A couple of days ago a friend remarked that the bishop is closing the local churches to create a larger church in their community. I immediately thought that while a bishop has the authority to close Catholic churches, that would never happen in Baptist churches because each church is fiercely independent and autonomous. Beyond this fleeting denominational thinking, I started to think more historically and biblically.
Places of worship have importance from the time when Moses was called to deliver the people of God from Egypt. God tells Moses that when He delivers the people, they will come and worship at Mt. Sinai, the place where God promised their deliverance. It is at that mountain that God gave them the Ten Commandments and instructions for constructing the tabernacle where He would meet with His people.
With the passing of time, King David started comparing their portable tabernacle with other places of worship and decided it was not sufficient. The surrounding nations had their own temples of worship, as we find out from the story of Samson pulling down the walls of the Philistine temple. God tells David that He never asked for a temple to be built but He allows this human desire to be fulfilled. We find out later that the Israelites thought nothing evil could happen to them because God is residing in the temple. But the temple is destroyed twice. Solomon’s Temple is destroyed by the Babylonians and the second temple, known as Herod’s Temple, is destroyed by the Romans.
The disciples of Jesus were fascinated by the temple, but Jesus defined the church as any place where two or three people are gathered in His name and He promised to be with them there. While Jesus promised to be with just a few people, the church grows quickly on Pentecost when 3,000 people worshipped together. The apostles kept their meetings in the temple until they were persecuted and dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. As the apostles went out into other cities, they met in Jewish synagogues, rented halls, and even by the riverside or at the homes of newly converted Christians.
It is interesting to see that during the first century of Christianity, the Greeks are building basilicas and the Romans are building cathedrals. The word basilica comes from the Greek word basileus, which describes a place fit for a king to worship. So the Greek kings built these enormous palaces fit for their own worship, the apex being the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. I wonder if God said the same thing to these kings that he said to David, “Did I ask for these places to be built?” The Roman emphasis was on cathedrals. The word cathedral comes from the word for book, to describe the place where teaching and learning take place. In the Medieval Era, we have gigantic cathedrals being built to astounding heights, so people will see them from a distance and come to worship.
The methods and size of the church switch during the Post-Reformation period as ministers and missionaries went out to the people. The Baptist motto is “Every Baptist a missionary and every place a mission field.” The Baptists evangelize and once they have a nucleus of born-again believers, they start a church, usually called an assembly. Two centuries after them, the Methodists do the same thing. The Methodist motto is “The world is my parish” and their missionaries are itinerant pastors who travel from place to place, village to village, farm to farm to evangelize. Their desire is to plant a Methodist church in every village so that the people will not have a long distance to travel, but primarily for the sake of being taught in their places of worship.
Currently both approaches are working. As some neighborhood churches close, many Catholic churches are growing. In the same way, some smaller Protestant churches are closing and the mega-churches are growing. It seems that the bishops are moving towards larger churches because they are concerned that the smaller, local churches cannot support the staff and the priest. Conversely, the mega-churches seem to be less concerned with smaller churches because most of their members have come from those very small churches.
But there is still a place for the small church. There are people who enjoy the fellowship of the small church, even with the knowledge that some of the programs and opportunities that the large churches offer are not found in smaller churches.
A church of three people or a church of three thousand people gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is promised His presence. If Christ is present, you have all you need.