I once heard a man explain why he and his wife had started a new coffee house. They were Christians, and the man explained that they had been attending what he called “traditional church”. Then he said that he made an amazing discovery: “traditional church” is not in the Bible! (He didn’t say so explicitly, but it sounded like they stopped going to “traditional church”.) So, he said, they started the coffee house as a place for their community to meet. The coffee house seems to be a grand success; and, he said, they had met more of their neighbors in the few months the coffee house had been open than they had in the entire time they went to “traditional church” before. Well, glory, hallelujah! (Oops…maybe they don’t say that in coffee houses. My bad.)
I hardly know where to start.
I have little patience for those who want to completely dismiss “traditional church” (and it really helps to find out exactly what they mean by that). In my opinion, they are throwing the baby out with the bath water. No pastor needs to be told that there are sinners in the church or that the church has flaws and shortcomings. All he has to do to know that is look in a mirror.
But I’ll make you a bet: if you meet with a very small group of Christians in someone’s home to worship Jesus, I’ll bet you have flawed people there, too. (They say that Roger Williams, one of the first Baptists in colonial America, got to the place where he wouldn’t worship or take communion with anybody but his wife. And I bet he had his suspicions about her, too.)
As far as “traditional church” not being found in the Bible…well, there’s lots of stuff that isn’t explicitly found in the Bible. Like air conditioning. Or driving cars. Or wearing pants.
Or coffee houses.
Don’t get me wrong: I love coffee houses, and I love coffee. I have a coffee cup that says: “On the first day, God made coffee…after that, everything else was easy!” So I think it’s a great thing that this couple started a coffee house.
But a coffee house is not a substitute for a called-out assembly of believers in Jesus, gathered to teach and learn from the Bible, to proclaim and explain the Gospel, and to observe the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The owner of the coffee house also said that he believed real discipleship doesn’t happen in a “speaker-audience” setting, but rather one-on-one, in places like…well, their coffee house!
I’ve been doing this for awhile, and heard this kind of stuff before. I am familiar with the authors and books that advocate against “traditional church”. I probably have (or used to have) those authors’ books, and I am acquainted with their arguments. And there is a reason why serious scholars and church historians (or simply people who read their Bibles and pay attention) don’t give much heed to this kind of thing.
The idea that we shouldn’t have someone specifically designated to teach God’s Word to God’s people in a group setting would have come as a surprise to the Levites, who were specifically commanded to “teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.” (Lev.10:11; also Deut. 33:10)
It would have come as a surprise to the prophet Azariah, who told King Asa that part of Judah’s problem was that they had been a long time “without the true God, and without a teaching priest and without law.” (2 Chron. 15:3)
It would have come as a surprise to King Jehosaphat, who sought to lead Judah back to God by sending out “His officials…to teach in the cities of Judah, and with them the Levites…” (2 Chron. 17:9)
It would have surprised King Josiah who “appointed the priests to their offices and encouraged them…”, and he spoke “to the Levites who taught all Israel…” (2 Chron. 35:3)
Apparently Ezra the scribe totally wasted his life, because he was “a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” (that meant he had memorized all or most of it), and “Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach His statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:6, 10)
As a vital part of the effort to reestablish the Jews in the homeland they had lost by turning away from God, the Jewish people “gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. …And the ears of the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for that purpose. …And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people… .” And together with the Levites [you remember them: the guys with the scrolls], they “helped the people to understand the Law while the people remained in their places. They read fom the book, from the Law of God clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:1-4; 5; 7,8) They gathered—as an audience, apparently, though I supect they would have called themselves an assembly or a congregation—for the express purpose of listening to Ezra—as a speaker, apparently, though I suspect he would have called himself a scribe or a teaching priest—because they wanted to know and understand what God said in His Word (not to be entertained). But apparently none of this stuff really works, and Ezra should have sat down with them one-by-one over a cup of whatever and chatted them up.
Apparently Solomon was wasting his time styling himself as “the Preacher” and teaching the people knowledge(Ecclesiastes 1:1,2; 11:9).
Apparently the prophet Malachi was wrong when he said that “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instructon from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 2:6,7)
And Jesus apparently wasted His time with that “Sermon On the Mount” (Matthew 5-7), and in travelling around to preach in the 300+ synagogues of Galilee (Mark 1:38,39).
And the apostles followed Jesus’ apparently ineffective example: they spent the rest of their lives teaching and preaching to gathered crowds (see Acts 2,4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, and, well, the rest of the Book of Acts).
Here’s a thought: maybe it isn’t a waste of time for a group of people to gather, in order to listen to an officially designated teacher explain what God said in His Word. Maybe real discipleship does happen in a context like that. Maybe we should do this because God told us to do it, and showed us examples of it being done, in nearly every age that the Bible covers.
Of course we should meet one-on-one to talk with people about spiritual things, whether it’s to tell the the Good News of Jesus, or to encourage another Christian and try to help them to grow spiritually (or let them help us). And a coffee house is a great place for that to happen. Just before I sat down to finish this article, I made an appointment to meet someone to talk about spiritual things…in a coffee house!
So go get a cup of coffee with someone, and encourage them to think about Jesus. Or encourage a Christian brother or sister, and do some Bible study with them.
And then, on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), go gather with a group of others (Hebrews 10:24,25), to hear God’s Word taught and explained by a teacher or preacher that God has specifically set apart to do that work (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 4:6,16; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; Titus 2:1,15; 1 Peter 5:1-4).
Then go have some more coffee!
Soli Deo Gloria!