Updated: Mar 13, 2020
By Russ Johnson and Travis Mullen
The instructions in the New Testament related to the gathering of the Church, like the Old Testament law to keep the Sabbath, exists for people, not the other way around. But what do you do when you find yourself unable to host or attend the large Church gatherings you have become accustomed to?
Enter the state of Washington, which banned public gatherings of over 250 recently. We should expect more states to follow suit.
What can the Church do?
While Jesus spoke in synagogues occasionally, and a couple of times on a hillside to people who were part of a larger crowd (no PA system there), Jesus never held public “worship services”, nor told the disciples to start them. The table was the consistent place of His ministry from beginning to end. When is Jesus not going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal?
And according to the New Testament, the “Church” simply followed Jesus’ example. As a persecuted tribe, they met from “house to house” around shared meals. Rome wasn’t handing out building permits to people claiming someone other than Caesar was Lord. But it didn’t matter. Through the tables of everyday people, this movement of the Church saw 65% of the Roman Empire follow Jesus in just 300 years.
The value the table offers for gatherings, both then and now, is not just in its simplicity (homes already in place, tables already set, mortgages already paid), but in how natural this space is. Everyone has to eat, and gathering for a meal is a practice every culture understands. The question is: How do you utilize the table, especially if the Sunday service is all you know?
How the Church can gather around tables
As you look at all the church gathering How-Tos surfacing in light of the coronavirus, the paralysis of analysis can become a real thing. So here are a few timeless practices we have found helpful for any context. To be clear, they are not a checklist or an Order of Service. Instead, they are elements you can participate in, whether you choose two, three, or all five of them.
Create - The first thing you will need to do is nail down a time and place. The call to offer hospitality to one another, show up for one another’s sake, be ready, willing, and able to encourage one another in Good News, all starts with a safe place for people to gather—just as they are. Homes are the most simple, but it can be anywhere: park, pub, community center, coffee shop, art gallery, you name it. You can be creative.
Eat - Like the secrets to good cooking, the kingdom of God is always hiding in plain sight. Which is perhaps why food mysteriously lifts eating beyond nourishment to friendship. Nothing quite captures the feast that is to come like the feasts we set along the way. So whether it’s a buffet of chips and salsa you picked up from Walmart or a rack of lamb with a cherry glaze, eat, drink, and be merry.
Listen - In a world where everyone loves to share, and few like to listen, those who slow down with others gain the opportunity to hear their stories. Because adults learn on a need-to-know basis, there’s simply no way to encourage others “where they are” if you don’t first know where they are and what they desire to know. Asking how people are, and then listening, is where we start.
Contribute - If any act helps form disciples in the ways of Jesus, it’s contributing stories, encouragement, scripture, prayer, song or any other word that will build others up. It’s a process of meeting them where they are and looking to what God has declared. It’s here, in these acts, people are formed not only from what they receive but from what they contribute as well.
Remember - With the simplicity the table offers as a place of gathering, you can "remember" two things. First, the One who gave His life for ours. Eugene Peterson captured communion well when he said: “Not everyone can comprehend a doctrine, not everyone can obey a precept, but everyone can eat a piece of bread, drink a cup of wine, and understand a simple statement — my body, my blood.” Second, everyone can leverage some of their financial resources to "remember the poor" who are in need of real, tangible help. (Gal 2:10)
Wherever you are in your journey, whatever context you are in, we’re here to help. Feel free to reach out with any thoughts or questions you may have.