Debating Sunday Morning

I’ve had two conversations in the last two days about the validity (or lack thereof) of church services. This is an issue I’ve wrestled with for a while. While we were in Illinois we didn’t have one or go to any–at least not in the traditional sense. The arguments against the validity of church services are many:

  • The early church didn’t have anything resembling the current production that is a church service–they met in homes for meals, teaching, prayer, etc.
  • Pastors are spending the majority of their week preparing for a couple hours on Sunday. How effective can this possibly be at making disciples?
  • Church services make the majority of people spectators and produce consumers rather than disciples.
  • Church services are more of a show than a time of worship.

These are some of the main ones, though there are many variations that come out of these. I’ve espoused all of these objections at some point in my life. So are church services wrong–or at least unhelpful? A few thoughts to contribute to the discussion…

So what if church services aren’t biblical?

I used to care if the form of our gatherings matched the early church or not, but I’m less concerned with it now. I’m more concerned that the things we’re doing are contributing to making disciples of Jesus. For many, church attendance is obligatory and doesn’t produce movement in discipleship, but the same could be said for many small groups, Bible studies, mission trips, and so on. The form of modern church services may not be especially biblical, but that doesn’t mean the things happening there aren’t. The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” They also “met together in the temple courts” and “praised God.”

So the early church engaged in teaching, prayer, worship, and fellowship. I’ve been to many church services where all those things are happening. I’ve been to some where few or none of them were. I prefer to focus on whether biblically important things are happening in church services rather than on whether Jesus sanctioned the use of a video projector.

Church services need to be put in their place.

The fact that it is not a stretch for us to measure a person’s commitment to Christ by whether or not they attend a church service betrays the fact that we put way to much importance on this singular activity of the church. We try to reach the “unchurched.” We bemoan the statistics about the ever-decreasing percentage of people who are at a church service on any given Sunday morning. This is sort of like saying the NFL is failing because attendance at Jacksonville Jaguars games is dwindling. That may be a sign of trouble, but it’s too narrow of a view to make a determination.

A healthy church body will be about far more than how many bodies they can corral into an enclosed space once a week. I believe church services can be an incredibly beneficial piece of a healthy church, but we give them a disproportionate amount of attention. Sometimes pastors do spend too much time on getting ready for Sunday morning. But many pastors believe what happens Sunday morning is important, and spending sufficient time on preparation to teach the Scriptures and worship together isn’t bad–it shows seriousness. The problem comes when this becomes the focus of the local church.

Church services should be one piece of the overall functioning of a healthy church. We need to keep them in their place–which is neither to focus on them alone nor to dismiss them altogether.

Teach people what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

As a corollary to the last one–and especially for pastors–don’t let people believe attending church equals being a disciple of Jesus! Harp on it continually. Tell them, and model for them, that being a disciple is a holistic, life-transforming, every minute pursuit of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Shame on us if someone can sit in our church services and believe they are fulfilling the call of Jesus to discipleship just by being there.

Differentiate between reform and cynicism.

There will always be a need for churches, leaders, and all Christians to be thoughtful about the form and function of the church. We will always need to make adjustments. Sometimes we need to make really big adjustments. But some of the criticism of the current functioning of churches is just cynicism or even envy. If you can’t do something positive just bash the people who are. There are a lot of churches doing a phenomenal job of making disciples of Jesus who have a weekly service as an important part of their life together. Hallelujah! There are also faith communities making disciples of Jesus who don’t have a regular Sunday worship service. Hallelujah! While I admit my cynical streak (just see my last post!), I also much rather be a part of trying to do something good than stand at a distance and throw stones. Thoughtful reform from within is helpful, unmitigated cynicism from outside doesn’t benefit anyone.

So when church services are viewed as a beneficial part of a healthy church that uses that time to contribute the the process of making disciples I think they are great things to do. Your thoughts?

About Big Tasty

Be better today than yesterday.

Posted on September 6, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thanks for a thought provoking post. It is important to be sure that we don’t make it appear that the weekend service is the end of the Christian journey. However, I think it is important because it is a good beginning point for a lot of people. There is a level of anonymity that makes it easier for non-believers to join us.

    The other thing I would caution you and your readers is not assume that just because it’s not in the Bible means that we shouldn’t do it. Something that is not mentioned in the Bible, non-Biblical, is different some something that goes against what the Bible says, un-Biblical.

    Jesus was not shy to speak out against what was wrong. He was also not shy about instructing us in what we should. To say that simply because something is non-Biblical means it is bad would be to say that God left something out. I believe that there are things “left out” for a number of reasons, but none of them accidental. Some were left out because it was such a part of life/society that it went without mentioning. Others, I believe, were left out to give us the freedom to minister in an ever changing world.

    Thanks, again, for a thought provoking post.

    Matt N.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts Matt. I like the distinction of non-biblical vs. un-biblical. That’s the direction I was trying to head in saying we don’t need to be limited to biblical forms in what we do. Peace to you!

  3. The Chruch is the basis of the Christian community in mainstream America. It is a visible focal point. It is a visual magnet for those seeking Jesus in a culture where the traditional “religious” values have become outdated through law and “progressive” thinking. The Chruch — as a building — is still a gathering place; a haven, a point of worship, a beacon for those who may be searching. Often, it is the “glue” that holds a body of believers together, simply because it is a gathering place. Tradition provides comfort — and The Church is, indeed, still often the only comfort for the desperate who have no where else to go.

    The Church is a symbol of humanity and caring. Anyone who is lost or in need seems to find their way to a church because it is a known place of caring. Churches provide for needs (some are able to do so more than others, but just think of the value of the small foodbank at Mountair to the population it serves). Churches open their doors to community affairs, social groups, community groups. It is often an open meeting place for many types of activity. Often, one need only say: “I’ll meet you at the church,” and the destination is known without extensive directions.

    Discipleship has always been the goal of the church. It is for Christians, and those seeking the way of Christ. It is a place of learning, teaching, exploring, and seeking. The liveliness of these activities depends on the livliness of the people within the body of the organization. Within the structure of the church, one will find attitudes ranging from apathy to zeal — the same as within any structural organization format. However, the modern church seems to have drifted away from the goal of discipleship to the goal of evangelism.One you catch ’em; you got ’em. Then what? Many churches just stop with the catching. No wonder so many are drifting away from the churches and “religion” to seek some type of “faith” elsewhere.

    The services of the church must be aligned with its activities. What it does is what it is. Is it a place of loving care? Of life-giving teaching? A source and a resource? A place of ease from hurting? A place of direction? All of these things are part of both evangelism and discipleship. Those within the church need the fellowship of others to feed themselves for their own growth, and then, when well-fed, that feeding and growth is shared with others. From the eldest of the elders to the youngest of believers, the church must encircle its own and enrich its own so that it may continue to be a servant of the world.

  4. Thanks for this post. I’m a worship guy, so I naturally think about things like discipleship and mission through the lens of worship. I’m probably too myopic and one-sided, so I really value dialogue here.

    So my question is, what if the worship service’s “place” is preeminent in God’s plan for the church and for the world? What if the rhythm of a time of gathered worship is one of God’s most important means of disciple-making and one of God’s most important means of mission-fueling? I find corporate worship all over the Bible. It appears to be the whole purpose of the Exodus, because of the repeated refrain that God wants to bring the people out “so that they may gather and [corporately] worship me.” One of the Bible’s biggest books is a hymn-book for use by the people of God for public, corporate worship. Jesus was a committed corporate worshiper. This is especially teased out in the Gospel of John, where the first half is dedicated to revealing how Jesus kept (and ultimately fulfilled) the ritualistic Jewish worship calendar / liturgical year. Corporate worship, with all its rituals, is the central activity of heaven depicted in Revelation 4-5.

    I know you mentioned that, for you, the early church’s worship carries less import than it does for others, but for what it’s worth, most historians appear to agree that, even in the more organic, house-church context of first and second century “church meetings,” there’s evidence that they engaged in a set of rituals and some kind of formalized liturgy (cf. the Didache). Given that the early church viewed themselves as inheritors of and the fulfillment of Jewish worship, it makes sense that there would naturally be some continuity between first century Jewish synagogue worship and what Christians began to practice ritually with gathered worship.

    But, for me, the most fundamental set of questions to ask is: (a) What does God accomplish in worship? (b) Are there unique aspects of disciple-making that God reserves only or preeminently for the context of when the people of God gather for worship? My sense is that how one answers these types of questions very much dictates how important gathered, corporate worship is for the people of God.

    On the flip side, if we’re not finding that corporate worship is making disciples very well, I think, like you, it’s very appropriate to ask the question of whether what we do in corporate worship is what we should be doing. But it’s a completely different question to ask whether corporate worship is important. For me, that deal is settled. I know it’s not settled for a lot of evangelicals these days…especially the more mission-minded ones who are comfortable “worshiping” by replacing the corporate service on Sunday with a community service project of some kind.

    I’ve wrestled with a few of these concepts in posts here:

    Why We Gather For Worship:

    Worship is the Most Human Thing We Do:

    Why the Gospel Shines Brightest in Worship:

    Not Just a Worship Warm-Up: Singing is Where Teaching, Formation, and Growth Happens:

    Flippant Worship Attendance: Stats and Consequences:

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