Upon reading this…
Books about Christianity and culture often spend much time speaking about cultural activities such as education, vocation, and politics but say little about the church…many of them seem to treat the church as of secondary importance for the Christian life and the various activities of human culture as where Christianity is really lived. In this book, I defend the opposite position. The church is primary for the Christian life. Every other institution—the family, the school, the business corporation, the state—is secondary in the practice of the Christian religion. The church is where the chief action of the Christian life takes place. If we do not understand that fact, then we will also fail to understand secondary aspects of our Christian life, such as studying, working, and voting.
What exactly are you doing when you go to church on Sundays? If you had to analogize going to church with something in everyday life, what would that analogy be? One popular analogy is that going to church is like stopping at a gas station. Church is a place where we stop to fill up our tanks after a tiring and stressful week and thus get recharged for the week ahead. Another analogy compares going to church a huddle in a football game. Church is the gathering of all the team’s players so that they can regroup, encourage each other, and prepare for separating again and facing the opponent through the coming week. Are these effective analogies for understanding the church?
I suggest that these analogies are radically insufficient and misleading. Perhaps most obviously, these analogies portray going to church as a human-centered event. Going to church is not primarily about me or even about us, but about God. I go to church not first of all to benefit myself (though that is a very important secondary effect) but to worship the Lord. A second deficiency in these analogies is that they place the real action of the Christian life somewhere other than in the gathering of God’s people for worship. Athletes do not play football in order to huddle and fans do not attend games in order to watch the huddles—what athletes and fans really care about are the plays executed when the ball is snapped. People do not go on road trips in order to stop for gas—drivers and passengers set out to enjoy the scenery and to arrive at their destination. Huddles and gas stations are mans to an end. The life and ministry of the church are not means to an end. They do not exist to recharge our batteries or to give us a strategy for facing the week ahead. The church’s worship and fellowship are ends in themselves. Nothing we do in this world is more important than participating in these activities. Participation in the life of the church, not participation in the cultural activities of the broader world, is central for the Christian life.
…I was reminded of this…
While revivalism upended Protestant patterns of worship wherever it went, thus making evangelicals hostile to accepted liturgies and re-defining the meaning of worship, it also proved to be destructive to a proper understanding of the work of the church. One of the curious features of the relatively recent novelties associated with church growth is the decline in the use of the altar call in churches desiring to reach unchurched harry and Harriet. This is curious because the first seeker-sensitive ministers and churches were those who took an active interest in the work of revivals. Revivals, after all, were the way to reach the lost. But in an era of refined consumer tastes and sharp competition for market share, altar calls do not appear to be effective anymore. Why would the owners of a half-a-million dollar home in the suburbs want to subject themselves to the embarrassment of walking down the aisle to pray a prayer of conversion in a place where they are strangers? These same homeowners would probably be just as reluctant to walk down to the front at the end of a PTA meeting to volunteer to assist with the school lunch program. Such an act is too uncomfortable and exacting for consumers who want the comforts of faith without the commitments.
Consequently, many churches that want to grow and make an impact (or “transform the culture,” in Reformed coinage) sponsor a variety of programs designed to meet the felt needs of residents in the vicinity. This way of growing the local church has had a profound effect on worship and says volumes about the way evangelicals regard the task of the church. If the real work of the church is the ministry that all the saints perform for each other throughout the week, whether in a Christian aerobics class, a story hour for preschoolers, classes on parenting for first-time fathers and mothers, or even the more legitimate evening Bible study, then the weekly gathering of the saints on the Lord’s Day takes on a much different character and purpose. Word, sacrament, and prayer, the traditional marks and purposes of the church and, as the Westminster Shorter catechism describes them, “the outward and ordinary means whereby God communicates to us the benefits of redemption” (Ans. 88), become less important. Ministry is no longer defined by these means of grace but rather by all the things that believers do in times of fellowship and support groups…In the process, worship becomes not a time for the proclamation of the Word in preaching and sacrament but a time to rally support for all the programs of the church. In other words, worship in the “successful” church becomes homeroom.
Homeroom, as all graduates of public high school know, is that time usually at the beginning of the school day during which the logistics of the educational enterprise are addressed. The teacher takes attendance, pupils say the Pledge of Allegiance, and the administrators or teachers make announcements about upcoming school events and programs. In many churches, this is exactly what worship has become. The attendance pads at the ends of the pews provide a record of individuals present for church. Praise songs projected overhead are the equivalent of the Pledge of Allegiance. And the announcements that come in a variety of forms perform the function of—well—announcements. It is interesting to note the many ways in which announcements are given in evangelical worship. Ministers or various heads of committees talk about upcoming events in the church. Testimonies become plugs for a specific program in the church. Then there is the time for recognizing or even commissioning various workers in the church, whether Sunday school or vacation Bible School teachers, which also draws attention to church programs and the need for more laborers.
The significant differences between evangelical worship and public high school homeroom are the collection of the offering and the pastor’s message. Public schools rely on real estate taxes and therefore have no need to pass the plate inn homeroom. Public schools also have the sense to put lectures in real class time rather than mixing them with the details of operating the school. But the message in evangelical worship does allow the pastor to give a pep talk that will inspire church members to become involved in the weekly activities of the congregation, much like the high school principal’s pleas for volunteers during homeroom. In the process, the means of grace become the means of motivation. Rather than regarding the proclamation of the Word as the way of “convincing and converting sinners and of building them up in holiness and comfort (WSC Ans. 89), preaching is a tool for inspiring believers to become involved in the real work of the church—that is, all the activities and programs throughout the week. As a result, preaching and the other elements of worship, indeed, the entire liturgy, suffer. People no longer see them as the means of being nurtured in the faith but instead perceive “special ministries” as the ways of reaching out, growing the church, and making members more devout.