Sunday meetings

Where and when?

Sundays, 10:00am, Bitterne Park School.

Sunday evenings (2nd and 4th Sundays of each month), 7:30pm, Coffee#1, Portswood.

Inside, out.

Over the last few years we have been and continue to be working through a major change in the culture of our church. This essentially has been around the purpose of meetings and how they are affected by or affect the rest of our week.  In the past we have had fairly “loud” rock-style bands playing the music and the members of these bands were limited to specific instruments and all of a fairly high standard of musicianship.  The bands were tight, they were fairly professional and they sounded good.  The speaking was only ever done by a few of the people in the church – normally only two – the pastor and the assistant pastor.  Basically, the aim was to provide the best music and the highest level of teaching that we could and thus provide the best meetings that we were able, as a church.  The thinking behind this is that people are able to come, be fed, “charged up”, “meet God” and go away able to face the world.

It is our desire to be a church full of disciples of Christ.  Jesus makes no distinction between a convert and a disciple.  There is no biblical precedent for a Christian being anything less than a whole-hearted follower of Christ seven days a week.  In other words, the option of “praying a prayer of commitment” but your life not changing is utterly alien to the Bible.

There is a very famous business phrase, “the systems that you have are perfectly designed to produce the results you are now getting”.  The fact is that the church in the West is in freefall – in every denomination, new or old (actually, the Catholic Church may be the one exception to this).  The numbers have been dropping for twenty years and continue to do so.  We have to look at the systems that we have in place to see why they are not working.

At the risk of generalising, it seems to me that many churches are set up in such a way as to feed and entertain Christians thus enabling them to survive the week.  Very little is asked of us or expected of us when we meet because the professionals do all of that.  If the church is in such rapid decline we must conclude that what we are doing is not working – we are clearly not making disciples!  So, we need to reassess.

Where did it start?

In the fourth century a major change took place in the church.  It became legal.  Up until that point it had been a small, persecuted, feared, mistrusted and yet slightly respected illegal cult.  Churches were typically small – in Corinth they are yet to find the remains of any buildings from that time that could hold more than 30 people!  Christians risked their freedom and their lives by being a Christian and it was very hard to get into a church because of the risks.  So, there was no such thing as a half-hearted Christian.  There was also no such thing as a professional Christian.

When Constantine legalised Christianity everything changed and in the space of eighty years, Christianity went from being illegal to being the State religion.  Everyone had to go to church by law.  So, churches went from being small groups of highly committed people to being several thousand people who were there because they had to be.

Church meetings went from being meetings where everyone participated and brought something to, to being led by professionals from the front.  Seventeen hundred years of Christendom later, this is where we are.  This is not where we started.  This is not the model of the Bible but rather a model conceived to cope with large numbers of unconverted churchgoers.

Back to basics

So, we have a model that seems not to work but yet is more or less the only model of the western world church.  Clearly, something needs to change.  This has led us to rethink much of what we do, starting with Sunday meetings.  Surely, the church in Acts and the church that followed must have something to teach us about the way that we “do” church meetings.

Acts 2:42
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

There are some things that stand out here.  First, they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching – this would be better translated as “they devoted themselves to doing what the Apostles taught.  Second, they devoted themselves to eating together.  Note that there is no mention here of singing songs (the only reference in the Acts is Paul and Silas in prison!) and yet this has become the central part of our meetings.

So, what do we see about the early church?  They gave away a lot of money; they ate together and were devoted to putting into practice what they were taught.  Would this be a fair assessment of the church today?

Paul teaches us in 1 Cor 14 (the longest teaching on what to do when we meet in the NT) about encouraging each other.  Repeatedly the sense that whatever you do, do it to build each other up, comes from this passage.  The idea that we get from this is that the whole point of the meeting is that each of us comes looking to bring something to encourage one another.  Would this be a fair assessment of the church today?

The main difference between the church in the NT and the church of today is that the whole culture then was one of interacting with God for seven days and then meeting together to encourage and build each other up.  This is almost the exact opposite of what we see today, namely a culture of worship on Sunday, get through the week.

So what does this mean in practice?

Southampton Vineyard is a group of small groups that come together on a Sunday morning.  The groups share resources and relate under one umbrella.  Each group is different in its character, there is movement between the groups and there is interaction between them but essentially these are the church (see section on “housegroups”).  Involvement in this church is not through any other means.

Music

We no longer have church bands.  The first half of each meeting is led by each housegroup in turn.  They are free to do what they feel is appropriate, within certain constraints.  The constraints would be the maximum number of songs used and, currently, the actual song choice (we are looking for corporate – not individualistic – songs that express Biblical truth).  Anyone from that group is welcome to bring something to the meeting.  This may mean that they are part of the band that plays; or that they read out scripture or that they bring a testimony of something that God has done, a poem, artwork – pretty much anything as long as it is encouraging and up-building to the rest of church.  This way, everyone in the church has an opportunity to bring something at least whenever their group is rota’d.

Is the music as good?  Probably not.  Are more people bringing to the meeting and encouraged and encouraging each other?  Without a doubt.  From the bible I see that this is far more important than good music.  So, our meetings are less entertaining but at the same time I believe that they have meant that people are learning to worship far more in their lives as a result of this.  For more on this, read the flier on “what is worship?”

Testimony

Each week we have a slot where people can come and tell us what God has been doing in their lives.  Sometimes we hear about healings, sometimes about those who have not been healed; sometimes we hear about answered prayers; incidents at work; how people became Christians; the grace of God in our lives.  The point is that anyone can bring something out of their week, to honour God and build each other up.  On occasion, this section is the rest of the meeting!

Teaching

Until now, only a very few people have taught in our meetings.  Now, the invitation is that if anyone (who is a member of a housegroup, and thus the church) who feels that God has given them something to say, has an opportunity to teach in our meetings.  This would be prearranged.  Will the pastors no longer teach?  Yes they will, but not always.  Aren’t there some people who are particularly gifted at teaching?  Yes, probably, but I don’t think that we know who they all are yet!

The whole idea is to remove the idea of the professional at the front who feeds the rest.  What I want to see, and we are nowhere near there yet, is that everyone brings something.  The culture would be of worshipping seven days and bringing to the meetings out of this.  I want to see a culture whereby everyone knows that they can express their creativity, their heart, their passion and that there is a platform from which they can do this to build each other up.

So, it may all fall flat on its face.  It may not work at all but we will not know until we try.  More than anything, I want to be able to stand before God and say that I did all that I could to obey Him.  This means taking some risks and, on occasion, as with this, starting from scratch all over again.  It may not be as entertaining; it may mean that we have to supplement the teaching we receive by reading our own bible and it may mean that we have to look at the other 166 hours of the week more closely and reassess them.  If that happens then we have succeeded!  If not, then we can try something else.