I think we all know that a church is the people of the Lord gathered, not the building in which they gather. When believers come together in community, they are the church, whether in a small group or in a large congregation. These gatherings are both natural and desirable, as they are the times when the people can both worship God together and encourage each other. Church leaders give a lot of time in developing their weekly gathering. That does not mean their gatherings are effective. As a person who oversees churches, I have sat through many gatherings in various cultures. Some gatherings felt incredibly long and others seemed to fly by. The amount of time was not the issue. The ones that flew by had the people most engaged both in the worship and the Word portions of the gathering. The various parts of the gathering both raised the attenders’ awareness of God’s presence and led them further in confident hope of being transformed. The ones that crawled by revealed a lack of spiritual vitality in the church.
What happens to a church’s gathering that causes it to lose the spiritual engagement of the congregation? One problem that appears over and over is that the once shiny new approach which the church adopted sometime in the past has become routine and lifeless. Numerous leaders often do not give the church’s gathering a lot of thought after it goes on autopilot. Maybe your church is wedded to a style that was ‘cool’ fifteen years ago without now realizing its current irrelevance. Or maybe your worship team is resistant to deeper spiritual expressions because they are afraid of chasing away non-believers instead of thinking about the need for believers’ to be in awe of God and His presence. And although you have come a long way from the days when planning the gathering only took the time to change the hymns to be sung and title of the message in the bulletin, perhaps your worship services have become so fixed that people can still almost tell the time by where you are in the repetitive order of your service. Though repetition is not a sin, it can suggest an unholy indifference to preparing for what should be the best time in the life of a congregation.
Here is the challenge of developing a gathering time that matters. Do you, as a church leader, ask yourself every week what impact this gathering will have on the congregation? How should the leaders use the gathering to move people forward in their unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ?
Defining the purpose of the main gathering is more than just deciding to have great music and teaching. It goes to the heart of what you are seeking to accomplish as a congregation. Developing a healthy gathering system starts with a clear idea of what you are seeking to focus on during this time. But before you rush out and buy into another new approach, take some time to:
Define your theology of worship. Not every church approaches worship the same. Practices that are normal in other congregations may bother you profoundly. You also may value some unique ways of approaching God in worship. These differences should be rooted in your understanding about God, man and salvation. Remember that not all the people you team with will automatically know the biblical concerns that shape your thinking on worship, so you will need to make the time to define your theology of worship practices. Then share them with your team and keep these somewhere accessible as new people come on to the team.
Evaluate who actually makes up the congregation of this gathering. You need to remind yourself that you lead the body of Christ. Worship is for ‘us’—not merely for yourself. So look at the people God has sent to make up your congregation. Are they long-time believers or young in the faith? Are they dominated by a smaller segment of the age spectrum or are many generations present? What is their heart language? What kind of music draws them to sing to God versus that which makes them non-participants? How do they best ‘hear’ God speak to them through the preaching?
Furthermore, are they the people you expect to be there every week or are you seeking to shape the gathering for people you expect to add to your fellowship? This last question needs to be carefully processed, as sometime the desire to reach people not present leads to an exodus of those who are coming already. This is not always wise, although it may be necessary if the church has become unhealthy. Yet keep in mind that changing the gathering system is not the most effective way in dealing with unhealthy people.
Clarify your concept of worship. Worship is the key element of gathering and will shape the gathering system of the congregation. What helps the people in your congregation engage with God in praise and confession, humility and joy? What do we do to exalt God and open ourselves to hear Him speaking to us as His people?
What tells you that people are truly worshipping? One important aspect of this question is the qualifications of your worship leader. The issue to keep in mind as you process this is to be aware that often churches confuse the distinction between being a musician and being a worship leader. While some people have great gifts in the area of music and performance, not every musician has a deep understanding of God or is able to lead others to focus on Him in worship. If you have clarity about what constitutes worship, you will be able to distinguish the qualities you will seek in a worship leader.
Pay attention! A pastor of a larger church asked attenders to fill out a comment card about the weekly gathering. On Tuesdays he and the staff read every card, even though the church was years old and growing. When asked why he still did this, his reply showed his insightfulness: “Because I want to hear through them what God wants me to learn.” Wow!
If you are a leader who wants your church’s gathering to raise the spiritual temperature and people’s pursuit of God, pay attention. Keep learning. Keep evaluating. You may not have an amazing gathering every week, but if you continually make sure that the foundation is sound, you will have gatherings that grow disciples. And growing disciples who worship and love God is the name of the game.