Published Abroad: Why, where, and how should Christians meet?

Reproduced from Evangelicals Now, February 1993. Used with permission.

With its building desperately over-crowded, the Round Church had to rethink from the Bible such issues as the purpose of a building, the meaning of worship, the purpose of meeting—and the nature of the church. This is more than the story of one church; it has lessons and relevance for every church.

The Round Church in Cambridge is a quaint circular Norman building with a medieval oblong tacked on to it, well known to any who are familiar with the city centre.

Since Canon Mark Ruston started his ministry there in 1955, the congregation has grown steadily. It was Mark Ashton’s particular gift to attract students, and for many years the life of the Round Church has been dominated by a wave of students arriving and disappearing again three times a year.

The recurrent doubling and halving of the congregation has led the church to try many expedients over the years—a TV relay around the Norman pillars, a relay across the road to the (smallish) church halls, a trial period using another church building (All Saints, Jesus Lane), and more recently, moving the main morning services into the debating chamber of the Cambridge Union Society, adjacent to the Round Church building.

This last arrangement has worked well for three years, but it was always only a temporary expedient, as the Cambridge Union Society has always retained the right to cancel the arrangement at a few days’ notice should some visiting dignitary suddenly become available to address the Society on a Sunday morning. Consequently the lay leadership of the church continued to look for a more long-term solution.

New opportunity

Eventually the collapse of commercial schemes for a redundant city-centre church, St Andrew the Great, provided the opportunity for the congregation of the Round Church to refurbish it for their own use. It could provide seating for over 700 people, and ten ancillary rooms for other activities.

The cost of such a move is awesome. The prospect of raising huge sums of money to spend on a building for our own use has given the congregation pause for serious thought and prayer. It made us ask the question: ‘Why are we moving?’

The primary answer is to have a meeting place for our Sunday services, into which we can all fit, without having to split the morning congregation between two services and to move young children along busy roads to activities in the vicarage, the church hall and the local primary school.

Why meet on Sundays?

The immediate answer that sprang to our lips was: ‘to worship God’. But that led us to consider what worship is. We concluded that worship is to do with responding to God. In fact, there are only two ways that human beings respond to God—one is the wrong way by rebelling against him, and the other is the right way by worshipping him. Every human being is either a rebel or a worshipper. So worship is to do with approaching and responding to God rightly, putting him in his rightful place and giving him his due.

Tied to particulars

In the Old Testament the ‘right’ approach to God was tied tightly to a particular place (Ex 25:8,9) with particular furniture, particular people wearing particular clothing (Ex 28:1), after particular preparation (Ex 29:1), and using particular ceremonies and offerings (Ex 29:38-46) at particular times (Lev 23:1-8).

So the correct worship of God involved a special place, special people, special acts and special times. All this was consummated in the building of the Temple, and the worship that took place there.

But in the Old Testament there was always a tension. “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). There was a sense that the revelation was not yet complete, and that all the cultic worship of the Temple was pointing to something else.

No longer the focus

Then Jesus Christ stepped onto the earth. He made it clear at once that his coming had changed everything. No longer was the Temple to be the focus of true worship. “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father … the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship ‘in spirit and truth’” (Jn 4:21-24).

The radical nature of those words is hidden from us, if we forget the enormous significance of Jerusalem and the Temple in the religious life of the Jews.

The rest of the New Testament picks up this radical teaching of Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews uses the language of the Temple to speak of approaching God through faith in the death of Jesus: “Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:19- 22).

Now the temple is Christ himself, and for the Christian the whole of life has now become worship (Rom 12:1).

‘One another’ focus

Significantly, only in Acts 13:2 does the New Testament use the ‘worship’ language of the Old testament about Christians meeting together. Instead, it uses the sort of language that immediately follows the quotation we have just considered from Hebrews: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24,25).

The key New Testament word for Christians meeting together is edification, not worship. It is interesting that it is a ‘building’ word, but with an entirely ‘people’ sense now (see 1 Thess 5:11; 2 Cor 13:10; 1 Cor 14:12,26).

To breathe, to worship

To say that we go to church ‘to worship God’ is about as meaningful as to say that we go to bed at night to breathe. It is certainly true that, if we don’t breathe when we are asleep at night, we will be in trouble by the morning! Equally, if we are not already worshiping God when we meet together in church, that meeting will be in serious trouble. But it is not the primary purpose of our meeting. Nor for the Christian can the term ‘time of worship’ have any meaning, other than referring to his or her entire life. Only pagans can have ‘a time of worship’ in any other sense.

This may seem an unimportant matter of terminology, but if, in our thinking about worship, we are returning to the Old Testament, we are rejecting Jesus. Passages like Ephesians 2:11-22 teach us not only that Jesus Christ has taken the place of the Temple as the means for human beings to approach God, but also that in him we have ourselves become the temple (see 1 Pet 2:5).

Fetch a replacement

It has been well said that we can guess what the priests in the Temple did at the moment of Christ’s death on the cross when the Temple curtain was torn from top to bottom: they rushed to the cupboard to fetch the spare curtain and hang it up in the place of the torn one! The prospect of immediate access to God for all and sundry is always too shocking for the priestly minded. And that is what has been going on ever since. The historic patter on which most Anglican churches have been built over the centuries reflects a Catholic theology rather than a Protestant one. In effect, they try to recreate a Temple, with a ‘holy’ place, visible yet remote from the people, where ‘holy’ people do especially ‘holy’ things. (See Diagram 1.)

Diagram 1

At the Round Church in Cambridge, we had been struggling with a building that did its very best to contradict the spiritual truths we believed in (see Diagram 2). Providentially, we had been forced to start meeting in a building (the Debating Chamber of the Union Society), which actually reinforced the correct spiritual purposes for our meeting. It is striking how many members of the congregation have commented on this, particularly some who are new, both to the congregation and to the Christian faith. They have remarked that there is something special about meeting as a church in the Debating Chamber. (See Diagram 3.)

Diagram 2
Diagram 3

True reflection needed

Our thinking on these matters was going on concurrently with the early design stages for the refitting of the St Andrew the Great building. We were alarmed to discover that we were on the verge of creating a building that did not reflect what we believed about Christians meeting together. With a large gallery, the auditorium at St Andrew the Great has to have a fairly high stage. We realise that this may become, in no time at all, another ‘holy’ place, where ‘holy’ people do ‘holy’ things remote from the rest of the congregation. We have had to think long and hard about how the building might reflect biblical priorities for a Christian meeting place.


There are no set New Testament patterns for Christian meetings, but there are many hints about the sort of things that should characterise them. For example, Christian meetings are to be Spirit-filled (Eph 5:18); Bible-centred (Col 3:16); congregational (Heb 10:24); varied (1 Cor 14:26); characterised by praise and thanksgiving (Eph 5:18); intelligible (1 Cor 14); done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40), and they should include the breaking of bread (1 Cor 11) and teaching and intercessions (Acts 2:42).

What do these mean for our building? Clearly, audibility and visibility are very important in any building in which Christians meet. That is not just so that the pastor/teacher should be audible and visible, but so that members of the congregation should be able to see and hear each other. We are struggling to maximise these aspects of the design of St Andrew the Great.

Awe and transcendence

But what about a sense of awe and transcendence? Should not a building suited for Christian meetings convey a sense of the numinous to the spirits of those who gather? From Hebrews 12:18-29, it would seem that there should be an awe about the Christian gathering. But that awe should be of God and of his assembly, not of the place or its outward trappings:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages by spoken to them … But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.

If we look to the building to create this sense of awe for us, we are in danger once again of by-passing what Jesus has done for us in redeeming us, and returning to the Old Testament.

Learning lessons

So, we have found that the circumstances which are forcing us to relocate our church activities have caused us to learn much about the nature of the church. We are learning lessons about ourselves and about our meetings that are very precious and that we could probably not have learned in any other way. We have learned that we need good theology in order to produce a good building.

We are also learning to trust God for the provision of our financial needs for this project. It has brought a range of people into important responsibilities within the fellowship. One important decision was that, right at the outset, the Parochial Church Council declared that they would abort the project if the vicar was allowed to get drawn into it. That resolution has protected both his Bible teaching ministry and the successful execution of the project!

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