Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of the newest trend for churches: to cancel services on a given Sunday and not have it be for reasons for bad weather. Now I’m not talking about cancelling the service for the Super Bowl (which has happened and is problematic), but rather churches that cancel their services specifically so that the people in the congregation can go and serve the wider community in various projects.
On the one hand, this accomplishes a number of goals: it helps get the church’s name out in the community (“branding”), it shows that Christians care about more than just themselves, and it perhaps even helps those in the community to realize that Christians aren’t just those who believe certain things, but they are also those who try their best to live in certain ways.
And yet, I have to admit that I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of canceling church for these reasons. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to explain my discomfort is to say it this way: I think that when a church feels the need to cancel their service – so that the congregation can actually go and serve others in the community – that this says a lot more about them as a church and what they value than they might realize. I think it shows a deficient understanding of why we gather for worship. I think it also shows a danger in the health of the congregation itself. Let’s take those two points in order:
First, the point of the church gathering together is to worship God (Acts 2:42 is but one good example of what a gathered congregation does). It’s not primarily to make ourselves feel good, nor is it to create a “brand” that stands for whatever socio-political cause is hot at the moment, nor is it a time for life-coaching or group counseling. The point of the church is to be Christ’s bride by making disciples who obey all that He has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). We do that not just individually, but also together by worshiping God through music, prayer, giving, and attending to God’s Word, and gathering together (Hebrews 10:24-25). This integrated goal is not possible when we are scattered all throughout the city doing whatever community service projects. While it might be possible to engage in very good and God-honoring things (sharing the Gospel, for example), the problem is that the purpose of church is not boiled down into just that one thing. As well, canceling the service and sending the congregation every-which-way only serves to reinforce the “Jesus and me” individualistic mentality of the Western church all the while de-valuing what the Scriptures say about the gathered church.
Secondly, I mentioned that I think this shows a danger to the health of the congregation; how so? To me, it’s fairly obvious: shouldn’t the church be serving and out in the community already? If you have to cancel the service because folks are otherwise too busy to care for their neighbors, then something is deeply wrong with their priorities or schedules. I think of the folks in our very own congregation (which is not perfect, by any means, and neither am I) and I see people who serve in many different ways all around town during the week: a food pantries, at resale shops, bringing food to shut-in’s, engaging in evangelism, being faithful about their vocational work, etc. My concern is that needing to designate a specific Sunday to cancel the service and do all these things reinforces that you and I and everyone else doesn’t really need to be disciples during the rest of the week. And what’s more, it reinforces that what we do on Sundays as we gather together to worship really isn’t as important as getting out and “doing something.”
Dear friends and fellow pastors, if you feel the need to cancel the church service – for many churches, the only time throughout the week when the congregation would otherwise gather to worship God and encourage one another – let me challenge you to realize that cancelling the service isn’t the solution, but is merely a symptom of the problem. The problem in such cases is that, far too often, we’ve made our churches into places where everything is just-so with perfectly in-tune worship services and wittily delivered messages observed by perfectly dressed and mannered people. That is not what the church service should look like. Instead, our congregations should reflect where we live – racially, economically, spiritually. Those who lead the church service should do so with humility and the utmost attention to Biblical fidelity. In short, we should care a whole lot less about production, income, and “the organization” and care a whole lot more about worshiping our great God and learning from His Word about what it means to serve Him. If we make an effort at doing that, then we’ll find plenty of opportunities to show our faith all throughout the week. Then we’ll see ourselves not as something different from the community, but as part of it. And then we’ll realize that the Christian life is not primarily a life of comfort interrupted by a day of service here and there, but rather it is a calling to be more like Christ everyday.
This makes the church an outpost in a foreign land. More like a spiritual hospital than a community center. Or an embassy for God’s kingdom. And from what I read in the Scriptures, that’s what it should be.
Justin Taylor, over at the Gospel Coalition, recently quoted a wonderful passage from James Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom which puts it this way:
“There is a certain hint of scandal here, of a reality that cuts against the grain of our late-modern liberal sensibilities: for as we’re making our way to worship, not everyone is coming…
Since we, on our own, don’t have the inclination or ability to answer the call, our response in gathering is already a sign of God’s redemption and regeneration at work. But the neighbors and strangers we pass on the way also remind us that God’s peculiar people is also a chosen people (1 Peter 2:9), called out from among the nations, graced ‘without why,’ elected to be a renewed people for this still-sleeping world.” (p.161)