Worshipping Worship

A few months ago I was asked, “If you started a church, what would it look like?”

I asked, “What do you mean?”

He stated, “What would the church service be like?”

I answered, “I am not sure we would have a church service.”

Statements like this can seem heretical, but I think necessary if we are going to continue to re-frame church, allowing it to progress towards greater effectiveness and deeper reflection of its biblical mandate.

As I do think there are benefits in the gathering of a local body of believers to corporately worship God in “spirit and truth,” must it be a weekly experience? Even biweekly? Who dedicates such formulas? (I am not sure Acts 20:7 is a prescription).

Maybe the worship service has generated the imbalanced spotlight among our churches because it isn’t so much about God’s time, but the pastor’s time? Just think of all the time, energy, building, and resources that are poured into a 1-hour experience. Is it for the singing? For the corporate prayers? Or more for the expectation placed upon the pastor to deliver a 25-minute monologue?

In wrestling through these questions, I was struck by Michael Frost‘s comments on this subject in the latest issue of Neue:

When Europe was “Christian” and the missional imperative was unnecessary (since all Europeans were baptized as Christians), worship became the church’s organizing function. It understood the task of discipling believers in the worship meeting. The sermon became the central teaching tool of the church and was placed in the center of the worship life of the church. I understand all the good reason why this occurred, but in effect it meant that the worship function of the church began to organize the discipleship function.

Likewise, when does the mainstream church build community and express its oneness in Christ? By worshipping together of course. The worship meeting became the primary tool for bringing a congregation together each week. And finally, how does the church understand local mission? In entirely attractional terms. That is, by encouraging members to invite unbelievers to their worship services.

…worship has become the organizing principle of the church. All its other functions operate at its service…most people would conclude that we pay our pastoral staff to spend a good chunk of their week preparing for the worship meeting. Our buildings are shaped around our worship needs, as are our budgets.

I am not questioning whether worship should be one of the core functions of the church. It must be. But I question whether we’ve ended up with worship as the organizing function because of historical cultural pressures, not theological reflection. (Neue, Issue 2, 64-65)


~ by Dave Smith on March 11, 2009.

9 Responses to “Worshipping Worship”

  1. I think we cannot too glibly discard 2000 years of church history, including what was understood from the early church as “The Lord’s Day” and the “First Sabbaths,” which seem to give a strong indication of regularity and a weightiness of assumption from the writers and readers that “this-is-the-day-we-always-meet.” [ see also I Cor 16:2, Col 2:16-17, Rev 1:10 ]

    It is not restrictive, and I agree, it is not necessarily prescriptive, but an early church pattern does seem to be established for a reason. It’s the same reason the Jews celebrated passover at a certain time of year: to commemorate their freedom from Egypt. In the same way the meeting on Sundays was weekly a reminder of the celebration of life emerging from death in Christ from the grave.

    The time and the day seem to be confused here with the liturgy, two items that don’t need to intersect, though in the Catholic tradition, there was liturgy for every day of the week, every week of the year.

  2. (I am not sure Acts 20:7 is a prescription).

    I agree completely, Dave, and I might even take it a step further. I’m not sure that large portions of Acts (and other biblical narratives) are necessarily, inherently prescriptive. In fact, I would argue that many of these passages are inherently descriptive, which puts us in an altogether different posture of interpretation. (I’ve used this argument particularly with hardcore Pentecostals who argue that the tongues that coincide with HS baptism in Acts are prescriptive for all Christians for all time).

    That said, however, I don’t think the “called out ones” (ekklesia) should ever neglect regular worship gatherings (proof text Heb. 10:25).

    There is a trend in contemporary evangelicalism that is a double-edged sword, I think. I hear about the “church without walls” movement as an example. These churches have decided that the church’s mission to be with and for the world is the building block upon which the church becomes either true or false. In other words, the church can’t be the church without its mission.

    Obviously, this is a reactionary movement, at least to some extent, to the trends you’ve noted in your post. Have we elevated the worship gathering to the place of idol-status? Probably. At least in a lot of places.

    And just like Martin Luther famously observed (or at least history says he did), the church tends to be like a drunken peasant, falling from one side of the horse to the other.

    What I’m not saying: that the WoW movement or those in the same vein are wrong.

    What I am saying: I think worship (corporate expressions of gratitude, teaching, and prayer) and mission (doing Jesus’ work in the world) are really two sides of the same coin.

    The corporate gathering is only derivatively for the individual Christian; in other words, the benefits she receives are byproducts on the gathering’s primary purpose: to worship God and spur the church to mission.

    So, if I were starting a church, I would begin with a teaching series that (re)defines the purpose of “church” as we think of it. The corporate gathering is not primarily about “me” or “what I get out of it.” On the contrary, the corporate gather is: 1) a time to express our heartfelt gratitude to God; 2) a time to be taught, equipped, and spurred to good works for the sake of our neighbors.

    Moreover, I would hold weekly gatherings for the reason Brian already gave:

    I think we cannot too glibly discard 2000 years of church history, including what was understood from the early church as “The Lord’s Day” and the “First Sabbaths,” which seem to give a strong indication of regularity and a weightiness of assumption from the writers and readers that “this-is-the-day-we-always-meet.” [ see also I Cor 16:2, Col 2:16-17, Rev 1:10 ]

    I tend to place more value in church history and church tradition than a lot of my Evangelical colleagues, and because I do, I come to this same conclusion.

  3. funny dave, i was having this exact conversation with some folks earlier this week. i think one of the biggest reasons, quite honestly, why modern day churches meet every sunday without missing is finances. or more specifically, why they meet in the format they choose to. what if we “cancelled” a sunday and called our people to the serving kind of service? some churches have, but a big reason why others have avoided it is because they don’t think they can afford it.
    but there’s other reasons, too. what if we “cancelled” a sunday and spent it in fellowship? sharing a meal together, etc. i can hear the response now from many churches would be that we’d be lessening teaching/Word/worship…if we want to have a “fellowship” gathering, those always have to be additional meals/gathering times instead of being in place of. but it strikes me that the early church gathered primarily for fellowship times, where discussion, teaching, etc, worked its way in naturally.

  4. this is interesting:

    Big is an understatement. You clearly invest a lot of energy and creativity in your worship services. Why?

    Young: The worship event is the port of entry into the church. We have many, many, many, many other things that connect people to the church, like small groups and hospital visitation. Relationships are really important, but worship is the biggest entry point. So we are very intentional about our sermons and creating an experience.

    from: http://www.ctlibrary.com/le/2008/fall/11.34.html

  5. Really great thoughts and pushbacks from everyone.

    I think the question forces us to get at these core theological rationales as to why we do what we do, which is great.

    I sometimes wonder if once-a-month would be a better model assuming that your church has virbrant and holistic community groups meeting regularly.

    Obviously the big issue there is offering, as Joel pointed out, and usually the first thing stated when a “blue sky” idea is pitched to “cancel” a worship service. This however is limited thinking that is tied down my a system that can easily be transformed by various online and electronic giving options.

    Brian, Ben and Joel…really strong thoughts here. Thanks so much.

  6. I also can’t help but wonder:

    Do we really need another church?

    The question is somewhat hyperbolic, I suppose, because for those of evangelical persuasion, the answer is obviously “yes,” for at least as long as there are those who have not heard the message of Jesus and experienced his love through the church community.

    However, I think it’s probably the first question that should be asked.

    If a community already has a vibrant church or churches, the last thing the community needs is competition among churches.

    In other words, some towns don’t need WalMart, because WalMart eventually kills all the Mom and Pop shops.

    In short, before I would support starting another church, I would be absolutely sure that another church is what would be best for that community. If not, I would rather join an existing community and be conscientious about contributing there rather than starting something new.

  7. Ben…
    couldn’t agree more. i hear of too many people that start churches because it seems like the cool or “easy” thing to do as compared to working within the body of Christ that is already existing in a given community. that’s not to say it’s never appropriate (i have a very good friend who’s starting one now that i’m fully on board with), but we need more “entrepreneurial” church leadership within our existing churches to keep them from becoming stale and irrelevant.

  8. As it may time some time to go through all four parts, would love your response to Tim Keller’s point on the need to plant churches:

  9. No pictures, just sound!!!!! 😛

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