But then the phone rang. It was one of the elders, telling us that due to blowing snow and poor visibility on the highways, the morning meetings at our chapel would be cancelled.
I knew that if I were a really spiritual person I would feel disappointed, but all I could feel was relief. No panic to get out of the house, no expectations, no programs. Just a relaxing day at home.
My father, however, is a godly man with a much better sense that "what is essential is invisible to the eye," as Saint-Exupery put it. He immediately picked up the phone and started calling all the chapel folks who live in our town, inviting them to come and meet together at our house. So my mother and my visiting sister-in-law and I bustled around preparing tea and coffee (but that was easy because I was working in my own kitchen), and making up platters of Christmas cookies and other snacks to share with our friends. And at ten-thirty this morning, twenty people – men and women, teens and young children – gathered in our living room, opened up Bibles and hymn books, and had an impromptu service.
It was simple. It was meaningful. It was relaxed. And afterward we all stood around and enjoyed food and conversation while the kids played together. Nobody was stressed out or in a hurry.
It was really, really nice.
And I thought about how the work of running a typical church with all its myriad programs and responsibilities can seem overwhelming at times, and how relaxed and easy that morning's service in our home had been by comparison, and I wondered, Why do we do this to ourselves?
So much time and money goes into keeping a separate church building with a congregation proportional to its size – the cost of heating and electricity and maintenance, the effort put into programs which are expected but may not actually be necessary, the burden on our four elders of keeping track of and striving to meet the spiritual needs of so many families, so many people. And our attendance on a Sunday morning is less than 100! How much more complicated must it be for the mega-churches, who have to maintain a host of paid workers to keep their programs running and pour incredible sums of money into the buildings they use?
And then there's something about a church building, no matter how simple, that lends itself to formality and distances us from each other. It's easy to disappear into some back corner of the building, or to get caught up in some task related to the next meeting, and never really talk to anyone. Whereas it's hard to maintain that stiffness and reserve, and virtually impossible to be unaware of each other's feelings and needs, in a small group that meets in somebody's living room.
The New Testament tells us that the early Christian church met "from house to house". Even decades after the death of Christ and the establishment of the first Christian congregation in Jerusalem, the apostle Paul could send greetings to his friends Priscilla and Aquila and "the church that meets in their home".
It seems that for the early Christians, these small home meetings were nothing to be ashamed of, not just a way of "making do" until they could afford to build the mega-church they really needed to carry out God's work. Amazingly, believers in the first century were able to fulfill all the commands of Christ and all the necessary functions of the church** without a cadre of full-time paid workers, without an auditorium and gymnasium and a cluster of Sunday School classrooms, without pews or pulpits. They held communion and preaching services, baptized new converts, sent out missionaries, looked after widows and orphans, visited the sick and those in prison, and handled thorny matters of church discipline all while meeting in houses that probably couldn't hold more than twenty or thirty people at most.
Modern Christians often assume that we are better off than the early Christians were because we can meet without fear of persecution, and make our buildings as large and splendid as we like. But I'm not sure that in separating our church meetings from the homes where we live our daily lives, what we've lost isn't greater than what we've gained.
* Not my church, by the way -- just one I photographed while in Wales.
** "…the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, the Breaking of Bread and prayers" – Acts 2:42