This post is based upon a fair amount of reading I have been doing recently on (and related to) ecclesiology, theology of the Christian Church. Where there’s a church, there’s a problem…
There’s Always A Problem
People are sin-filled, pride-consumed narcissists by nature, and only the gospel can fix this. Those who peddle crisis in our day have many cures for all these never-before-seen problems of our day. The problem is, especially if “crisis” is your brand, there isn’t anything unique about present day problems, especially among the saints (and those who hang out with the saints but really aren’t).
The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that we’re not alone, this isn’t a new phenomenon, and the world isn’t totally worse than it used to be (it’s always been a wreck), whether present day, a hundred years ago, or when St. Paul was nailing tent stakes.
But this isn’t a general rant. This one’s for the church.
I’m a shepherd whom intends on scooping up some poop and growing some veggies.
The Problem, The Trendy Answer, & (Perhaps) Another, Better Answer
The Problem: Thousands of churches in the U.S.A. are declining or are closing their doors every year, and the prevailing problem is usually framed like this:
[Churches] are more concerned about greater comfort than the Great Commission.
Church membership has become self-serving. The church is more like a country club than the body of Christ. People are “paying dues” to get what they want in the church. It’s all about their preferences and desires. (Thom Rainer, a pretty common diagnosis)
The Trendy Answer: Rainer hints at this above; essentially the answer to dying churches is be a missional church. Some folks mean by missional “more outreach, visitation, and witnessing” and the younger, more trendy, theological crowd means “kingdom work, true religion in service, and raising up and funding missionaries both near and far.”
First off, before I give “my” answer, I’m not really saying anything new. Piper said it in his first paragraph a while ago. History is chalk-full of this emphasis. I don’t think the answer to the “country club” mentality, to a services-centered ministry (“we’ve got something for everyone, so come on down!”), and to a me-first church is to double-down on mission, service, and reaching out. I am not saying that mission, service, and outwardness are not super important; but I am saying that they shouldn’t be first, and that making them first could be part of the problem.
(Perhaps) Another, Better Answer: More and more each day, I am persuaded that if the church is to thrive, if the church is to reverse the course of decline, of selfish ambition, and of tickling ears, then we desperately need a return to worship.
To flesh this out a bit further, the problems don’t arise when we are coming to church to receive something. Rather, the issue is that we come to church to receive the wrong something, or we jettison receiving entirely for serving.
In our day, Sunday morning worship services often function as simply
- a rallying point for missions,
- a non-essential extra to the real, missional work of the church in the world,
- or as a thing we do weekly so we can have a bunch of positions for people to serve in: musician, usher, greeter, kids minister, check-in specialist, barista, the list goes on forever.
If you come to church and aren’t filling 800 service positions, giving your weekly salary to the latest outreach or campaign, or doing something (other than listening attentively and singing), well then you’re a drain on the church, you’re part of the problem, you’re just an attender. Nah. I don’t think that’s it.
Why Worship Is A Better Answer Than Mission
Historically, Word and sacrament have been the center of the church, the gathered people of Christ. Jesus is the Word made flesh, Scripture is the faithful testimony about and from Him, and when we gather, we as a body receive the free gift of Christ from one another in our songs, words, and centrally in the Lord’s Supper. We come together first to receive (again, and again, and again) the good news of Jesus and be united together in love, at the Lord’s table, and in being of one mind.
More and more each day, I am persuaded that less is more when we gather together. The gathered people of God should not be firstly an evangelistic exercise, an array of ministries for each sub-group (kids, youth, singles, married, etc), or a motivational assembly. Corporate worship is a weekly ebenezer, remembering that “hither by Thy help I’m come.”
The liturgy of Word and sacrament is set within two other essential acts: the gathering for worship and the sending forth into the world. This pattern reveals its missiological orientation. (Simon Chan, page 63)
If you can give only one thing on Sunday morning I pray that you offer a repentant heart, a humble confession of your sin and His grace, and dispense with all the ministry. Hear the excellencies of God in the Scriptures, sing and proclaim the goodness of the gospel and of God’s good and changeless character, and respond at the table and with a life well-lived. We gather to feast at the table of the King. We receive rest, we receive life, and because we are regularly being humbled and made whole, then we go into the world on mission, serving both our brothers and enemies, and telling the world what Jesus is all about.
Mission cannot create worship.
Worship, because it is primarily a receiving act, draws upon the unending resources of God’s power and grace, thus, worship is the only thing that can sustain mission, and when worship is rich, biblical, and full of love, the mission of the church will be fruitful, God-centered, and full of love.
Our missiological orientation is essential if we are to be disciples of Jesus. But mission must be second; worship is first.