Many in our churches are hungry for God. This should not surprise us. We live in a lonely world where many are hungry for relationships with man and God. It is not helped that many churches reduce the faith to either head knowledge of Scripture and/or activism, and serve up God in bento boxes of pre-packaged spirituality programmes (e.g., the way many of us do the Lord’s Supper these days).
How do we help our people encounter God? For some churches, it is through longer and more intensely led corporate worship. This is usually platform led. The bigger the church the more professional the worship team. Often, there is the added help of sophisticated lighting. Once in a while, there are special effects, like smoke from dry ice. And of course the speakers must be of a certain calibre.
Such gatherings evoke a lot of emotion, much like attending a Taylor Swift concert. (Never been to one but was there for Eagles and U2 in Singapore.) Such meetings have a special buzz. It is really a special experience to be in a crowd of Christians worshipping God. But is this the best way to encounter God? In the first 300 years of church history, churches were made up of 30 to 40 people meeting in a house. This couldn’t be further from professionally led worship services of large crowds meeting in halls. Yet the absence of such large gatherings didn’t stop the church experiencing the presence of God and growing rapidly. Professionally led worship services, then, cannot be the only or even the best way to encounter God.
God is a person and, therefore, a key way we encounter a personal God is relationally. Up-front, big-group worship services are, in essence, impersonal experiences. The volume of the sung worship and how the service is structured make conversation impossible, but conversation is the basis of personal encounters which open the door for us to encounter a personal God.
We recall that in Luke 24:13–35, it was while the two disciples were walking together, conversing heart to heart, that Jesus walked with them. Jesus pointed them to the Word and they encountered Him there. They ultimately encountered Him in another personal experience — when they shared a meal together. What if the main way we encounter God is not through some loud worship session but in heart-to-heart conversations with each other? Jesus said that those who have seen me have seen the Father (John 14:8–9). Jesus was truly human. That means this is something we humans can also do. We encounter God in face-to-face meetings, not in large-group meetings where we are all “face to back”.
And we mustn’t forget that when God wanted to reveal Himself to us, He came personally and spent the most important moments of His earthly ministry up close and personal with a small group. We need to take seriously what Jesus did and not just what He taught. Jesus didn’t invest His best energies training worship musicians and hiring halls for worship experiences. He walked among us and interacted with individuals and small groups.
Jesus did teach the crowds as well and we will be introducing a new legalism if we were to ban big-group, led worship services. But people are hungry for God, and we need to take that seriously. If we do, we will need to help our people encounter Christ in the way the two friends encountered Christ on the Emmaus road — relationally.