The when of the church has three aspects: linear (history), punctiliar (now-ness), and teleological (eternal when). The linear aspect runs from the beginning at Pentecost to the consummation of the Kingdom, the punctiliar aspect is the present moment, and the teleological aspect is the continual movement toward eternal presence and Christlikeness. All three influence any one expression of church. The following discussion is an initial attempt to unpack the significance of these three aspects.
The church began at a particular time and in a particular place. From its birth at Pentecost, the church has been particular, reflecting the values and practices of its time. This is not to suggest any sort of syncretism; rather, it is to say that the church at Jerusalem reflected the deep Jewish culture of Jerusalem, while the church at Ephesus reflected the mixed Diaspora-Greek-Roman culture of Ephesus. The cultural reflections by various local churches are very real and sometimes raise questions that must be brought to God’s truth for solution (as seen in the council in Acts 15). Though important, the cultural reflections are far from primary: connection to Christ and one another, proclaiming Christ, and living his ways are primary.
The church began at an opportune time. Thousands upon thousands were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Jews had come from all over the world and it was in the midst of this annual gathering that the Spirit came to dwell in Christ-followers. The Church was born. The church’s first corporate act was to grab this opportune time and proclaim Christ.
Now-ness and History
The church gathers at particular times in history and the accumulated effects of that history have bearing on our life together. For example, our traditional Sunday meeting times have very little (if anything) to do with the mandates of Scripture. This leaves the specific timing of Sunday gatherings in our hands. The tradition of gathering some time on the first day of the week (Sunday), however, may be a different matter, for its history goes back to the New Testament (1 Cor 16:1-2). Whatever the gathering, whether on the first day of the week or the daily gatherings from house to house (Acts 2:44-47; 20:20), choosing specific times should keep in mind present culture and accumulated history.
The now-ness of a local church’s neighborhood–its present culture–influences meeting times. Each neighborhood has an ebb and flow that ought to inform both scheduled and impromptu gatherings. Whether the gatherings are attractional or missional, they ought to fit the local culture.
Each particular church has a history, whether long, short, or in between; this accumulated history shapes the ethos and pathos of the church. Ethos is the criteria by which the community decides what it ought to do. Pathos is the passion and values of the community. Both of these can form meeting times into value-laden beliefs rather than mere accidental properties. Changing meeting times must be done with care, for persons are more important than schedules.
The life schedules of persons in the congregation should be important influences in the timing of scheduled and impromptu gatherings. This is not to say we ought to cater to every whim, but rather we ought to respond to needs. For example, if a goodly proportion of the Body works the night shift on Saturdays, the timing of a Sunday gathering must consider whether these members need to sleep before or after the gathering. Another important consideration is the fullness of the schedule. If we are intending to be church in ordinary life, then we must leave ample room for ordinary life in the corporate schedule.
Now-ness and the Eternal When
Now-ness and history are important; they do and should shape our life together, but they are not the most important temporal influence. The eternal when, living on the time-line that reaches into pure presence and Kingdom consummation, bears that status. We gather during the already and not yet (which is one aspect of now-ness); during this time, we set our hope on God’s new thing, but do not yet see its fullness. The eternal when shapes our perspective: we live, work, and play now, but we expectantly yearn for that day. All of life carries the feel of leaning forward, even as we lean outward to the world and inward to our siblings. Our time together is driven by and toward a communal teleology in Christ.
Now-ness, history, and the eternal when all influence our view of opportunity. Understanding now-ness develops a sense of urgency, for opportune moments slip away. Understanding accumulated history gives a sense of context and offers wisdom from ages past, for we realize we are not the first and likely not the last to deal with such things. Understanding the eternal when gives a deep sense of purpose and assurance, for we know God loves us deeply and we we know his plans are sure.