Book Review: One Assembly

I’m glad this book exists. Many of my family and friends are supportive of the multisite model of church, and in the time of coronavirus, the vast majority of churches have had to adapt the practical outworking of their ecclesiology in some way. Arguably, by watching the service from my sofa rather than gathering corporately, I’m taking part in a multi-site service whether I like it or not!

Jonathan Leeman, the author of One Assembly, is a Baptist elder and theologian – this shapes a lot of what he has to say, but regardless of your own denominational or ecclesial convictions, this book should be read by any church leader interested in being faithful to the Bible’s teaching on church, and especially those pondering multisite as a way of doing church. The careful reader will note that Leeman criticises both multisite and multiservice models of church – with the obvious focus in the title. I was less impressed by his argument about that – not least in the context of other gatherings doing things that a ‘service’ can’t, for example a discipleship-focused evening service, or an outreach gathering taking place in the place where the main service meets. But his point is a good challenge – and gave me much to think about. At the outset, Leeman writes “there is no such thing as a multisite or multiservice church based on how the Bible defines a church. They don’t exist. Adding a second site or service, by the standards of Scripture, gives you two churches, not one. Two assemblies, separated by geography or numbers on a clock, give you two churches“. Whether you agree or not, I think it’s fair to say he’s fairly clear on what he thinks!

This book was written and published long before the COVID-10 Pandemic, which has forced a lot of church activity online. But Leeman provides a helpful riposte to  “If you accept the premise of multisite, in which gathering and church are unlinked, it’s hard to dispute the logic of the Internet church… why not have as many sites as there are members?“. This goes, for me, to the heart of what I’ve found so hard about online church ‘gatherings’ this year. We simply aren’t together in the same way. That isn’t to say that I’m not grateful for zoom, and the efforts of our church leaders to continue to teach and encourage us – but it also doesn’t mean that I’m going to pretend that something is good and ideal when it isn’t. And that, which for me is a summation of my feelings about online ‘church’, is a helpful way to think about other things, things that some people (including people I respect deeply!) say are good and I think are less good. I appreciated Leeman’s invitation at the start of his book: “Therefore, I’m asknig you to do two things as you read this book. First, consider the biblical arguments. But, second, stop and examine your own intuitions or assumptions about what a church is. Could they be less biblical and more contemporary than you realise?

You might be thinking – whether your ecclesiology (do you have one?) has been challenged by 2020, or if you think this is all a bit pointless and academic – that this doesn’t matter. But I think it does. Leeman defines church thusly: “the church gathering is where Christ’s kingdom becomes visible and active and Jesus’ word ekklesia communicates just this“. This is political, in the way that it creates a new community in a way that challenges every structure of the world and cultures we find ourselves ins. Leeman goes on: “Jesus doesn’t say ‘I’m there with the unified budget, brand, and board of multiple campuses.’ The church creating authority described in Matthew 18 does not rest in the leaders… It rests in us, the actual assembly“. This is why multi-site (or multi-service) church is a challenge: “Yet, divide the assembly in space or time, and gospel authority must move, once again, to the leaders who bind those assemblies together“. Again, whether we agree with Leeman or not, it is clear what he is saying, and I think we have to reckon with it.

As well as providing a genuine challenge to the way so many do church today, there are also some implications for how the training of church leaders is done, and also for the ongoing interaction of churches. Firstly, implications for training :”To the seminary ethics professors out there, you should teach church structure and polity in your ethics classes, because that’s what church polity is – one subcategory of ethics“. Amen. Another important implication is the involvement of the sacramental in leadership training – I agree wholeheartedly with Leeman when he writes; “The Supper, we might say, makes the invisible church visible“. That’s partly why I don’t think the Lord’s Supper can be celebrated online. Secondly, he has some useful things to say regarding the interaction between churches that we might call ‘catholicity’. Leeman has some good stuff to say, in contrast to the reputation that some baptists and other evangelicals have for working together: “Catholicity is grounded intrust – trust in God, and trust in other churches“. Interestingly, Leeman thinks that “Another crucial piece of developing catholic-mindedness is promoting pastoral and leadership development inside one’s church“.

There is a lot in this book. And to be honest, it’s prompted me to set aside a few reading slots in my 2021 reading plan for thinking more deeply about the church and what it is. But for this book, One Assembly, I’d say this: this is a helpful and theologically deep book that should be read by anyone leading or part of a multi-site or multi-service church. It’s a challenging book, but only insofar as it opens up the Bible and confronts us with the comparison of our own idolatry to the pictures of church that we see in the New Testament. If I ever am involved in a church plant or church leadership, this book will be on my shelf. I don’t agree 100% with everything in it, but it’s got me thinking, got me praying, and got me reading my Bible. And those are good things!

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