What comes to your mind when you hear the word “church”? Most of us have enough theological wherewithal to point out that church is more than a building, but I’m not convinced that our view of church is as healthy as we think. This is now my third post on the church’s corporate identity crisis. (In previous posts, I mentioned that we approach evangelism as salesmen rather than as a compelling community, and that we approach church plants as franchises rather than allowing the gospel to grow in the native cultural soil.) In this post, I want to explore the ways in which our tendency to view the church as a corporation has affected our church services.
My observation is that when most people think of “church,” they either think of a building or a service. This is evidenced in statements such as, “Where do you go to church?” and “How was church today?” Of course, we have to communicate with one another, and it makes some sense to refer to both the building and the service as “church.” The meaning of a word is driven by usage, so I’m not suggesting that we become the church-definition police and rebuke people for misusing the word.
But our vocabulary tends to both reflect and affect our theology. In many ways, church has come to be centered on a weekly service. Whether this is simply reflected in the way we use “church” to refer to a service or whether this focus is the product of our usage of “church” is not the point (though it’s probably a bit of both). The point is, for most Christians, church is all about a weekend service.
And what is the typical weekend service all about? Entertainment. (Disclaimer: Of course this isn’t true across the board, but I think it’s a pretty significant trend.) How do you go about picking a church? For most Christians, the service has to be at least minimally entertaining. We’re all quick to say that it’s not about entertainment, but let’s be honest: if the preacher is too boring, if the music is bad, and if our kids don’t enjoy the nursery or Sunday School, we’re going to find a church that does “meet our needs.”
That’s a significant phrase. Somewhere along the line, we all collectively decided that church is about “meeting our needs.” Tell me that doesn’t sound consumeristic! It’s straight out of the corporate handbook. We go to church because of what it can give us. We use spiritual sounding words to describe this, of course—we talk about our desire to be “fed,” “challenged,” or “connected with”—but it’s nothing more than a consumeristic mentality couched in spiritualized language.
Am I saying that we should try to make church as boring as possible? Of course not! I get frustrated every time I hear a preacher bemoan the fact that people used to stand in the cold to listen to Martin Luther preach for five hours at a time, yet his lazy congregation can’t sit in comfortable chairs to listen to him preach for an hour. I have no bent toward homiletical asceticism. In fact, my point has very little to do with sermons at all.
Here’s the challenge: Our churches should be vital communities where every member does its part to build up the body. Preaching will be a part of this, but notice that it’s about every church member doing their part, not just the guy who’s gifted to preach (see 1 Cor. 12 for a powerful affront to this type of thinking). Church is not a service or a building, it’s the community of redeemed individuals who work together to glorify God by building one another up and reaching out to the world around them. Our churches have become focused on services where the staff is tasked with putting together an entertaining program for the rest of us. Our job is to sit there and be entertained/challenged/inspired, etc. This is unbalanced and unbiblical.
The New Testament is clear that every Christian is given unique Spirit-empowered gifts so that each person can contribute to the spiritual well-being of the people around them. If this isn’t happening, then we aren’t really doing church—not in the New Testament sense.
So should we get rid of services? I don’t think so. Preaching and worship music are important, and services may serve an important function in the life of your church (read: vital mutually edifying and outreaching community of the redeemed). But the extent of your church life shouldn’t be limited to a service. Church life is far too important, extensive, and dynamic to be confined to a weekly service. We have to get past entertainment and get busy building each other up and changing the world around us. I don’t have a model to promote, just a challenge. Find ways to encourage, challenge, and teach the people around you and get busy building relationships with your friends, neighbors, and co-workers to they can see what a life transformed by the power of the gospel is all about.
The gospel is not about entertainment, it’s about transformation.