The Church Is Not A Circus – Episode #71

Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA recently defied government orders to shut down their church out of public health concerns associated with COVID-19. His 8,000+ member congregation met in their large auditorium this past week, which holds several thousand people. Pastor MacArthur stated “Jesus, not Caesar is the head of the church,” and said that it is outside the sphere of the state to interfere with how the church governs herself.

Present Church Models In Evangelicalism

However you feel about his stance regarding the response of the church to the state during a pandemic, I find his insistence of meeting as a large church gathering with several thousand people to be telling. It gives us insight into the model of ministry that John MacArthur is operating from. And frankly, it’s a model of ministry that is common in America and throughout the western world at large.

This model exists whether we talking about a small rural church, or a large megachurch in a city. It’s the same model that exists whether we are talking about John MacArthur in California, or Steven Furtick in North Carolina.

Church History: How We Got Here

For those of you who are not students of church history, I want to explain how our churches in America and elsewhere developed the common ministry model that most of you are familiar with.

Our current popular models of ministry were, in part, born out of the Protestant Reformation. During that time, the church made a shift from a sacrament centered church to a church centered around the preaching of the Scriptures. The pulpit became an important piece of furniture in any Protestant church, and it was often center stage, or on a tall elevated platform.

However, with that said, the church still didn’t primarily consist of a one man show with it’s own Barnum & Bailey Circus style ringmaster (aka. “the pastor”). That model would grow out of the leftovers of the “Great Awakenings” of the 18th and 19th centuries, the traveling “circuit rider” preacher, and the “tent revivals” and “crusades” of the early 20th century.

These churches and models of ministries came into existence, often because itinerant/traveling ministers moving from town to town would eventually gather a large enough following that they decided to settle down and plant a formal church. The church naturally centered around their preaching and teaching, just like it did during their itinerant preaching days.

The model became (and still is) one where we try to get as many people as possible to meet under one big tent, and everything that happens centers around what happens in the center ring. We try to have “the greatest show on Earth.” Or at least, the greatest show in town.

The current model of ministry so many thousands of churches employ is something of a circus model of ministry. It’s fundamentally no different than the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Getting Back To The Biblical Model

However, when you compare this model of church and ministry to the model that we read about in the Bible, especially in the book of Acts, and the writings of the apostle Paul, we see a strange disconnect between their world and ours. Their methods and models were different.

And not just because of cultural differences, but because of an underlying philosophy and approach to ministry. These are differences, not just of pragmatic concerns, but of theological concerns. And I believe the current COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for the church to reconsider models of ministry, and to get us back to something that is more Biblical in its approach.

While we read about large gatherings in the life of the church in the Bible, when you study in depth, you’ll find the model of ministry that the church primarily existed around was one that was much more personal. It allowed the minister to truly get to know the members of their church, and vice versa. It was a model in which personal intimate relationships were key to the success of the preaching of the minister, as he not only effectively preached the gospel, but demonstrated to others how to live the gospel message out in their day to day lives.

And in today’s podcast. I talk more about this issue and more. So, be sure to listen, as I discuss much more fully the challenge we are currently facing with our current models of ministry, and compare that to how the early church operated.

Scriptures For Discussion In Today’s Podcast

 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.

1 Thes 1:5-7

Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 2:43-47

Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’  ”

Acts 20:31-35

I also discuss 1 Corinthians 11-15, and talk about the Lord’s supper, and the use of spiritual gifts.

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