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?