Over the past 2000 years, Christian communities have largely come to focus - almost exclusively - on doctrinal tenets and common activities that occur “in church.” This isn’t surprising overly much because the history of the early church at least was in many instances and locations - although certainly not all - characterized by rejection by established systems including Jewish and Roman social structures and authorities. It is understandable then that the communities would begin to focus on their times together, protected from outsiders and buttressing each other’s faith and commitment. They still lived their lives, but having defined communities likely allowed them an identity that was both concrete and safe.
Over time - and certainly after the faith was putatively “legal” - and for a number of social reasons no doubt, the local sign of the community became their meeting places and having been shaped in fear their practices became tradition and sources of comfort and normalcy. They were, after all humans and so these developments are not bad in themselves.
Here’s the rub though. This is exactly the same thing Israel had done during her history. Intended to be the chosen ark herself, Israel was to both carry the reality, the meaning, and the economy of her God in the world for the purpose of inviting the world to God as His own people. Israel though got lost in her purpose and became an exclusive people with exclusive practices that tended to isolate her rather than invite others into her world. Her scribes wrote and argued various interpretations and applications of her Law, defining what was righteous and allowable and what was not to be Jewish. What began as a call to be the People of God for the blessing of the world became over time an exclusive religious club with rites and tenets that were necessary for others to become part of the People of God.
Here’s the problem: Neither Israel’s development or the church’s development reflect the original intent of God. That intent is not an exclusive, separately identifiable people with special practices, but rather a planet of humans, all of whom lived their lives as God would have lived them if He were them. A planet of lovers, living lives of love with each other, as images of God. Worship in that context would have been simple praise or perhaps even simple gratitude.
Today, we have something much different. The world is replete with various religions and spiritualities with definable and therefore identifiable rituals and rites, and communities of spirit which are also therefore definable and identifiable as separate from all the others. In Christendom we have no better of a situation - thousands of different groups, all with definable boundaries so that we can identify ourselves and others. Much of our identifiable behavioral or ritual marks are no more than modifications of someone else’s and so we insist on tenets that we can require acceptance of and conformity to. We want to be able to objectively identify who’s in and who isn’t.
Arguments over ritual, authority for those rituals, and necessary beliefs are common place with some communities rigidly defining the requirements in writing and other just as rigidly holding them intellectually. This situation is so far from the original intent - can we imagine Adam insisting that an altar must be blessed by a priest, whether a piano can be used, or debating the Trinity? Unfortunately, many of us would like to imagine what Adam would have done and insisted on in that ancient Garden - or even the wilderness after his expulsion. The post-expulsion would be more interesting for us because we would explain that now something would have to be fixed and fixing it requires expectations and rules - and we like rules enough to impose them on Adam.
What would happen if we could pry ourselves away from our arguments over doctrine and simply respond to God as we are moved to respond to Him - individually and in community? What would happen if we could live our lives as disciples without having our faith lives focused on Sundays and 90-minute rituals? What would happen if we could live our lives as disciples without having to label ourselves as something distinct from the rest of humanity?
We humans like structure, predictability, and being around people of like mind and for these reasons it is likely not likely that we will jettison gatherings - and we should not. Gatherings speak to the human need for belonging, for comradeship, for shared purpose and these are all valuable and appropriate for believers. At their core though, they are not religious per se, nor do they need to be.
Can we imagine the possibility of not emphasizing ninety minutes on Sunday with defined ritual and instead simply gathering together encourage each other and thanking our God for His grace? What would that look like in your world?