After the attacks on America on 9/11, people thronged to churches — for a while. But they didn’t stay. They were temporarily spiritually open, but then they disappeared.
For one: Searching people are not looking for someone to stand 40 feet in front of them to tell them the way, they need someone next to them to show them the way.
Corporate worship is an important expression of the church, but it is not the most effective for disciple-making. Discipleship requires relationship.
Jesus said, “Follow me”, not “listen to me preach.” Of course, the twelve did hear him preach, but so did thousands of others. The difference between the crowd and the twelve was the depth of relationship. The twelve disciples lived and traveled with Jesus for 3 years. They watched him go off early in the morning to pray, which promoted them to ask him, “teach us to pray.” Even their opponents could see that they were marked by spending time with Jesus.
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)
Discipleship requires relationship because we need to be close enough to each other to influence each other toward Jesus. That can’t happen in a large crowd, shoulder-to-shoulder for an hour, even with 20 minutes of light conversation and coffee thrown in.
To learn to love and obey Jesus, we need to spend time with a few others who are doing that. We need to see into their lives, and watch how they handle ups and downs in dependence on God. We best learn to pray by being next to more experienced believers as they pray. We best learn to share our faith by watching a fellow disciple evangelize. These things don’t happen in a worship service.
I am not trying to belittle the corporate worship experience. It’s just that I don’t need to convince many that there is a role for the large worship gathering. We’re already committed to that. But we overestimate the discipleship impact it has.
In the new normal, effective churches will prioritize holistic small groups while worshipping corporately.