The word “ecclesia,” used in the New Testament over 100 times to describe the local gathering of Christians in each city, was a word that actually referred to the public civic assembly in Greco Roman culture. It was a very public gathering where people could gather and participate in the governing of their city. Using the word to refer to the Christian church gathering then indicates a public aspect to it. The Christian assembly is the called-out ones in each city who seek to be governed by the Lord of the universe.
By using the word ecclesia, the NT emphasizes two different aspects to the gathering. There is its public aspect to the gathering. These people are called to gather together to witness to the Kingdom before the watching world. Yet there is also the unique aspect to this gathering amidst the culture. These people are called “out” in order to witness that Jesus is Lord and not Caesar. The ecclesia is a calling to another way of being governed– the Kingdom of God – which is at work in the world. Going public then is essential to its witness in the community. Yet it shall not be attractional in the sense of appealing to people’s immediate tastes, preferences, conveniences, or needs. This is about God’s Kingdom under the rule of Christ.
All this to say it is important and essential to the witness of the gospel that a church eventually go public with its meeting. Yet, when starting a church, or as I like to refer to the process – seeding an expression of the gospel in a community – I think it best to move with caution when going public with the gathering. Take it slow. The time has to be right. Obviously, this goes against the majority of received wisdom on church planting where the so-called “launch” of the public gathering is actually viewed as the legitimating event, the founding moment – of the church plant. But I can think of at least 3 reasons to go slow.
1. Going public too early can derail discerning God’s Mission together in this community.
When you go public before a culture of mission has been established, the community can get derailed by the newcomer Christians who “come” to your church gathering. As we all know, new church plants attract disgruntled Christians looking for something new. The new church seedling can get caught up into knitting these new folk into a cohesive body of Christ seeking God’s mission, not their own perceived wants and needs from a church. This can set back a church’s development into mission. My advice: Resist at all costs building a church body around disgruntled Christians. Instead, one by one, relationally, through prayer, the study of Scripture, the sharing of the community’s gifts, and discerning the context, work out together what God is doing among you and in your context, seeking where God is calling you into, in the first years of your community’s life. Then go public.
2. Going public too early can change the focus of your gathering to numbers and success.
I can’t explain why, but for some reason when a gathering is opened to the public and numbers of people show up, leaders start to concentrate on “how many.” If you are not well ensconced in your mission you can get immediately distracted and start focusing on the numbers coming on Sunday morning and how you can keep them coming. THIS ALWAYS DEFEATS MISSION. As Courageous Church pastor Shaun King said, “I sold my soul for church attendance in our first week, and I could never quite get it back.” See his story here. This automatically sets back the ecclesia formation that needs to take place, as now we are focused on keeping people/Christians happy. My advice: Resist at all costs the temptation to work to keep Christians happy and more people coming to your Sunday gathering. Focus on discipleship and mission. The church will be the outgrowth.
3.) Going public too early can put the cart before the horse.
A worship gathering should be a part of a rhythm of an already existing community. We should gather as part of a shared life the rest of the six days a week. It is a gathering and sending rhythm. There must be an integrity to our life together before we go public or else the Sunday morning gathering becomes a performance to attract people, as opposed to a coalescence for the celebrating of what God is doing among us and the shaping of our lives to understand it and participate in it.
It is very important to form good “political” habits in the founding of a new expression of the gospel. By “political,” I mean the things that drive us to be together and live life together. There will be a correct time to go public, but DON’T RUSH IT! Any stories out there of going public too early? Any other cautions we should consider when we go public with our church gathering in the world?