Do Multiple Worship Services Hinder Congregational Unity?

Try this experiment. Ask some of your friends how they handle Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. See if you can find even one family who "breaks up" their family gathering into an "early shift" and a "late shift." My guess is that you don't know anyone who approaches it in that divided fashion.

In a similar way, churches have 52 times a year to gather around "the big 4." In the early church, "they devoted themselves to (1) the apostles' teaching and to (2) the fellowship, to (3) the breaking of bread and to (4) prayer." (Acts 2:42) A "family gathering" of believers on the first day of the week was every bit as important to those first Christians as Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner are to families today.

The temptation, or "opportunity" if you prefer that word, is for a congregation to add multiple worship services as the church grows. Of course other options would be to: (1) plant a new congregation; (2) enlarge the worship space; or (3) fit more people into your current space.

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I suppose we could list advantages and disadvantages of each option. But isn't it interesting that families do not "break up" their special family gatherings into multiple "shifts"? There are good reasons why families want everyone together at one time. There is a desire for family unity, family joy, and family interaction with one another.

Have you ever belonged to a church with multiple services? If so, how close did you feel to those who worshipped at a different service than you? Did it basically feel like you had two or three separate congregations all operating under the same roof, the same name, and with the same preacher? And for that matter, how many of the "sheep" had a personal relationship of any kind with the pastor (shepherd) of the congregation?

As pastors, we have human limitations just like everyone. We can only maintain interactive relationships with so many people. That's just the nature of pastoral ministry. And yet every disciple in a church appreciates knowing their pastor, and rightly so. It benefits everyone.

Can a congregation grow to 200 people in attendance and still maintain a "family feel" and the sense that the shepherd is not only our preacher, but also our pastor? I think so. And perhaps even a little larger.

"But Pastor Dan. We live in a day where pastors should be more like 'ranchers' than 'shepherds.'" Oh really? Personally, I am not convinced that was God's master plan. After all, was Jesus a "rancher" of his disciples, or was He their shepherd and their friend?

"But Pastor Dan. We live in a day where the pastor cannot be the friend of everyone in the church?" Oh really? Personally, I am not convinced that is the way God designed it. After all, was Jesus the personal friend of his 12 apostles, or not?

"But Pastor Dan. We live in a day where churches are supposed to have an enormous building and a growing staff?" Oh really? Personally, I am not convinced that is necessarily the ideal way to do it. How large was Jesus' staff?

"But Pastor Dan. We live in a day where in order to reach youth, we need to have segregated worship services geared to each generation." Oh really? I don't find that approach in the Bible. The Old Testament and New Testament gatherings of God's people were intergenerational and involved the entire church family.

This modern development of "forced generational segregation" in some churches is highly questionable. And it might be one reason why so many young adults today who attended mainly "youth services" growing up are no longer attending church at all. Perhaps they never learned how to worship and interact in a church family as their parents modeled it for them in an intergenerational setting.

Here is something to think about? What if a church of 1000 people in multiple services became 5 congregations of 200 people each? How would that shape your understanding of "church"? There would be more pastors shepherding a flock of people whom they know personally. Equipping and raising up humble shepherds to plant new churches is part of God's global design for His kingdom.

Imagine actually knowing most of the people in your church family. And imagine having a friendship with your pastor, who is also your preacher; as compared to having a "senior pastor" who is your preacher, but not someone who would have much time for you personally? After all, how could he? Pastors are not superhuman. None of us have more than 24 hours a day.

Imagine doing what they did in the early church. They not only were taught from God's Word every week, but they also celebrated the Lord's Supper together every week. They had real fellowship with their church family every week. And they didn't have to rely so heavily upon a "small group" during the rest of the week to meet their fellowship needs. Nothing against small groups, but they are not "mini-congregations." And if they are "little churches," then why not prayerfully consider planting a new congregation and making even more disciples. That is, if the goal is not simply to get the largest number of people all in one congregation meeting under one roof or in multiple services.

So does your current worship experience and church life seem to resemble the intimacy of Thanksgiving dinner; or does it feel more like going to a "conference" every weekend with hundreds of other Christians in your city? Is your worship experience personal, or is it pretty impersonal? Now compare your weekly worship experience to what you do with your family at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Are there some strong similarities, or are those experiences as different as night and day?

Perhaps the benefits of a large congregation have been a bit exaggerated in our day. It's easy to see how this could happen. After all, we live in America. "Bigger is always better," or so we are told.

But as you examine what Jesus said to seven churches in the book of Revelation, try to find even one example where Christ commended or rebuked the believers based on the number of people in their congregation. You won't find it. That doesn't mean Jesus didn't want them reaching more people. It just means that a Spirit-filled gathering of Christians is not dependent upon having a large number of people all belonging to the same congregation. In fact, that dynamic tends to have some real disadvantages when it comes to making disciples.

So whether you belong to a large church or a "normal-sized" congregation, you can become part of the solution. And what's the problem you ask? It is anything we do in the name of "church" that inhibits an Acts 2:42 ministry. Another way of saying it is this: If we get Acts 2:42 right, the result tends to be Christian discipleship, brotherly compassion, and humble service. The book of Acts shows us the way the Holy Spirit designed the New Testament church. And you and I are not smart enough to improve on His design for Christ's church.

No wonder Thanksgiving and Christmas are so cherished. Those gatherings go deep rather than wide. Just think. If you were to remove the "family" dynamic from Thanksgiving or Christmas, you would experience a genuine sense of loss. And you would hunger for more. More love. More unity. More togetherness.

Sounds a lot like Acts 2:42 to me. Does God's design for "church" sound that way to you?

Dan Delzell is the pastor of Wellspring Lutheran Church in Papillion, Neb. He is a regular contributor to The Christian Post.

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