So what does the gathering look like? (Part 1)


In a recent post on ‘Why we gather’, I suggested that there were three basic purposes for the Christian assembly: as testimony to Christ, for fellowship in Christ, and to build towards maturity in Christ. Or if you wanted a more catchy one-sentence summary, you could say that in our gatherings, we meet with Christ in each other’s presence as a testimony to the world and as a spur to godly living.

Now before you even think of quibbling with this definition, or asking how the ‘W’ word relates to it, that’s not the purpose of this post! Instead, I’d like to share a few examples of how a Sunday gathering might be structured if these were its theologically driven purposes. In this post (and over the next several), I’ll be sharing five ‘standard meeting templates’ that I’ve been working on and trialling over the past few years. Each one has a theological movement or trajectory to it, and they also strive to connect the various elements in a way that flows and makes sense.

I’m interested in your comments and feedback—especially if you are bold enough to give some of them a fly and see how they go!

Template 1: The standard meeting

This is a bread and butter meeting where everything is pretty straightforward. It assumes (as do all those that follow) a meeting that runs from 9:30 am ’til 10:45 am.

9:27 Welcome! Please find your seats; we’re about to start.
9:30 Introduction: What this morning is about, why we’re here, an opening prayer.
9:33 Confession/approach: This can be lead by leader, congregation member, or said jointly1; it can start with a short reading to remind us of God’s holiness, our sinfulness, and our need to repent (e.g. Ps 51, Ps 130 or Ps 95 could be read or said together); it finishes with a gospel assurance.
9:37 Song of joy: Following on from confession—joyful, about sins forgiven or about the character and deeds of God in Christ.
9:40 Bible readings—one each from Old Testament and New Testament, with brief introduction/explanation as necessary.
9:46 Response to readings: Say a creed or psalm, or sing a song of dedication/exhortation.
9:50 Sermon + question time.
10:20 14:262 time: testimony, book review, small group discussion/feedback on a topic, song item, extended question time, a word of exhortation or encouragement. Much of this might fall under what the New Testament calls ‘prophecy’. (What it’s not: an interview or ad, plugging a church or ministry event)
10:28 Intercessions and thanksgiving.
10:37 Announcements and family news.
10:42 Final song—connected if possible to main theme of sermon.
10:45 Round-up and morning tea: Seat people after the song; bring their minds back to what we’ve learned as a lead-in to conversation at morning tea.

1 Here is a confession that I wrote a while ago that seems to work well congregationally:

Heavenly Father,
You are the true and living God,
The Most High, the Holy One.
Heaven is your throne,
and earth your footstool.
You are robed in power,
crowned in honour,
and righteousness is the sceptre of your kingdom.

Yet we have rebelled against you,
and fallen far short of your glory.
We have not loved you with our whole heart,
nor loved our neighbours as ourselves.
We deserve your punishment.

Gracious Father,
give us not what we deserve,
but what you promise to all who turn to you in trust—
complete forgiveness through your Son, Jesus Christ,
who died in our place, as a sacrifice for sins.
In your unfailing love,
wash us clean in his blood,
clothe us with his righteousness
and put your praises on our lips every day. Amen.

2 As in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” It’s an opportunity for members to bring encouragement and exhortation to the congregation in different ways.

12 thoughts on “So what does the gathering look like? (Part 1)

  1. What terrific stuff, Tony. In fact, why not start some sort of — dare I use the word —liturgical resources site, where your templates are placed.

    You could have an attached blog recording how people went in using and adapting these suggestions. Call it something like ‘104 family gatherings a year’—assuming in the title that people go to church twice a week, and turn it into a diary based on what your local gathering does. People can drop in and offer their comments and suggestions.

    Just a thought. Now that I’m not working just across the corridor, it’s harder to drop in and mention these things!

  2. Thanks very much for this Tony – This outline is very stimulating – I look forward to seeing the others.
    Regarding the confession:
    – How does the confession to the Father mesh with your Christ-focussed definition of the purpose of gathering?
    – Prayer book confessions characteristically finish with a request for the Spirit’s work in our lives. Is that something you would include in a confession prayer?
    These observations make me wonder whether the answer to ‘why we gather’ needs to be expressed in more trinitarian terms – but it is hard to be concise in answering big questions like these.

  3. Ok, I won’t use the ‘W’ word, but can I say that what you wrote was Wonderful.


  4. Hi, great theme! It is exactly the theme we want to go through as team of elders: why we gather and what does it look like! So my question is: do you have some suggestions about literature about this. I’m especially interested in literature from a biblical theological paradigm.

  5. Only 2 songs?! Hope some of your other templates up that a bit… wink

    My ideal is 4 songs, sung up front, with one of them reprised at the end. I don’t believe it’s wise to attempt more than 4…

  6. You know I’ve got to put in my two cents here, don’t you?!

    It’s unfair to run my mouth off when you’ve still got 80% you want to say, but nevertheless: why? Too many whys left unanswered.

    For instance – why two Bible readings? (and yes, I know, it could be as many as four, depending on other components, or even more if the songs are closely tied to Scripture) But still – why two? In a hypothetical world which had an OT, a MT and a NT, would we have to have three readings? Why do they need to be read together? Must OT always precede NT, or vice versa?

    I know you’ve got answers to all this and more besides, of course. It’s patently obvious that this outline has been carefully thought out. But I want to see more on the why.

    To borrow from current cultural fads: we wnat a template like this to be used by masterchefs, not mastercooks. The chef understands the recipe, and knows how to adjust it for circumstance; the cook slavishly follows every detail, and discovers that their oven burns the whole thing because these things are not simply transferable into every context.

    Otherwise, I should be quiet and go listen to Mark Driscoll pastor me wink

  7. HI All

    Thanks for the feedback. Some very quick responses:

    1. This is just one recipe (and only one so far—stay tuned!) for a 75 minute meeting. Or perhaps I should say the first 75 minutes of a gathering, the second part of which is informal over morning tea. With that sort of time to work with, things need to be pretty tight and punchy—hence only 8 minutes in this one for a 14:26, Dannii. The recipe could be varied of course (e.g. 25 minute sermon, no question time), allowing more time for 14:26. Or you could extend the meeting to 80 or 90 minutes.

    2. Ditto, Craig, with the songs, although there could be up to four songs in this one (if the response to the readings was a song, and if the 14:26 was a solo item from a congregation member).

    3. I quite like the recipe analogy, Anthony. Perhaps a beginner might ‘slavishly follow every detail’ but I doubt any cook (or even chef!) with a bit of experience would feel the need to do so. I think the helpfulness of the recipe is that it gives a proven and thought-through starting point. A really experienced and gifted chef probably doesn’t even need a starting point—he or she could just look at the ingredients and come up with something brilliant. But for a lot of people, just throwing the ingredients together results in something bland or weird-tasting. I rather suspect this is more common in church life than we would like to admit.

    Sorry I haven’t got time or space hear to answer every why. But to take one your raise—theologically speaking, I have reasons to want us to read OT and NT as a regular practice. Having two readings, one from each, as a matter of general pattern, is a good way to achieve this. But it’s a recipe not a law. And you needn’t do them together! (So in this template, why not separate the readings with a creed or psalm or song if you’d like to?)

    4. Further on the recipe theme, it is also needs to be variable according to local produce and the season. So yes, Anthony, this particular template reflects my own context. For example, where we are, people value their time and have reasonably high expectations about how things are run. It needs to be well done. There might be some contexts culturally where things like prompt starting and finishing times are less important. Also, in our context, the kids program runs for 90 minutes, providing a 15 minute child-free window for talk, catching up with newcomers and so on. So I’m big on keeping it to 75 minutes. 

    5. Gordo, an excellent idea. (And I still miss you not being across the hall.)


  8. Thanks Tony, I’m enjoying this series!

    A question about your times of singing: is there a reason for having them spread out in the service? I, like Craig, quite like the idea of having a block of singing at the start and then one more sometime between the sermon and the round-up. It means that singing isn’t just time to stretch your legs, go to the bathroom or have a “brain break”, but an integral part of the gathering.

    At my church, we’ve done three songs of celebration in the first block and two songs of thanks in the second block, modelling appropriate response to what God’s said to us in the Bible that night.

    We’ve had to adjust this a little because three songs at once was too much for some and people ended up arriving rather late, but it’s still my preferred option!

    Then again, maybe you’re planning to address this issue in a later post!

  9. Pushing back a little at you Tony – yes, the local context of the church is indeed a major factor, I agree. There are some pragmatic things that are absolutely unavoidable about this (there would, I suspect, not be a single parent on the planet who would want to have a kids spot as the last time in the service, for example!).

    However, I think I’d want to argue (continuing the recipe analogy) that the key ingredient in any given week is the passage upon which the sermon is based. I can think of examples of passages where the ‘one’ reading might run for several chapters (and so you’d break it up through the service, perhaps). Or where the sermon passage simply dictates the second reading (say, for example, a prophet referring in detail back to some part of the Law).

    So I’d argue for more freedom around the Bible readings. Yes, more than one, otherwise our choice of sermon series becomes almost determinative of how God speaks to us (or worse, what he’s allowed to speak to us about). Yes, we should read from the whole Bible, not just the NT, or the gospels, or the epistles. But to say one must be NT and one must be OT, week in, week out, seems too strong (and I know you aren’t saying this, but hey, it’s a public conversation, so I’m trying to cover everybody…). The flow of Biblical theology is never so binary as this, so why should our Bible reading practices be so proscribed?

    I guess I’m reacting to the idea that theology should drive us to make sure we check two boxes: OT and NT. I think I’d want to check two different boxes: a sermon reading, and a systematic reading – but that’s a personal preference. I’m wary of a local context that would make it impossible to ever read parts of Isaiah, for instance: if we couldn’t stand a 28-week series on the book, and couldn’t string together enough NT sermon series to fit in reading Isaiah as the second reading, then what would we do?

    Enough on that one from me, though. As a separate question, perhaps for a later post…this 14:26 thing. I confess I’ve always read that verse a little more negatively…kind of as a concession to the ah, vibrant Corinthian church. To what extent do you think the first part of the verse is merely descriptive and the last sentence more prescriptive? Or is it all somewhat prescriptive? I ask because this is an area I need to work on, and I’d be delighted to reuse your thinking for some of that work!

  10. Hi Anthony

    I have no problems at all with what you’re suggesting—in fact, I heartily agree that (where possible) the Bible passage that is the focus of the meeting should be the scarlet thread that holds it all together.

    Please remember, I’m putting forward a variety of templates as handy resources and guides, not as straitjackets. I am hardly wishing to stifle experimentation! So for example, when starting a new series in Ephesians, why not choose your best readers and read the whole letter, with some questions at the start to guide people’s listening? There doesn’t *have* to be an OT reading every week (or one from the NT for that matter). I’m talking normal patterns and habits, not inflexible rules. The important thing is that we “devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture”.

    As for 14:26, I don’t want to stamp on it too hard. It’s a handy summary verse for what 1 Cor 12-14 as a whole makes plain: that there is a spread of gifts and contributions throughout the body, and that each one should utilise his or her contribution for edification. You’re quite right—the Corinthians had quite the opposite problem than many churches today. Their problem seemed to be self-seeking chaotic over-contribution. Would it be fair to say that we err rather in the opposite direction?

    Hannah, one of my other templates has a block of singing at the front, so I’m not against the idea. But singing has an emotional effect that we can’t ignore (nor should we try to). Why concentrate that effect only at the beginning of the meeting? In this particular template, the singing is deployed at a few key points because of how it affects what we might call the ‘affectional trajectory’ of the meeting. After a serious confession of sin, and the declaration/reminder of the gospel’s forgiveness, how could we not sing?  And as we respond to God’s Word, both as it is read and then preached, what better way to stir our hearts and express our desire to obey than to sing? It’s not just punctuation or leg-stretch (although don’t despise those!). There is a logic and a flow to the template, not only theologically but ‘affectionally’ (if I can put it like that).

    Hope that helps.


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