We only have one church service for our church.
We don’t replicate. We don’t run two services and expect the same people to come to both (morning and evening like in the past). We don’t do homogenous unit principle church.
We do one service.
Now, hear me carefully. When it comes to how to do church I tend not to totalise a particular practice and make it the whole.
And I certainly won’t add to the groaning shelves in Christian bookshops in which well known pastors or “thought leaders” have discovered “the secret to”, or “how the first century church did blah, blah, blah”, by theologising this.
Such well meaning, but misguided totalising of positive church experiences theologises some non-central matters far too tightly for my liking, and in a subtle way (especially among evangelicals ever wary of heresy) tend towards “gospel plus”.
And if the last twenty years are any indication, it gets every frantic pastoral team on an endless merry-go-round, in which the book that was going to be answer five years ago, turns out not to be the book this year. And another book is instead.
So when I say that as a church we have decided to only hold one service per week, and that we’ve seen great benefits from doing so, I’m not offering it as a book, conference and podcast deal. I’m just saying it to encourage others who are doing the same thing, and give a perspective to those with other practises. There’s been something counter-intuitive about it (counter-intuitive at least to those raised in church ministry leadership in the last four decades).
Here’s are some practical ways in which our local expression of church has benefited from only having one service:
1.We’re not wearing out our service volunteers: Everything we do, we do once. It’s increasingly hard in this fractured world to get two or three teams for one service, let alone two. There are enough people to roster on to our music and service ministries once on a Sunday. Sure they could do that twice and double up. I don’t think that’s sustainable for people who are already fairly pressed by the rest of what modern life throws at them. What’s the adage: “buy once, buy well”? We do that for church services too, “do once, do well.”
There’s more to it of course. In the last building that we grew out of, there was talk of a replicated second service, but here’s the thing: no one in the congregation wanted it. And I am not sure that even if we had the volunteer power, we would have done it. People felt that we would lose something important if we did.
We honoured that, then did the hard work of finding a bigger building to rent. And that was hard, but it’s not like other things would not have been harder if we had stayed in the old building and replicated. We felt that the discomfort in the building move would be more than made up for in other ways and that’s proven to be the case.
2. We don’t have to proclaim unity, we demonstrate it. I don’t doubt that churches with multiple services, or demographically specific services, can be united. Clearly they can. But it takes a lot more work on the part of the staff to ensure that not only happens, but is seen to happen. Seeing the body all together, all sorts of bodies – young, old, pregnant, little, young and athletic, old and rotund, has a sweetness about it that the homogenous unit principle can’t match. It just does.
Doesn’t mean doing church is easier, in fact it’s not. It can be difficult. It can be just as difficult as having a family with lots of different members in it that are different ages with different needs and different agendas, which all requires a juggling act. In fact it’s not just as hard as having a family like that, it is a family like that. But it’s definitely, visually, one family.
3. We get to “one-another” more deeply. This past fortnight I heard of how one household of young blokes (fledgling professionals and students) had a dinner party for people from church. Who was that dinner party for and why did they hold it?
Well, some of them were reading the book of James about how pure religion includes looking after widows, so they invited a woman recently widowed in our congregation to Sunday lunch.
This woman and her husband started attending our church when we were thirty or so people, and now at about 150 people, it would be easy for her to fall into the gaps. Her husband was much more forthright than she. And the church started to grow quickly after she was widowed. But she hasn’t fallen through the gaps, and it’s not just the older people who help her. So these lads invited her, along with three or four congregants in their sixties too, and sat around the table asking questions, being asked questions and exhibiting true religion at work.
You can definitely do that in a homogenous unit principle church, but the overwhelming chances are you won’t, because you won’t know those people at all. It’s certainly giving those younger lads the chance to stretch their gospel wings that bit further.
And, in another great touch, one of the younger men noticed that as there was an increase in twenty-somethings in our church, they all tended to sit in the same section together. One day he decided to change that. He got up at the start of the service and sat with an older semi-retired couple. And now others are doing that too.
4. Old people get to mentor young people. It’s not all one way. The wealth of wisdom among our older people is a great resource for younger people growing up in an increasingly complex world.
Because the generations have gotten to know each other over time, they first spent time talking with each other in church, and then some of the younger crew have started catching up for one-on-one mentoring with the older.
And it’s not a chore to the older crowd. They want to do this. I hang out with a bunch of our retired blokes once a fortnight. The working title I gave to the group was the Jesus Geezers. And the Geezers are not simply sitting around being grumpy (they leave that to me!) about the state of play in the culture. No, they’re asking how they can help the younger crew, how they can mentor them. And they’re starting to do it
One of our recent retirees in the group, has just returned from the obligatory six month lap of Australia in his caravan with his wife. His first comment upon coming home? “I’m not going to spend all my years doing what everyone else is doing – spending the inheritance money, it’s time to get involved in something.”
5. It’s a tiny taste of the future When our church sings, because we have a fairly light music team and hold the music back a little, the most melodic thing we hear are the voices from the floor.
There’s my 17 year old daughter with her light soprano, and that retired bloke with the deep voice who holds the vibrato note that little too long; and that four year old girl dancing and swirling in the aisle and getting the words right most of the time.
Sometimes we sing too slow. Sometimes the words and music of the modern songs are hard going. But sometimes it all seems to come together when we sing and it’s wonderful. Hands are raised, people are praising, true emotions are stirred. More people are in the room than there are. It feels like a tiny, fractured taste of the vision of Revelation 7, which is indeed happening as we speak, but will not be fully visible to us until it is revealed.
The people that are in the room each Sunday are all sorts of people. Maybe not all people, but certainly all sorts. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So if you’re doing multiple services at multiple sites, that’s fine, I’m sure I’ve got plenty to learn from you as well.