When the Church Gathers

Kevin Mungons March 11, 2009




There were several Baptist churches in the same city. Their pastors were on friendly terms-had coffee together every Monday. And many of the members knew each other from church camp. Wishing to emphasize their fellowship around commonly held beliefs, the churches planned a yearly event, when everyone met together for a common meeting.

It seemed like a good idea, but it fell apart during the planning process. One church pulled out over the question of guitars. Another church was wary of a video clip that was planned. Handheld microphones, clapping during singing, choruses vs. hymns vs. gospel songs . . . it all came bubbling up.

The meeting was cancelled. As it turned out, the fellowshipping churches were unable to actually fellowship. Each church had its own local standard of what to do when it gathered-and the churches had great difficulty reconciling these differences.

When it comes to planning church meetings, our movement of churches is a teen driver hurtling too fast down a dark two-lane road. Having seen the oncoming lights from the liberal drivers coming at us from the other lane, we swerved to avoid them. But then we careened into the ditch on the right.

As new drivers soon discover, there is more to driving than taking the classes and reading the manual! As good Baptists, we were comforted that our “manual” for church meetings was the New Testament teaching on the local church. But the practical outworkings—what happened when we actually began planning meetings—led to some difficulty applying Bible truth to our church practices.

When our movement began in the 1930s, we expressed this controversy as a tension between “objective” hymns and “subjective” gospel songs. Some of our churches were characterized as “high church”; others viewed themselves as “evangelistic.” When popular music styles had a radical new sound in the 1960s, we struggled to answer whether these new styles were appropriate for the church. When the Charismatic movement of the 1970s introduced interesting, tuneful praise choruses, we wondered if they had merit. In the 1980s, church growth advocates arranged their meetings around seeker-sensitive ideas. And in the 1990s, all of this subjectivity came to a screeching halt when “song leaders” changed their title to “worship leaders” and introduced another round of ideas.

By the end of the 20th century, “worship” had become a brand and a marketing niche and even a ticketed event—tragically distant from its roots as a New Testament gathering of believers covenanted together for a specific purpose.

Together, we recognized these societal changes and discussed them endlessly, but we never arrived at a good way to resolve the tensions. The controversial questions about drums and guitars had roots in broader issues: Should a church meeting be directed toward God, or can it also include elements of mutual edification and even evangelism? Does a musical style have a single objective meaning, or can it have different meanings depending on how and when it is heard? Is God transcendent or immanent? Is worship an all-of-life activity, or something that the church does only on Sunday morning? Difficult questions indeed, and our movement of churches was not always able to agree on answers to these broader issues either.

But there is hope! As Baptists, we continue to embrace common beliefs and a common heritage. Most of all, we are united by a common relationship forged by the gospel of Jesus Christ. So rather than despair that the issues cannot be reconciled, my suggestion is that we begin at our point of agreement—our common approach to Scripture—and use this to celebrate what unites us. Along the way, we will discover agreement on many issues, and we will agree that certain New Testament fence posts will mark the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable practices. Then, having built a New Testament fence, we may discover that there is room for a range of values as each local church applies our commonly held beliefs.

The church meeting

“When you come together,” Paul told the Corinthian church, “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26, ESV).

Believing the New Testament epistles to be the best place to find instructions about the gathered church, I suggest beginning our discussion here. Paul gave the Corinthian church both teaching and admonition about orderly church meetings. His frank discussion treats church meetings as if they were a problem to be solved. And so it is today!

Paul gave an overarching, conceptual solution that begins with a defined group of believers gathering (“when you come together”) and ends with a broadly stated purpose (“let all things be done for building up”). These fence posts seem to be set much wider than we would first expect. On one hand, Paul asked believers to prepare “a hymn,” the objective songs of praise used in worship services for centuries. These songs are aimed vertically, toward God. But Paul was calling for much more than a church meeting with objective, God—focused worship. He called for a gathering that contains activities to edify and build up the congregation—a horizontal direction that points toward church meetings with multiple purposes.

When answering the important question of heart vs. head, Paul took a similar approach, setting fence posts to include both ideas. “What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). Above all, Paul argued that the activities of our church meetings must be understood by the congregation. These basic ideas give us enough theological capital to make applications to some of our current trends.

Trend Test #1: Mysticism. Because he expected the gathered church to be edified, Paul instructed the early church to modify their chaotic practice of speaking in tongues without any interpretation. Now that we have the completed canon of Scripture, we believe that the need for these sign gifts has passed, so Paul was criticizing those in the early church who prayed in a foreign tongue when no one in the meeting could understand them. Paul taught that prayers and songs should be more than ecstatic, Spirit-infused experiences. They should also have rational content.

“What am I to do?” Paul asked in verse 15. “I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” Paul then explained his underlying motivation of the church meeting: “Strive to excel in building up the church” (v. 12).

Here Paul gave an important fence post to help us answer a current controversy over the use of ancient worship rituals and liturgies. Paul taught that we cannot embrace the mysticism inherent in any worship practice that disengages rational thought.

Evangelicals such as Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today, believe that prolonged practice of ancient rites will have a beneficial spiritual effect that bypasses the mind. “And if we do this for weeks and years,” Galli says, “slowly we’ll find that the soul is gaining its own sort of intelligence, that we’re apprehending things the mind and heart cannot fathom, we’re entering into the divine presence, and that divine presence is entering into us” (Beyond Smells and Bells, 110).

But this is not what Paul taught. Arguing for considerably more than prayers and songs that apprehend “things the mind and heart cannot fathom,” Paul taught that the activities of the gathered church must be understood. While I am in favor of viewing the local church as a visible set of believers that has continuity with all believers throughout church history, and while I enjoy bringing timeless elements into the contemporary church, I am not free to use rituals and liturgy that bypass rational thought.

I wonder if this new trend is perhaps an unsolved problem from the 1970s. At the time, some of our churches explored new music and service orders modeled after Charismatic churches: happy, upbeat “celebrations” followed by a journey into the “Holy of Holies” with introspective music. Barry Liesch once noted that this service order “makes sense psychologically,” even if it didn’t necessarily fit our theology (The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church, 61). But these methods were specifically planned with the expectation that the Holy Spirit’s manifest presence would become known during the (manufactured) quiet moments of the meeting, complete with a new manifestation of the sign gifts.

In response, Donald Hustad rightly pointed out that we should not thoughtlessly copy this pattern of worship if we do not expect the same results. Perhaps we should learn from our error in the 1970s so we can apply the same principle to this new problem: It is difficult to borrow contemplative and ritualistic forms that are designed to encourage spirituality that “the mind and heart cannot fathom.” We expect other church groups to worship within their own theology, but we cannot borrow their forms without first solving the larger theological discontinuity.

Trend Test #2: Seeker Sensitivity. Paul pulls us out of our current comfort zone when he discusses the attendance of “anyone in the position of an outsider” (v. 16). Paul welcomed unbelievers into the gathered church, carefully classifying them as “outsiders,” and then instructing the church to consider their spiritual need.

For this reason, Paul prohibited the early church from speaking in tongues without also interpreting the languages spoken. His reason was that tongues were a sign, “not for believers but for unbelievers” (v. 22) in the early church. Paul was initially concerned about the “wacko factor,” asking the gathered Corinthian believers what would happen when unbelievers heard their wild cacophony of multiple untranslated languages. “Will they not say that you are out of your minds?” Paul asked in verse 23.

I will not suggest that we apply a 20th century buzzword like “seeker sensitive” to Paul’s first century instructions. But it is clear that Paul planned a church meeting where an unbeliever could attend and make a spiritual decision: “He is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (vv. 24, 25).

Had we observed Paul’s fence posts back in the 1990s, we might have better understood the limits of seeker-sensitive meetings. Paul taught that the gathered church is a specific group of believers (not seekers) who meet for worship and mutual edification (considerably more than mere evangelism). But Paul also taught that healthy churches will always have visitors-outsiders, unbelievers-who must be considered when the meeting is planned.

Trend Test #3: Single-Purpose Meetings. But wait! Wasn’t Paul talking about a morning service devoted to worship, a Sunday School hour devoted to mutual edification, and an evening service devoted to evangelism? And perhaps a fellowship time after the service (with food)?

No, Paul was speaking as if all of these activities would happen in the same church meeting. We have no New Testament warrant (no fence post) for limiting the Sunday morning meeting to objective “worship” while relegating subjective activities (fellowship, evangelism, mutual edification) to other times of the day or week.

Because of this, I pray that 1 Corinthians 14 will teach us more patience toward our innovative church planters, who do not have access to expensive real estate 24 hours a day. When a church meets in the dining room, it is hard to segregate fellowship from worship. We should not feign discomfort when we discover that mission church meetings mix elements of teaching, worship, fellowship, and evangelism (all in the same meeting). Because their rented facilities allow for only brief blocks of time, these young churches often function outside-way outside-our structural expectations.

I am willing to tolerate those who call the Sunday morning meeting a “worship” service; I think I understand what is meant. After all, our New Testament ideal of “any time, any place” worship (John 4:20-26) certainly includes worship when the church gathers. However, I become somewhat concerned when well-meaning believers attempt to limit the morning service to objective worship and relegate the other activities of the gathered church to a different time and place. I believe this is a fence post that the New Testament does not construct.

Trend Test #4: American Tradition. Can a single congregation integrate the traditions of several different cultures? Perhaps a better question is this: Can it survive if it does not?

Rather than asking if church traditions around the world measure up to the standard of white American churches, perhaps we should be asking if the white American church will humble itself long enough to learn from the wisdom of our partnering congregations from other cultures.

Some will read my words with fear; others will shout, “Can I get a witness?”

And that’s just what we need—a witness. The call-and-response pattern of African American worship is fueled by a zeal for personal testimonies made alive by the power of the gospel. This is a New Testament idea that has largely disappeared from the white American church, but it is recovered in humble outdoor meetings in distant places around the globe, where believers rejoice in simple and sometimes unplanned public testimonies. And when the power of God moves among His people, they don’t always sit still.

Can we afford to complain about the inclusion of these informal, “subjective” activities while our own attendance gentrifies and dwindles? Having prided ourselves on our missionary efforts (and having exported American culture at the same time we were proclaiming the gospel), perhaps we will be surprised to learn how some mission churches may be more faithful to the New Testament model than our traditional American structures. We should approach these sensitive issues with the understanding that the New Testament fence posts that guide our church meetings may not be American fence posts.

Our Baptist theology

Our view of the gathered church has unique Baptist roots. We consider ourselves to be part of the free church tradition—free in the sense that we embrace voluntary church membership as opposed to membership by forced infant baptism. For us, the church is not a mixture of wheat and tares. We embrace the idea of a believer’s church (a regenerate church), not a geographical “parish” controlled (or formerly controlled) by civil government.

We are also free in the sense that each local church has autonomy to plan its meetings without the interference of an ecclesiastical authority who demands conformity to a certain liturgy, a specific prayer book, or a set order of service. As we exercise our Baptist freedom, we continue to believe the Bible is our supreme authority for all matters of faith and practice. To discover what the gathered church does, we submit to the authority of Scripture—believing that the church is what the Bible says it is.

Yet the pendulum has swung two ways on this authority. Surrounded by a sea of cultural change in the 1960s, we often responded by amassing heaps of empirical evidence about musical styles, quoting diverse sources from science, history, and psychology. We played our LP records backwards and even quoted Rolling Stone magazine. We did not necessarily quote Scripture.

Then, having primarily marshaled empirical evidence to address a spiritual problem (!), we were surprised to have other experts contradict our evidence, offering opposing views from science, history, and psychology to defend the new church music. While this may seem like an unfair reduction, I believe we strayed too far from the sufficiency of Scripture. We ended up with an unfruitful argument over which data was more correct—a war over the meaning of evidence rather than the meaning of Scripture.

The pendulum swung. By the 1980s, some of our younger leaders looked at all of our rules and traditions and asked, “Where is that in the Bible?” The question was a fair and corrective one. But such an idea can be taken too far. Not every issue can be settled by checking Strong’s Concordance. Sure enough, our Bible concordance did not have the words “syncopation” or “microphone” (not even in the NIV), but at times, some of us treated the silence of Scripture as license to do whatever we pleased. Again, at the risk of offering a prejudicial reduction, could I suggest that the “I can’t find that in the Bible” argument may have been overused?

Baptists believe that our practical theology is rooted in the authority of Scripture, but this leads to a logical development, a development of theology accomplished by building Scripture upon Scripture. Not every issue will be addressed by name in the New Testament, but we have bold confidence that our careful study will lead us to the point where we are fully equipped to answer every difficult question (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). So, as our movement continues to be informed and influenced by the broader realm of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, it is our relationship to Scripture that will allow us to rightly evaluate trends. We must work harder to defend and model our view of hermeneutics, and we must train our church members in the important task of moving from Biblical interpretation to application.

And perhaps there are larger issues at play. Are we in danger of losing our systematic theology? Having neglected to build Scripture upon Scripture into an integrated whole, have we become the product of the last book we read, the last song we heard on Christian radio, the last conference we attended?

Having embraced the ideals of the free church tradition, are we now in danger of creating church meetings as thoughtless “hymn sandwiches” that do not reflect the body of truth we claim to proclaim? Are we borrowing so freely that our meetings resemble a crazy quilt of forms, stitched together from church traditions we have no business quoting?

These are the weighty matters at hand. Perhaps the patient reader has reached the end of a long article, disappointed, still wondering when the author will address the subject of drums and guitars. My intention was not to directly answer this question (yet), but to address the larger matters of New Testament church gatherings. In so doing, I hope to show where the discussion begins.

As Baptists, we continue to embrace common beliefs and a common heritage. Most of all, we are united by a common relationship forged by the gospel of Jesus Christ. So rather than despair that the issues cannot be reconciled, my suggestion is that we begin at our point of agreement—our common approach to Scripture—and use this to celebrate what unites us.

The discussion will continue on these pages for many months, and in-depth focus on the activities of the gathered church. We are always grateful for the interaction of many thoughtful leaders in our churches, so we are embracing new Web technology to further our study together.

Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version. This article is reprinted from the Baptist Bulletin (March/April 2009).

Webinar: When the Church Gathers

Tuesday, March 24 at 2:30 p.m. CST

Join a panel discussion about this article-interact with ministry leaders from around the country as we continue to discuss the gathered church. When you register for the webinar at www.rbptraining.org, we will respond with an e-mail explaining how to join the Web conference. It’s free!