When the church grows in rows, rather than in tangles, something terrible happens: it comes to exist only for itself. Its people become a people of the church, not a people of God, and its congregation is nothing near a real community.
There's a simple way to tell whether this is what's happening in your church or not. All you have to do is send out a couple of feeler notices. Invite the people of the church to a church-based, church-sponsored, church-wide event - a nice pitch-in, a festival, a cookout, even a special prayer service or holiday event. (I recently saw one church advertising a church-wide "kite fly," and this sounds like incredible fun to me.) Invite them also to pray for Jill before her upcoming surgery, to show up to help Mark move, or to the blessing of Bill and Betty's new house.
A church that grows in rows will have a large portion of its membership show up for the former, but very few for the latter. They'll come to the pitch-in, the festival, the cookout, the prayer service, the holiday event, but they will neglect the very real need of their brother or sister. This is because they are committed to the church, but not to one another.
They are not growing in tangles.
That doesn't mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that church-sponsored, church-wide events are bad; they are necessary. (But in the absence of the other, neither of these practices is pleasing to God.) Israel often gathered together as a people of God, and the same example continues on through the New Testament and the early church. The difference is that in a church whose members are interwoven, a church that grows in tangles, the people show up to both. They come to the kite fly and to help Mark move. They show up at the pitch-in and at the blessing of Bill and Betty's new house. They come to the Christmas Eve service and the chemo ward. And they recognize that both of these things are pleasing to God and essential for His people.
When a church grows in rows long enough, when the people are neglected long enough, it doesn't take much for the church to stop doing altogether the kind of real people work it was intended to do. "Pastoral care" falls by the wayside, and when it's requested at all, it's met with a kind of boredom...even from the pastoral staff, who have come to believe that their ministry is nothing more than program planning. They'd rather be working on the next big event because that's where the payoff is. That's where the people come.
And all of a sudden, the people exist for the church - coming only to "church" things, but not anymore to "God" things - and the church exists for the church - designing events for its people to attend, but not anymore digging into the deep places of real life.
Neither exists for the grace or glory of God or for the strength and community of His people.
It's nice and neat and fairly easy to pull off, and when something goes wrong, it's just as easy to start over, to pull up one plant and move on to the next without fear of uprooting anything else, without fear of disturbing anything else. But it's not holy and it's not God's idea.
It's not God's idea that we should do things together; He always intended for us to do life together. And when we exist only for the church and the church exists only for itself, that's not happening. It's a heartbreaking reality that's creeping into congregations all over the country, congregations that are no longer churches, but country clubs, where the offering is no longer a gift unto the Lord but a dues to be paid and tables are not shared, but catered and countless individuals feel their namelessness, their emptiness, their loneliness even in the midst of the large numbers because nothing real is happening any more in a "church" like this.
And so maybe they leave - they leave that church or they leave the church altogether, but it only confirms what they've felt all along: that they never really were in a community at all. Because the Millers? They're gone.
But have you met the Smiths?