherent in the meaning of the word is a one-place-and-time assembly? Leeman seems to think this a spiritual, not literal, assembly of the universal church. If that’s the case, then why can’t this mandatory assembly of the local church also be spiritual and not literal? How can we get away with making one assembly spiritual while demanding the other must be literal? (Ironically, he accuses others of special pleading.)

In another place he writes:

Which brings us back to the multisite and multiservice models. Here’s the biggest problem, as I’ll seek to show in this book: They’re not in the Bible. At all. And that means they work against, not with, Jesus’s disciple-making plan.

Notice he identifies this as “the biggest problem” with these models. They’re not in the Bible. Of course, neither is the children’s ministry check-in desk he mentioned just a few paragraphs before this—or children’s classes, at all, for that matter. Neither is the church usher he mentioned before that. Neither are church platforms or pulpits or youth groups or church choirs, etc., etc. Does that mean when Leeman was taking his daughter to her Sunday School class, he was working against, not with, Jesus’ disciple-making plan? Of course not, and it would be absurd to make such an accusation, just as it is for Leeman to make the accusation he does regarding multisite and multiservice churches. (It’s hard for me to understand how Leeman could not have been aware of just how unfair this rhetoric was, but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

But this is even more of a problem. Leeman repeatedly makes a big deal out of an inability to find multisite churches in the New Testament. Fair enough. For the record, I would also challenge the exegetical overreach of those who try. There simply isn’t clear indication in Scripture that any church at that time met regularly in multiple locations in the same town. [I’ve written about this before.] There’s also nothing in Scripture, contra Leeman, precluding such a church model. But here’s the point that Leeman seems to be missing (and probably some multisite proponents, as well): They’re under no pressure to find examples of multisite churches in Scripture, anymore than Leeman has to find biblical references to a children’s ministry check-in desk. As long as they’re not arguing that this model is normative for the church, but simply a faithful way to be the church, they don’t have to find a specific biblical example.

Leeman, on the other hand, is arguing not that these church models are extra-biblical, but that they are unambiguously unbiblical. And this puts the burden of proof on him to show this scripturally. So when he repeatedly makes the snide observation that he doesn’t find any multisite churches in the Bible, not only is this hypocritical, but he is badly turning the issue completely upside down. The accusation is his, and the burden of proof is his to show how their model is incompatible with biblical principles of the church. He either needs to show where Scripture would rule out a multisite (or multiservice) model, or he needs to trace a very clear pattern of the churches obviously and intentionally meeting in only one place at one time. I’m neither endorsing nor defending multisite churches, but this author has simply not made his case.

I know this review is growing quite long, but there’s one more thing I have to mention because I think it’s important. In his third chapter, Leeman describes a problem of a megachurch starting a new campus at a different location without considering the existing churches in that area. This problem is a very real one. Of course, everything he says about multisite churches starting new campuses could also be said of single-service, single-location churches planting new churches. But here’s my point. Leeman is contending for the idea that every service should be a separate church. If you need to start another service, then you should plant another church. Ironically, something else we never see in Scripture is anyone planting a church in a community where a church already exists. Never. Not once. Instead, we see a consistent pattern of there being one church in each city. Regardless of whether they met in one location or multiple house churches—they existed as one church in each city. We never see any deviation from this pattern in Scripture. We never see multiple churches in one city. Leeman fails to acknowledge that it’s the existence of many different churches in each city that create the environment for the very problem he decries. And adding more churches in each town would seem to exacerbate the problem, not alleviate it. If we could somehow return to what we do see in Scripture—one church in each city—even if this required a multisite church in each city, it would actually solve the problem he rightfully laments.

The author of this book makes some very bold claims about the essential meaning of the word ekklesia (and therefore the meaning of the church), claims that aren’t supported by the lexicons, claims that aren’t consistent with the way the New Testament uses the word, and claims the author fails to conclusively establish logically or theologically. Instead he relies on specious and fallacious arguments while accusing those who disagree of repudiating the Bible and fighting Jesus. This is not just a book with which I disagree. In fact, there are occasional nuggets scattered throughout the book I would strongly affirm. But it is so poorly reasoned and so extreme in its denunciations of anyone who would dare to disagree, I cannot recommend this book.

Interactive teaching, part 3: Challenges of interactive teaching

Photo by ronnarong

We’ve looked at some of the benefits of interactive teaching. So let’s consider some of the challenges of teaching this way:

“It takes a lot more time.”
This is true. If you’re studying a passage of Scripture, and you have people respond to you and invite them to raise their hands and ask questions, it’s going to take longer than if you do all the talking. You should know that going in. And this is going to frustrate some people, especially those who prefer a short, streamlined service where they can get in, get done, and get out. (Some of my friends refer to this as “drive-thru church.”) So you need to be clear about what your priorities are, and why. What outcome are we seeking? Are we willing to do almost anything to draw a large crowd, or are we focused on what will be most effective at making faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who are continually learning, growing and maturing?

“Overly talkative people will dominate the interaction.”
This is a real, ever-present, danger. This kind of format can draw people who are looking for a soapbox, a platform from which to opine and share with everyone their incredible wisdom on just about everything. Others, in their enthusiasm, may forget any self-restraint and eagerly answer every question asked of the people and pepper the teacher with a barrage of questions. Again, this is something pastors and teachers are just going to have deal with when teaching interactively. And you must actually deal with it.

Part of the way we serve the church is by providing gentle leadership to the whole study process. We’re not just teaching a particular passage, we’re teaching how to study the Bible, and how to interact as we study together as a church. From time to time, I have to begin with a reminder: “Don’t forget, questions are welcome, but only questions. There are just too many of us for everyone to be able to share their views and insights on the passage we’re studying. So you’re welcome to respond—briefly—when I ask you guys questions, and feel free to raise your hand and ask a question when something isn’t clear to you, but please hold onto your comments and insights until after the service. We can discuss as much as we want then.” You’ll be continually seeking balance in this area. It’s a bit like parents finding the balance between being too strict and being too permissive. At times we have to do some course correction to bring us back into balance. But this is another thing an interactive teacher must deal with. (And you’ll have to learn the art of gently and inoffensively interrupting someone who’s having difficulty ending their comments!)

“Someone might say something inappropriate.”
Not only is it a distinct possibility that someone eventually might say something in a less than appropriate manner during an interactive study, it’s very likely! Or at least it should be. Why do I say that? Because we’re trying to reach the same range of people that Jesus reached. He spent quite a bit of time with prostitutes and tax collectors, and I doubt whether their language and manners were the most genteel. What’s more important to us, that everyone act like good religious boys and girls in church—even the non-Christians—or that people are genuinely grappling with, and being changed by, the truth of Scripture at a deep heart level? If a non-Christian is doing this in our midst, and they process some of this out loud in their response or question, sometimes that may be expressed in ways that might make us uncomfortable. And that’s good! We need to be uncomfortable! And we need to sacrifice our comfort in order to reach people, both outside and inside the church.

Of course, there’s a balance to this, too. If someone is repeatedly dropping F-bombs, it might be necessary to have a gentle, respectful chat with them. But an occasional inappropriately worded response or question can be encouraging confirmation we’re actually reaching some of the people we say we want to reach! These are the kinds of problems the church should be encountering.

“But if I let the people ask any questions, they’re going to ask something I can’t answer.”
Good! That shows they’re really thinking about these things. A good question to which we don’t know the answer should never threaten us—unless we’re pretending to know everything! Of course, we need to be “laboring in the Word,” pushing up our sleeves and doing the hard work of studying the biblical text. We need to be prepared to teach a passage of Scripture, not just deliver a message. But, if we see ourselves as fellow students of Scripture who are still learning and growing ourselves, a new and probing question concerning Scripture should delight us! And our enthusiasm will be infectious. The people will see that this isn’t about being self-righteous and assuming we have everything nailed down. Studying Scripture is about the joy of discovering more about God and knowing more deeply his love, truth, life, grace, holiness, etc., etc. (And—notwithstanding the value of models for us to observe and of wise counsel—the best way to learn to answer tough questions is by answering tough questions!)

“This would be hard to do in larger churches.”
The size of a group will obviously affect how interactive it can be. We have the freedom to be much more interactive in a group of 10 or 12 than we do a group of 100 or 200. So the level of interaction will change in a way that fits the group with whom you’re working, but you can still be interactive in your teaching even with very large groups. You just have to think through how you’re going to do it. (Do you use roving microphones? Do you have set times during your study for questions and answers? etc.) If you think your church service is just too large to effectively teach interactively . . . then maybe your church service is just too large.

“I tried to teach interactively, but I couldn’t control the study.”
There are different issues that people confront when they teach interactively. The first is that teaching interactively is, in many ways, a very different process than monologue teaching. It’s like the difference between swimming and surfing. I can swim from point A to point B, and it’s a fairly straightforward process. But surfing is entirely different. Surfers don’t let the wave take them just anywhere, they’re still controlling the surfboard. But they have to ride the wave to get where they want to go. Surfing requires a different skill set, and the same is true for interactive teaching. It’s part art form. Someone who truly loves teaching (not just speaking), who loves to help people learn, who’s thrilled to see that light bulb moment when someone really gets it—these people usually take to interactive teaching pretty quickly because it’s so much more effective at fostering real learning and growth. They also know that new skills (e.g. how to go from someone’s rabbit trail back into the flow of the passage in a way that feels smooth and natural; how to correct someone who’s wrong but still encourage them to keep thinking and questioning; etc.) have to be learned and practiced, they don’t develop automatically.

Other people, though, find it very difficult to relinquish this much control. For some, it’s not a matter of developing additional teaching skills; they just hate teaching this way. For them, it goes against the grain. If we’re honest with ourselves, it can be hard to put all that time and effort into preparing to teach a passage of Scripture, only to have someone steal our thunder by knowing an answer to a question or by seeing something important in the text. It can grate on us when the people ask questions at the wrong time and mess up our outline, or when they don’t word things the way we’d like them to. There may be (at least) a couple of different reasons why these kinds of things bother someone. Maybe we’re struggling with a pride issue in our hearts. This is something that all of must confront in regards to our ministry. How much of my motivation and the way I respond is generated more from pride than a desire to lovingly serve. Does it bother us when we don’t get the credit for something we know, or for a helpful insight into the meaning of a Scripture? These can be warning signs that we’re too focused on ourselves.

This kind of struggling is also an opportunity to take another look at our gifting. Maybe teaching isn’t really our gifting at all. I know people who think they should be teaching, but they don’t really like working with people! (Here’s a hint: that doesn’t work!) Some love the activity of studying Scripture, but they’re frustrated with trying to help others learn. Some love the creative process of crafting something and then presenting it in front of an audience—intending to truly move and inspire them—but they feel ill-equipped to handle any kind of interaction. In cases like these, the individual and the church would be much healthier if these people determine their strongest areas of gifting and passion and find ways to use these gifts to most effectively love and edify the church body. There’s nothing wrong with having gifting other than teaching!

Don’t forget to exhort.
Scripture doesn’t just call pastoral leaders to teach the church, but also to exhort the church. Teaching in the church shouldn’t be merely a transfer of information, teaching should bring about real spiritual growth and life change. There should be an element of coaching in our teaching. As teachers in the church, we should be encouraging and urging people (and ourselves) to take what we’re learning and faithfully live it out in our daily lives.

“But some people won’t like it.”
No matter what we do as a church, we can’t please everyone. If some people are going to be displeased with us, let’s make sure they’re displeased with us for the right reasons! If we’re seeking to be biblically faithful and as effective as possible at helping people come to faith in Christ and helping each other grow and mature in the faith, then it’s much easier to deal with it when people don’t like that approach. Some people will be drawn to interactive study of Scripture, and others won’t. Some will tell you, “I don’t want to hear all these other people. You’re the pastor or teacher, I want to hear you.” That’s when we need to be very clear about what Scripture calls us to do, and the most effective ways to fulfill this calling. We must never fail to consider the input from others in the church, but we also don’t decide what’s best based solely on majority opinion. The fact is, we Christians often don’t know what’s best for us. So we’re continually driven back to the Word, and we seek to live out what the Bible teaches as wisely as we can.

Ministry is rarely, if ever, neat and tidy and quickly concluded the way we see in many books and conferences. Real life is messy, and real ministry to real people is messy, too. Don’t forget: Jesus didn’t disciple 12 units; he discipled Peter; and James; and John; etc. He discipled 12 individuals (and many others, as well). We, too, are teaching very different people with different backgrounds, different levels of knowledge, different levels of spiritual maturity, different personalities and ways of learning, etc., etc. Some may prefer the antiseptic security of what can be neatly contained and packaged, but what is messy can also be organic and thriving and vibrant. There must be order to what we do, of course, but we can easily have so much order—so much of our control—that we choke off the life.

In his excellent book Teaching to Change Lives, Howard Hendricks asked:

Wouldn’t it be great in our churches if people would simply stand up when they didn’t understand what the speaker was trying to communicate, and say, “Wait a minute. I have no idea what you’re talking about”? It would guarantee no one would go to sleep!

As a young teacher, I read this and wrote in the margin, “Why not?” We need to refuse to be bound by the sacred cows of either what is traditional or what is trendy. We need to be willing to take a fresh look at Scripture, in its context, to see how we can be more faithfully biblical, and also be seeking how we can be most wise in applying scriptural church principles in our current context.

In the case of interactive teaching, it can be thrilling to see people become active participants in the study of Scripture, to hear their excited questions as they come to better understand Scripture for themselves—and better know God through his Word. But you should also know this. Once people take some sense of ownership in their own process of learning and growing, and they get used to being able to raise their hand and ask a question when something is confusing or needs to be clarified, it’s extremely difficult for them to return to sitting quietly as part of a passive audience. And once you teachers begin to witness this dynamic process during your teaching, when the people start seeing what you want them to see in the Scriptures (rather than you just telling them), when they get so into the flow of the passage that they’re naturally asking questions that lead right into the next verse or paragraph, when you see the exhilaration of a Christian personally grasping a key biblical concept or understanding a knotty passage for the first time—not only will it be worth dealing with all of the challenges we’ve listed, but you’ll likely find it impossible to ever return to teaching without the interaction!

Interactive teaching, part 2: Why teach interactively?

In the last post, we saw that Scripture doesn’t call pastors to preach, in the familiar sense of delivering sermons, but there is a repeated call for pastors to teach the church. I noted that—contrasted with preaching—teaching has different priorities, a different focus, and different expectations. So we should want to see this kind of teaching modeled for us in the Bible, right? How did Jesus and Paul teach? What can we learn from their examples?

I want to focus on a characteristic of their teaching that isn’t discussed very often. If we read the text carefully, we begin to see references to the interactive nature of both Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching. We know from historical studies that the format in the synagogues of the first century was interactive. They even arranged their seating in the round to facilitate this interaction. We see evidence of this interaction in the synagogues in such passages as Mark 3:1-5; John 6:25-59; Acts 17:1-4; 17:17; 18:4-6; 18:19; 18:28; 19:8-9. Read through the Gospels and see how many times Jesus asked questions and answered questions—often answering questions with questions! And we see him doing this in one-on-one conversation, in small groups and in large group settings. He did most of the talking, to be sure; these weren’t large group chats, but they were interactive.

Notice in the passages above how often it says that Paul reasoned with the people in the synagogues. The Greek word used here is dialegomai. From this word we get our English word “dialogue,” and it had the same kind of meaning in the first century. It meant “to discuss,” so what we see happening in the synagogues in these passages was very interactive.

We see Paul teaching interactively in the church, as well, in Acts 20:7-12. We often joke about this being the favorite verse of long-winded preachers because it shows Paul preaching all night long! The problem is this isn’t quite accurate. The same Greek word is used here as above, plus another one with a similar meaning. What Paul was doing wasn’t preaching to the people, he was dialoguing with the people. He didn’t preach all night long, but he did talk with the people all night long.

So what happened to this interactive style of teaching? How did monologic preaching become the norm? Over time, leaders in the church began adopting more of a Greco-Roman emphasis on eloquent rhetoric. This became even more widespread after Christianity was legalized and “the Church” even became seemingly predominate. Huge numbers of people joined the Church (without necessarily becoming truly Christian), churches began building large cathedrals, the bishop had already become the preeminent person in church life, and now eloquent sermons with all the desired rhetorical flourishes took the place of simple, interactive teaching. The Reformed churches, with their intellectual strengths, retained and even intensified this focus on monologic preaching, viewing it as virtually indistinguishable from the proclamation of the gospel and the teaching of the Word. Over the centuries, some groups followed a more interactive teaching model, and there’s been renewed interest in interactive teaching the past few decades.

But why teach interactively? What are some of the benefits of interactive teaching? Here are a few:

It’s a much more effective way of learning.
Studies have consistently shown that the more we’re actively involved in the learning process (rather than just passively listening), the more we retain and apply what we’ve learned. First, people remain engaged at a much higher level when they realize people can ask questions, and that the teacher may ask the people questions—and expect an answer! It avoids the problem of people not understanding something, being frustrated at not being able to clarify what’s confusing them, and then zoning out because they’re lost in the sermon and no longer able to follow. And the truth of Scripture just has greater weight to a person when they’re part of the discovery process. Rather than telling everyone, “. . . and this verse shows again that Jesus is God,” it makes much more of a lasting impact for someone to respond to a question from the teacher with, “Wow, this is saying that Jesus is God!” Rather than truth being something they’re told, they’re now apprehending the truth in a deeply personal way. They now own it, and are responsible for doing something with it.

A monologue is just about the least effective way to teach people anything, but strangely it’s the most common model we find in the church. The more people actively participate in the learning process, the more they truly learn, the more they retain, and the more they apply what they’ve learned in their lives.

Interactive teaching also keeps the focus rightly on the text of Scripture.
This is true even in the preparation process. Rather than putting a great deal of time and effort into crafting a beautiful speech, I need to understand as thoroughly as possible the whole passage we’re studying because I can get questions on anything in the passage. Rather than being immersed in my message, I have to be immersed in the text itself. Secondly, the focus during the study time is not on my rhetorical skills, on how funny or moving I am, but on how clearly they understand the Scriptures. This way of teaching helps the teacher become more invisible and draws the people’s attention to the scriptural text, the Word of God.

This form of teaching can also inspire people to study the Scriptures on their own.
Rather than saying to themselves, “I don’t know how he got those points from this passage, but that’s beautiful,” it can cause people to say, “Oh, wow, I’m seeing where the text is making this point! I’m following the flow of this, and actually understanding it! This is great!” To borrow from the old saying, instead of giving them fish, this helps them learn how to fish for themselves. [Side note: using a translation in our teaching that the people can actually understand—without the need for the teacher to translate the translation(!)—helps greatly with this also. It’s wonderful to hear people tell me they’re understanding what they read in Scripture on their own for the first time.]

This kind of teaching also encourages more people to become teachers.
The unpleasant truth is that there are just not that many truly great preachers. Many churches endure preaching every week that is painfully subpar. This reality is even more evident today when we can watch the best preachers online anytime we like. And the pressure is real and somewhat understandable; after all, if you’re doing all the talking, you should be really good at it! But the encouraging thing is that there are a whole lot more people who can be effective teachers than can be excellent preachers! And seeing excellent teaching will often excite them that they can do this, too, instead of concluding that they could never do what the preacher does.

This way of studying the Scriptures seems much more authentic to a lot of people.
To many—especially those without a church background—a typical church sermon can feel canned and artificial. At best, it’s still a presentation, and they already get bombarded by too many presentations. But if people are studying the Scriptures and allowing people to ask any questions or make any challenges they want about the text in question—that feels real. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me something like, “Wow, you really take the Bible seriously. You’re okay with us checking everything out and asking you hard questions.”

For the reasons above (and I’m sure there are more I could have included), this kind of teaching can be a more effective component of making genuine disciples of Jesus Christ. But do we really want active participants . . . or do we actually prefer a passive audience? Do I want them to be moved by my message, or by the Scriptures themselves? Is it more important to me that they appreciate my opening and my closing, that they laugh and cry and are appropriately moved in the right places? Or is it more important that they’re actually learning and understanding more of the Word of God? Do I want them leaving being impressed with my preaching or excited / challenged / motivated by the truth of God we’ve studied together in Scripture? Please understand, I’m not at all suggesting that those who preach traditional sermons have wrong motives! I’m saying that interactive teaching is much more conducive to right motives. It helps get the focus off of us, and it becomes all about assisting the people of God to better understand and live out the Word of God.

So why wouldn’t we teach interactively? In the next post, we’ll look at some of the challenges of interactive teaching.

If you’re thinking of benefits of interactive teaching I didn’t include, please add a comment below and share them with us!

Interactive teaching, part 1: Preaching or teaching?

Photo by Memento Media on Unsplash

The preaching of the Word has traditionally held a preeminent place in most evangelical churches. This is no accident. Young pastors and leaders have been taught how vital sound preaching is for keeping a church faithful and healthy. Quotes from noted leaders reinforce to us the crucial nature of preaching to the life of the church. Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote that “Preaching the Word is the primary task of the Church, the primary task of the leaders of the Church.” John Stott claimed that “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity.” Preaching is often so inextricably linked with the role of the pastor, that pastors are commonly referred to as “preachers.” The mountain of books that have been written on the subject of preaching over the centuries could easily fill a library. And not only books, but articles, workshops, seminary classes, conferences, etc. on preaching have been ubiquitous in the evangelical movement. Preaching has become an art form. Most Christians could tell you who their favorite preachers are, and more often than not their preference has as much to do with style as it does substance.

So if preaching is so essential to the life and health of the church, we should have a clear understanding of just what the Bible has to say about preaching and those who preach, shouldn’t we? But this is where we run into a bit of difficulty. The Bible actually has very little to say about preaching as we understand it. English translations of Scripture do often include many passages with the words “preach” or “preaching.” But when we dig a little more deeply, we find that none of these words are conveying the idea of “delivering a sermon or religious address to an assembled group of people, typically in a church.” In fact, there isn’t one place in Scripture where we find our traditional understanding of preaching a sermon. Even what we traditionally know as the “Sermon on the Mount” is never actually called that in the text of Scripture! [Please note: the section headings you may find in big, bold print in your Bible are supplied by the publisher; they’re not part of the biblical text.]

So what are these words in the original language, and what do they mean? The most common word translated “preach” in many (especially older) English translations is the Greek word euangelizo. You probably recognize right away that we’ve brought this word into English as “evangelize.” The word, both in English and in Greek, means simply to share good news. This is why newer translations sometimes opt for words such as “announce,” “share” or “bring” the good news. Unfortunately, there are still many places where this word is translated “preach the gospel” or “preach the good news,” requiring pastors to routinely explain to people that “preaching the gospel” isn’t something that only apostles did or “preachers” do now behind a pulpit (or on a stage); this is simply “sharing the good news,” and all Christians are to be doing that! Another Greek word that is often translated “preach” (and which also has to be clarified) is kerusso, which means to announce or proclaim. This word is invariably paired with another word euangelion, showing that what is being announced is the good news of Jesus Christ.

Many will recall the familiar words of 2 Timothy 4:2: “. . . preach the word; be ready in season and out of season [NASB].” Too many times, though, these instructions are understood in a traditional sense, that the preacher must always be ready to get up behind the pulpit and preach a sermon. Not only is this not what Paul was talking about, it obscures what Paul was actually telling Timothy to do. Remember, Timothy wasn’t a local church pastor, he was part of Paul’s apostolic team. They were missionaries who shared the good news of Jesus Christ, and helped young believers form a new church in each location. Often Paul would leave Timothy behind or send him ahead to strengthen and “coach” the churches. Paul here tells Timothy to kerusso the logos. Kerusso means to proclaim and Paul uses logos to refer to the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Many translations render this instruction: “Proclaim the message.” See, for example, how this verse reads in the Revised English Bible:

[P]roclaim the message, press it home in season and out of season, use argument, reproof, and appeal, with all the patience that teaching requires.

This verse isn’t saying anything about the necessity of preaching sermons.

I should also comment on 1 Timothy 5:17. In this passage, Paul instructs that some elders are “worthy of double honor” or “should be respected and paid well.” This is especially true of those who labor or work hard in logos and in teaching. There are a variety of translations for the word logos here in this verse: word, preaching, speech or speaking are some of the common ones. It’s curious that this is often translated “preaching” in this verse, since we don’t find logos translated as preaching anyplace else. Paul typically uses this word to refer to the content of the gospel message of Jesus Christ (which is, of course, contained in the words of Scripture). This especially makes sense in this verse because it fits his use of both these words (logos and didaskalia or “teaching”) earlier in the same letter. In 1 Timothy 4:6, Paul describes one who is nourished by the logos or message of faith and by sound teaching. It would be consistent for him to be using these words in a similar way just a few verses later. This also makes best sense of what Paul is saying in verse 5:17. These elders who should be supported are laboring or working hard in both the content of the gospel message (which we study in Scripture) and in the teaching of this gospel truth. The NKJV translates this phrase as those who “labor in the word and doctrine,” and God’s Word Translation reads: “if they work hard at teaching God’s word.” Again, there is nothing here on which to base the traditional preaching of sermons.

So, if Scripture doesn’t teach pastors to “preach” (i.e. deliver sermons) in the church, what are they supposed to do? As we see above and throughout the letters to the churches, elders or pastors of the church are to be teaching the Word of God to the people. (Note that even Jesus wasn’t known as “the Preacher,” but as “the Teacher.”) Is this distinction in wording worth emphasizing, or is this just semantics? Well, that all depends on how we’re using the word “preach.” If all we mean by preach is the exposition of Scripture to the people, then maybe there’s nothing here to discuss. The problem is that the word “preach” contains much more nuance and conveys much more meaning than simply biblical exposition. Not only do we understand this word to mean much more than this, but we’re so inundated with descriptions of preaching and instruction regarding preaching that have no biblical basis, that we face a very real danger of distracting ourselves from the actual teaching ministry of the elders/pastors of the church—which is scriptural.

We can recognize some all too common differences in focus and desired outcome between preaching and teaching. The process of preaching is usually focused on the delivery of a prepared speech or sermon. Teaching on the other hand will also be prepared, but the focus isn’t on the prepared message but on the actual process of teaching, helping people come to a deeper understanding of scriptural truth. If I’m preaching, I’m preaching; regardless of what impact my message is having on anyone, I’m still preaching. But, as Howard Hendricks used to say, if they’re not learning, I’m not teaching. Teaching has different priorities, a different focus, and different expectations. In the next post, we’ll look more deeply into this, we’ll see just how Jesus and Paul taught, and why we should teach in a similar way.

A new hybrid model for doing church

Something interesting happened to us during the pandemic. But first, some background: Our church, The Orchard, has two characteristics that make us a little different from many other churches—not unique, but out of the ordinary. We don’t have a senior or lead pastor as most evangelical churches do. Instead, we have a team of pastoral elders who all share in the shepherding of the church. (I’ve previously written quite a bit concerning this leadership model.) We also study the Bible interactively in our church services. We elicit responses from the people and encourage them to raise their hand when they have a question. I’ve taught this way throughout my ministry, but for some reason I’ve never posted anything here about it. [I’m thinking my next blog post should be on interactive teaching.]

When everything shut down last year due to COVID, we began meeting online for our weekly church service the same as everyone else. We met via Zoom so we could continue to study interactively together. I started receiving inquiries from people who had been part of the church we served in Puerto Rico. They were looking for something more interactive than what they had available from streaming church services, and were curious if we were doing anything online. At the time, we were very focused on making sure our online church service felt as familiar as possible to the people here—felt like “us”—so I was hesitant to have large numbers of people temporarily join our service. (Like many others, we were expecting to get back to “normal” in a few weeks or maybe months.) So I started an online Bible study on Sunday afternoons for people outside our area who were desiring more of an interactive study.

This study continued throughout the year, with the repeated disclaimer that it wasn’t a church. A few months ago, a good friend from the study (and one of my former co-pastors in Puerto Rico), challenged me about this. He pointed out the close, regular fellowship we had, and the way we worshiped and studied Scripture together. He asked why this couldn’t be a church. That gave me pause. I had never been impressed with the idea of an online church before. It seemed a lot like passively watching a church service on TV, which is great if you can’t physically get to a church gathering, but really just a temporary substitute. But with this kind of challenge, I needed to have solid reasons why this kind of online gathering couldn’t be an actual church.

This began some intensive discussions. More and more we discussed the possibility of a hybrid church model with a primary gathering online that would include people from many locations. This service would be focused mostly on interactive, expositional study of Scripture. Along with this larger service would be local fellowships, meeting in person in each location during the week, that could better do things such as worshiping through music, sharing in communion, baptisms, eating together, sharing testimonies, deeper discussion of questions, encouraging one another, etc. These local fellowships would likely look very different in each location, with maybe 20 people meeting in a living room in one town, and 4 people meeting at Starbucks in another.

The more we discussed this possible hybrid model, the more excitement grew about the possibility of making this group a church. Most of these people were motivated by a love of interactive study of Scripture (It’s hard for some people to return to passively listening to sermons when they’re used to raising their hands and asking questions!) but also a shared conviction regarding church polity. Many expressed how important team pastoral leadership is to them. One obstacle, though, was the difficulty in me personally being part of planting a brand new kind of church while serving as a pastor of another. I didn’t feel I could do that and faithfully serve both.

But, in The Orchard, we were having a series of interesting discussions of our own. Other than the offices, our building had sat unused for almost a year, and we were getting close to the end of a multi-year lease. We were beginning to discuss whether we should continue leasing the building. We loved the space we met in, with couches and chairs arranged almost in a circle to make it look more like a large living room or coffeehouse. But the pandemic had helped us remember we’re not dependent on any particular space. A building can be a great resource, but the church isn’t a building. So we had been discussing alternatives such as renting some space once a week in which to meet, or buying a house and converting it into a church property. These ideas fit with our “strategically small” approach of limiting the size of our church service, but also planning for multiple services to allow further growth.

One of the things we had repeatedly discussed was how to best get the word out about who we are. We had experienced many people visiting us just because we were another church in town to check out. We wanted to let people in the community know some of the distinctive characteristics that make us who we are as a church, so those who were seeking this kind of church would know about us. In fact, last year we had planned a whole series of mailers describing different aspects of who we are that make us a bit unique in this local area, and were poised to begin sending them out (literally the following week) when everything shut down because of the pandemic. So we had been looking for people who were looking for a church like us, and now there were people from outside our area who were eager to be part of a church like us! We began discussing the possibility of The Orchard actually becoming this hybrid church.

Eventually, after discussions among the church leadership and then the congregation, we decided to take this step. We now have a primary service online on Sunday mornings (10 am Eastern and Pacific) that includes brothers and sisters from mutliple states plus Puerto Rico. We’re seeking to incorporate leaders from other areas into our church leadership team. Our most recent addition to our pastoral team is Jack Foster, a brother from Puerto Rico. We’ve given up our building here in Sacramento, and now lease a small office. Our local congregation is becoming one of the local fellowships. The online group is really melding into a cohesive church family. We recently had one lady who’s been part of the church here for some time move to Grand Junction, CO, and she’s very happy that she can still be part of our church!

This has been a real paradigm shift for me. The biblical model of one church in each town has always been compelling to me. But, then again, there was no way for them at that time to have any larger context for a church congregation. Geography was the natural and necessary division for individual churches. But when we see, for instance, how Paul longed at times to be with the Thessalonians or the Corinthians, if he had a tool such as Zoom that he could have utilized, I’m sure he would have! Especially since we were already to some extent outside of the norm due to our team leadership model and interactive teaching, a hybrid model that includes a translocal congregation actually makes sense. But we’re definitely in uncharted territory, so we are constantly aware of our dependence on God and his wisdom and leading. It’s amazing that we would never have considered any of this if it hadn’t been for the COVID shut down, but that shows how God can use times like this to slow us down and get us to consider new and possibly more effective ways to faithfully be the church. We’re excited to see where we go from here!

The Cure for Polarization: Being Intentionally and Lovingly Diverse

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything new on this blog. There are things I’ve been wanting to write about regarding various theological and church-related topics. I’ve also had thoughts to share concerning our current cultural and political situation, and how this relates to the church. When everything began to shut down due to COVID-19, I thought I’d have a lot of time for writing. The reality has been that during this pandemic I’ve actually been much busier than I could have anticipated. I’m not complaining about this! It’s wonderful to be active and useful. But there is much I’d like to share when I have a bit more time. Until then, here’s the most recent Bible study from the church I serve (The Orchard in Sacramento, CA). I don’t think I’ve ever posted one of our studies on this blog before, but I feel this addresses some truths that are vital to the church, especially during these times.

Should Christians discuss politics in church?

Cafe Food FightAs I write this, believers in the US are preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday. Because this often means spending time with family members we only see once or twice a year, and because our nation is horribly divided right now, many of us are also resolving to avoid the whole subject of politics. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, after all, and it’s probably wise to be cautious about introducing topics that could violently explode an otherwise pleasant family visit. So we’re dusting off the old etiquette about never talking about politics or religion (at least the politics part). Fair enough.

But what about in our local churches? If your church is anything like ours, you live out your church life with people who have very differing political convictions. And because of the frequent intensity of these convictions lately—and the ensuing political discussions—many have essentially adopted a “holiday” approach when spending time with church family, and avoid any mention of political issues. This is undoubtedly better than open hostilities! But is it really the best way for us to handle our current politico-cultural mess? When followers of Christ gather should we just “not go there”?

Now let me quickly clarify there are some kinds of political talk I think should be eliminated in the church—permanently:

It’s not the place of pastors or leaders to tell the people in the church a specific candidate they should vote for or which propositions they should support. The church shouldn’t be handing out voters’ guides, or inviting representatives from only one party to address the congregation.

I’m also not suggesting we turn the application of any (sometimes every) Scripture text into a political rant.  If a passage we’re studying clearly addresses something that touches on politics, then we should have the courage to address what Scripture does. We don’t want to be guilty of skipping biblical principles in order to not offend political sensibilities. But we shouldn’t be looking for opportunities to interject our own political viewpoints.

We need to put an end to snide comments about the other side (whatever that is). We shouldn’t be tossing out partisan comments in a way that assumes everyone here shares the same views (which is rarely the case), especially when we’re mocking the intelligence, patriotism or even faith of those who disagree. We should always assume someone from “the other side” is present—because they usually are.

Some time ago, as our team was getting everything ready for our church service, two of our team-members were out front talking loudly about a recent controversy that was all over the news. Not only was their conversation strongly partisan, they were discussing an issue that directly involved race. I don’t believe either person is at all racist, but their vehement rejection of opposing views could easily have been misinterpreted. At the time this happened, people could approach our church’s front door from different directions and remain unseen until they were right around the corner. In other words, visitors could have heard our people talking long before our people would have seen them. Thankfully, I overheard what was going on from inside, rushed out and put a stop to the conversation. As I explained to them, if I was coming to visit the church and was one of these people they were talking about, I would have felt very unwelcome. I would have turned around, left, and would never have come back. Our guys were appropriately chagrined and agreed never to do this again.

So is the answer to just not talk about politics with our church families? Is that the best we can do? Let me ask the question another way: Are we no more capable of discussing volatile political issues than anyone else in our nation? Where can we have a healthy discussion about controversial subjects? If there’s anyone who could have a thoughtful, fair-minded, mutually respectful, loving but substantive, even pointed discussion about controversial political issues—without simply parroting partisan talking points—shouldn’t it be the church? Shouldn’t we be the ones modeling another way? When we spend time together as brothers and sisters we’re supposed to be helping each other grow and mature spiritually, encouraging one another to more faithfully live out our lives in a Christlike way. Are we supposed to do this in every area of our lives except for how we engage politically with society? Does this make any sense? It’s definitely easier, and avoids unpleasant tension. But are we to avoid quarreling by just not talking about difficult issues?

Close-up of a therapist gesticulating while talking to a group of listing teenagers during an educational self-acceptance and motivation meeting.It’s easy for me to fall into groupthink when the only political interaction I have is with my echo chamber (and there are echo chambers on both the left and the right). If I’m beginning to advocate political views that are incompatible with kingdom principles, I need brothers and sisters to hold me accountable and tell me, “Curt, I don’t think that way of thinking fits with the character of Jesus.” We need iron to sharpen iron, especially where the outside culture is most divided. These are the issues we most need to discuss with fellow Christians. Not that we’ll always come to perfect agreement. But at the end of a frank discussion of our differing political views, we should still be able to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And we need to realize that we should be more in harmony with our fellow believers on core values and principles (even if we disagree on methods and strategies) than we are with either/any of society’s political parties.

We need to be showing the world around us the love Christ has given us for each other, and we especially need to be modeling this love where we have the strongest disagreements. We need to show them that Christians don’t have to avoid any subject (which is often the best the world can do) because the Spirit has equipped and empowered us to be able to discuss anything and do it lovingly, respectfully and peacefully. And we should show them that through this kind of thoughtful interaction—where we’re seeking the truth, not trying to win arguments—we grow in our understanding of issues and help each other reach truly biblically-informed, spiritually faithful viewpoints that are in harmony with the kingdom principles of our King.

So . . . how well are we living out the fruit of the Spirit in our political engagement?

Are we behaving like everyone else, or are we showing them another way?

Sunday Morning Growtivation

This video has been around awhile, so you may have seen it before. It’s a parody of a specific way of doing church, but of course we all have our own liturgies or orders of service. So let’s have a good chuckle when we watch this, but let’s also consider why we do what we do every week in our church services. And maybe ponder this question: Is there a way for us to get away from the church service as a weekly production or show? Isn’t there a more authentic way of gathering as a community of believers?

Can churches be too small?

StockSnap_QVIEE1UZSXIn my last post, I wrote about the dangers of a church becoming too large. I’m sure for many readers I was simply preaching to the choir. A lot of believers have either never felt right about megachurches or they’ve become disillusioned with them. But can a church be too small? For many, that might seem like a strange question. We may immediately challenge the idea that “bigger is better,” but then just assume that smaller must always be better. But is this true? Does this best fit the biblical model of the local church?

I served as a pastor/elder of a house church for 3 years, and for most of that time the church met in my home. I’m very familiar with the joys and blessings of a simple church meeting in the home, and I understand quite well the reasons why Christians leave “traditional” churches for this kind of intimate, family-like setting. So I understand and sympathize with the thinking behind the house church movement. (I’ve had many conversations about the church’s “edifice complex,” etc.) But is a modern-day house church or a “micro-church” the most faithful way to live out the pattern of the church we find in the New Testament?

Steve Atkerson is even more familiar with house churches than I am. For over 25 years, he has worked to encourage, support and help house churches and house church leaders. But somewhere along the way his understanding changed regarding the house churches in the first centuries after Christ. He came to realize that the house churches in the early church met in the homes of wealthier members of the church (who had larger homes), and that these large, semi-public villas would have atria that could seat anywhere from 60 to 150 people. This is the kind of house church described in the New Testament and to whom the letters to the churches were written. (For more on this you can read my earlier post or Atkerson’s articles here and here.) This is obviously much different than 15 or 20 people sitting in a modern living room.

But this leads to the same question we had to consider in the last post [about abnormally large churches]: Is there anything unhealthy about churches being too small? And—as with the last post—the question isn’t whether a small, house church can be wonderful and healthy. Again, I know they can because I’ve experienced it! I still have very fond memories of our time together in the house church and the wonderful people with whom I was in fellowship. No, I’ll word the question the same way I did for megachurches (only changing “large” to “small”): The question isn’t whether a very small church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very small churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church?

Here again I’m appreciative of the work of Steve Akerson. His reflections have confirmed some of my own thoughts and observations and caused me to think more deeply about aspects of house church gatherings that I hadn’t considered before. So what are some of these weaknesses of too-small churches? I’ll note some, but first a reminder: This isn’t a house church vs. traditional church comparison; it’s a Roman atrium-sized church model (à la New Testament house churches) vs. the current micro-sized house church model. (Maybe it would be helpful to drop the terminology ‘house church’ for how the church met in the early centuries, and instead call these villa churches!) This isn’t a call to return to a traditional way of doing church; it’s a fine-tuning of what we should understand as the biblical model of doing church. Could meeting as a very small church in someone’s home actually hinder us from living out biblical principles of church life?

Let’s start with a practical instruction to churches in Scripture. We’re told in 1 Timothy 5:17 that the elders who lead and teach well should be financially supported. And notice this is speaking of elders (plural) who are supposed to be well paid. How many house churches today are able to pay even one elder who is devoted to leading and teaching? Atkerson notes: “Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple-making occurs.”

The New Testament churches were not only supposed to financially support certain elders who devoted their time to leading and teaching, they were to be shepherded by a team of pastoral elders. How many house churches have a plurality of qualified elders shepherding the church? Far too many micro-sized house churches don’t have even one qualified elder. Because of this, there is often a lack of biblical leadership and substantive teaching of Scripture. The fellowship may be wonderful, and the people may enjoy and even genuinely benefit from spending time together. But the church is lacking the leaders and teachers God intended to be shepherding his church.

Some newer networks of micro-churches plan from the beginning that all of their pastors will be—and remain—bivocational. They also often stress the surprisingly rapid training and releasing of these new pastors to plant new micro-churches. How are they able to train pastors so quickly? They remove the need for substantive teaching of Scripture. Instead of calling these leaders ‘pastors,’  they’d be better described as evangelists or small group leaders. These groups are actually either cells connected to a larger church that provides needed teaching and training (and so not autonomous churches at all) or they’re churches whose leaders don’t teach the Bible to the people in the church. When one considers the repeated emphasis on teaching the church in the New Testament, this is alarming.

luan-cabral-XVqwbImMR4M-unsplashThe biblical design for the church body is a community of believers that’s large enough to have a healthy assortment of spiritual gifts. This is the way God intends for the body to grow, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). I think it would be a wise thing for any small church to ask how well they’re living out being a community of believers with a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts. If this is problematic because of the church’s small size, it might be appropriate to ask if the church is abnormally small (especially in light of the actual size of early house churches, i.e. 60-150 people).

We also need to take into consideration the differences between first century Roman culture and our culture today. Not only do we not typically meet in the same large, semi-public villas that the Romans did (which were also places of business, with people often coming and going), but we also usually drive to the place where the church gathers together once a week. This, of course, means we have to park. In many neighborhoods, this can create a weekly annoyance for our neighbors, harming our relationship with those living around us and even hurting our witness to them. These kinds of problems have caused some communities to pass restrictions on regular church meetings in private homes. Instead of railing against these “godless” attacks, we need to hear the concerns of our neighbors and realize that our setting is not the same as the early church’s.

To conclude this post, I can’t do better than quoting Steve Atkerson’s excellent work on this (the emphases in the quote below are the original author’s):

“Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. . . . In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.”

Can churches be too big?

architecture-building-chapel-532720Let’s begin with an obvious caveat: the size of a church doesn’t guarantee a church’s health. There are healthy large churches and unhealthy large churches, and there are healthy small churches and unhealthy small churches. Scripture doesn’t dictate a specific size for local churches. This isn’t an issue of obedience to an explicit biblical command, but instead one of seeking wisdom in how to best live out the purposes and intended life of the church. With that said, can the size of a church adversely affect its health? Is there an optimal size for churches? And, if so, why?

When we consider almost 2,000 years of church history, extremely large churches are a new phenomenon. There have been large churches before, of course (such as Metropolitan Tabernacle in London), but these have been noteworthy because they were so unusual, obvious exceptions to the rule. Throughout most of church history, a church of 300-400 people would have been considered a large church. It’s only been since the 1980s that we’ve seen the proliferation of what we now call megachurches. But, surprising to some, megachurches are still the exception to the rule today. One recent report found that 95 percent of churches surveyed have weekly attendances under 350, and 88 percent have attendances under 200. This compares well with other surveys of church sizes. In contrast, less than 1 percent of churches would be classified as megachurches (having at least 2,000 people in weekly attendance).

In his book The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien asks why the experience of less than one percent of churches has somehow become the standard by which we evaluate the other 99+ percent of all churches and pastors? Pastor and writer Karl Vaters notes that speakers at church conferences are almost always from very large churches, and he questions just how encouraging and helpful this is to virtually all the pastors attending these conferences, most of whom pastor churches with attendances under 200. We saw in the previous post that the early churches were gatherings of 60-150 people. Throughout history the vast majority of churches were less than 200 people, and still are today. What if it’s so rare to “break the 200 barrier” because the church wasn’t really designed to be any larger? What if the reason churches stubbornly resist growing beyond 200 people is that it’s somehow hardwired into the church’s DNA not to? What if extremely large churches are actually the abnormality? As Karl Vaters asks in his book Small Church Essentials, “What if by trying to fix a problem that isn’t a problem, we’re actually working against a strategy that God wants us to enact?”

O’Brien challenges us: “Until we stop measuring our success in terms of numerical size and growth, we may be unable to accurately analyze the faithfulness of our ministry.” And this gets to the deeper issue. What is healthiest for the church? When are we most faithfully being the church God intends us to be? Certainly, we want to continually see people coming to faith in Christ. The church should be ever growing, but this doesn’t mean every local congregation should just continue to grow larger and larger. Vaters helpfully notes that there’s no biblical mandate for churches to grow larger. We don’t see any place in Scripture where Jesus or his apostles told a local church they needed to get bigger.

But is there anything inherently unhealthy about a church growing too large? Now, let me hasten to say again that many very large churches are good, healthy churches. Please don’t write in the comment section about huge churches you’ve been a part of that were wonderful and healthy. I know these exist because I’ve been a part of some, too! I was trained for pastoral ministry in a very large church (around 1,600 in weekly attendance), and I’ve served in leadership in very large churches. And many small churches are unhealthy. This is not an invitation for small churches to dismiss their own dysfunction by condemning large churches. The question isn’t whether a very large church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very large churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church.

audience-backlit-band-154147Are there unique problems for large churches? Yes, there are. Some may not be insurmountable, but they’re perpetual. The more dramatic a church’s growth, the more this growth becomes part of the church’s identity, how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves. There will be a natural tendency to begin advancing and promoting the perceived success and image of the church, rather than the mission of Christ. The more the focus is on one key pastor, preaching weekly to thousands of people—especially if his preaching is also streamed to other sites—the more the pastor gains celebrity status, whether wanted or not. It’s difficult to resist taking advantage of this name recognition to draw even more people to the church, thus making the pastor even more of a celebrity and making the church seem even more successful. The more power, acclaim, money and influence a church and its leaders have, the more the danger these things will be abused. This abuse isn’t inevitable, but it’s a very real threat that puts the church constantly in peril.

Some problems are unavoidable for really large churches. Even if you resist making your pastor into a regional or national celebrity, there is no way that regularly preaching to huge crowds of people (and maybe having your face projected onto 20 ft screens) won’t cause people to see you differently. Some friends of mine became part of a newly planted church many years ago. The church was still fairly small, and they became good friends with the pastor. A few years later, the church had grown extremely large. Whenever they would speak with the pastor, others would ask with an awed voice, “Wow, you know ______________?” Seeing the pastor as some kind of rock star—even if only within the context of that one congregation—is almost impossible to avoid when a church gets very large. It’s a radically different perception when everyone in the church knows their pastors personally. That removes the mystique and allows for more genuine ministry to occur.

The biblical picture of the church seems to be one where the people know each other and they personally know their pastoral leaders. They not only participate in the life of the church, they participate to some extent in the weekly church meeting. We’re called to encourage one another, exhort one another and to use our spiritual gifts to build up one another. In Scripture, the teaching we see happening in the church gathering is interactive, with the people responding and asking questions. A church can grow to the point where this kind of life is stunted and obstructed. Instead the congregation becomes a passive audience. Vaters makes a telling observation: “. . . if I walk into a large church, I know what’s expected of me; I will be an audience. Aside from singing along (if I know the songs), I will be a watcher and listener, not an active participant . . .” Many do become involved in ministries in really big churches, but this isn’t the reality for most. The vast majority of people attending megachurches attend once a week (at most) and have little interaction with anyone there. They come in, sit, enjoy the service, then get up and leave. They are a passive audience. If they stop attending, few if any will notice. This doesn’t fit well with the biblical descriptions of the church gathering together.

In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church, atheist Matt Casper questions evangelical pastor Jim Henderson about the way many Christians do church:

“Think about it: How do schools sell themselves? By class size. The lower the student/teacher ratio is, the smaller the class size, the better the education. It’s because you get more interaction with ‘the expert,’ and more interaction with your classmates.

“Why do churches seem to do just the opposite? Why is a church deemed successful by its size rather than its ability to truly teach its people?”

I think these are incredibly perceptive questions. Casper asks in another chapter: “Maybe if the church weren’t so huge, there’d be a better chance to really connect with people. Is this what it’s all about, Jim? Is contemporary Christianity driven by the ‘bigger is better’ maxim?”

Many of us know all too well that the larger the audience, the more we have to make sure the service flows smoothly and professionally. The energy on Sunday morning becomes focused all on “the show.” It even feels like going to a show. [I first heard this comparison from Dan Kimball.] If the operation is a professional one, then parking will be fairly easy. I’ll follow the crowd into the theater where someone will give me a program and show me where to sit. I may say a casual hello to a person or two as I move past to take my seat, but then I just look around and wait for the show to start. Then the lights dim, the professionals come out on the stage, and the show begins. If it’s a good one, I may laugh and cry and be moved. But then the people leave the stage, the house lights come on, and I get up and leave. It’s not that I don’t get anything of benefit. But I’m a passive observer. I’m part of the “audience.” I’m anonymous. I may even prefer it that way. But it’s not the church gathering that the New Testament describes, and it’s not accomplishing a lot of what the church gathering is supposed to be accomplishing.

It’s interesting that many megachurches are now trying to utilize smaller venues. This is often motivated by logistical issues. Communities are now much less accepting of massive church campuses. Neighbors are more likely to protest and resist church expansion. So, many churches are moving to multiple, smaller locations. (And I haven’t even begun to address the problem of pastoral burnout and the many who are under so much stress they’re ready to chuck it all and walk away.)

nicole-honeywill-dGxOgeXAXm8-unsplashThis helps us answer the question: “What’s the alternative?” It’s actually not that complicated. Instead of hoarding so much of our resources to build one massive empire, why don’t we become a resource? Instead of driving ourselves to build a church of 4,000, why don’t we release others to plant 20 churches of 200 (churches that can be much better connected to and serve a specific neighborhood, and that can provide an environment for spiritual life and ministry that is much more organic and authentic)? Why don’t we decentralize our leadership and have churches that are pastored and taught by teams of pastors (as modeled in Scripture) instead of one over-utilized rock-star pastor? Why not have churches small enough that the people can know their pastors, be discipled by them personally and be able to observe up close their examples of living faithful Christian lives? Maybe we shouldn’t just assume that bigger is better (no matter how much we may personally enjoy it), but take some time to prayerfully consider: “What will make us most effective at being the kind of church the Scriptures describe?”

Some have unfairly condemned everything about megachurches. That’s unfortunate. There are many people serving in large churches seeking to be as faithful as they can be to the ministries God has called them to, and people are being loved and reached and blessed. We need to acknowledge that. Because of this overly harsh criticism, when others present careful, balanced critiques of large churches, they still feel the need to add a disclaimer: ‘. . . not that there’s anything wrong with being a megachurch!’ I think this goes too far the other way. We need to honor each other and the ministry taking place, while still challenging each other to be willing to relinquish any way of doing church that’s out of synch with the biblical model and purposes of the church (even if it might seem very successful).

So can a church be too small? We’ll look at that next.