I was checking out a couple of posts on John MacArthur's "blog" (I am pretty sure he has no idea how to blog, he is kind of an old school guy!) Shepherd's Fellowship. They spoke of the importance of the local chuch in one and the other was a critique of the "seeker sensitive", entertainment driven churches where people become mere spectators.
To that I say: Amen!
The local church assembly is vital and eminently Biblical. Those who feel they can just stay home by themselves and be just fine are ignorant of their own need for community and the Bible’s teaching on the fellowship of the saints. So much of the New Testament is written in the context of the local assembly that it is hard to imagine a scenario where Christians gathering together frequently and purposefully is absent. So I agree with Dr. MacArthur wholeheartedly in his defense of the importance of the local church gathering. I also agree with the need for more and better teaching in the local assembly. It is the rare group indeed that will have a teacher of the caliber and gifting of a John MacArthur, a preacher and an exegete with few peers. That doesn’t mean that the average Christian in a local assembly has an excuse to be ignorant of Biblical doctrine, nor does it excuse shallow teaching within that same assembly.
What I found kind of ironic was this reference from the post called The Necessity of the Local Church:
"It is only in the local body to which one is committed that there can be the level of intimacy that is required for carefully stimulating fellow-believers “to love and good deeds.” And it is only in this setting that we can encourage one another." (emphasis added)
Now look at the picture of a service at Grace Community Church.
This is not a criticism of John MacArthur, a man who I respect greatly and have learned much from. My concern is that we have so imprinted on our minds what "church" looks like that we can read things like Acts 2:42 and talk about intimate, one-another fellowship and think that we see that in an auditorium of thousands of people listening while John MacArthur teaches. I love listening to John MacArthur teach! His was one of my favorite talks at Together for the Gospel. But is Grace Community Church an accurate depiction of the picture of Christian fellowship we see in Acts 2:42 and elsewhere in the New Testament? I mean if you are in this seat and you squint, you can sort of see the pulpit. I would hazard that a man who looked sort of like Dr. MacArthur could stand up there and lipsync while the big overhead screen played a recording of Dr. MacArthur and many people in seats this far back might never know.
When we look into the New Testament and see where the local assembly is spoken of, what we see is fellowship, intimacy, familial relationships. While folks in huge assemblies like Grace Community Church and Bethlehem Baptist are getting great teaching, teaching I would love to hear every week, are they getting fellowship as well? If you attended Grace Community Church every week and went to every scheduled service for a year, how many people would you get to know? 100? How many of those would you know really well? A lot fewer I would imagine. The reality is that on a Sunday, a person at Grace Community Church is surrounded by maybe 100 people they know and how many thousands they don’t. Great teaching yes, great fellowship no. At least not the kind of fellowship we see in the local assembly in the New Testament. Christians gathered in the upper room being taught by Paul and sharing meals into the wee hours of the morning doesn’t translate well into thousands of people in an auditorium filled with strangers watching a choreographed performance and an hour long sermon. That is not a knock on Grace Community Church, where at least the people are getting peerless teaching from Dr. MacArthur. It is just a reality of the vast majority of large churches in America where sheer size and organization makes intimate fellowship virtually impossible.
This is not an issue just in the churches led by “celebrity pastors” like MacArthur and Piper. It is an issue in local churches where several hundred people gather on Sunday for a couple of hours of scheduled time together. As an example, I had lunch today with my friend Joe and his friend Matt. Just three Christians having lunch, talking about our passions and pondering the things of God. That was great fellowship and far more fulfilling than an hour sitting next to someone I don’t know listening to someone else preach to me. If I want to hear a great sermon, there are thousands of them available online that I can download onto my iPod and listen at my leisure. I can’t get fellowship from an iPod.
On the other hand, as we talked about at lunch, there can be a tendency to go too far in the other direction. Some look at the tradition-bound institutionalized church and see the flaws and take that as justification to chuck a lot of good stuff along with the baggage. What you end up with is what you see in a many circles in the greater Body: people who are fuzzy on doctrine or outright reject fundamental truths. It seems to be pretty hard to find small, intimate fellowship coupled with sold Biblical teaching. I know that a blanket assertion like that will cause some raised eyebrows. I think it cannot be argued that the Body of Christ, by and large, is woefully underequipped when it comes to doctrine and theology, not empty scholasticism but real, practical theology that impacts our evangelism, our service, our ecclesiology, our family life.
Ultimately I think that people are starved for both fellowship as well as teaching and the church is weaker as a body for it. The solution is not prepackaged. This model or that model will not fix it. Just have church in your house will not fix it. Just have more expository preaching will not fix it. It is going to require Christians to be willing to set aside preconceived notions on both sides, open the Word of God and start having meaningful conversation. It may mean that men like Joe and Matt and I may start a gathering focused on the Word and on fellowship. I don’t know yet. What I do know is that something is missing in my life and in the lives of my family and many others I speak to. Without genuine, intimate, familial Christian fellowship coupled with the great truths of the faith and the preached Word we are incomplete Christians and incomplete Christians are unable to experience the joy that the early Christians had.