Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Changing Times for Corporate Worship

Maybe America's churches could do with a change.

After all, we're not so much guiding America any more as we are desperately trying to play catch-up.  We're not leading the crusade for civic morality as much as we are shrugging off our own moral lapses.  We don't really worship God any more; we worship style and preference.  We're not at the vanguard of racial reconciliation, and some congregants don't want us to be.  We tussle over doctrine and theology, but then rely on attendance numbers to gauge the health of churches.  We fret that young people don't seem very interested in religion anymore, so we blame old people who aren't eager for change.

Yet the way America is doing church is changing anyway, along with everything else, apparently.  First worship styles, then church music, then the megachurch movement, then celebrity Christianity, along with parachurch ministries, right-wing politics, and multi-campus congregations.

Now Sunday morning worship times are becoming passe.  Consider the news that churches have begun to cancel the flagship corporate worship service at 11:00am on Sunday mornings.  Of course, the traditional 11:00am start time has been falling by the wayside for years, as churches tinker with ways to make corporate worship seem more populist.  10:50, 11:10, or even more contrived start times like 11:01 for the hipsters has become fairly common. 

Yet increasingly, churches are thinking that 11:00am on a Sunday morning is too late to attract people who are more eager to fill the last day of their weekend with quality pursuits.

As if attending church isn't a good way to spend quality time...

At the church I attend, the 9:30am service is the best-attended of our three Sunday morning offerings.  Other churches have services on Saturdays, and now on Wednesdays.  Hey - a generation ago, churches regularly held a Wednesday - or "midweek" - service, so this is kinda retro, right?  That should be super-appealing to Millennials and hipsters.

And frankly, it doesn't really matter when a congregation meets for corporate worship.  In Bible times, corporate worship was held in private homes or in the temple on the Sabbath, which is our Saturday.  The switch was made to Sundays as a way to honor Christ's resurrection, which happened on a Sunday, the first day of the week.  It used to be symbolic to take time on the first day of the week to focus on the reason for why we'll be working out the next six days - and that reason is the glory of God.

But Sunday corporate worship isn't a commandment or anything.  We're told to "not forsake the assembly of ourselves together," but our assembly doesn't necessarily have to be on a weekly basis.  It could be daily, like some Roman Catholic churches still observe, or bi-weekly, or monthly... God never tells us what His definition of "not forsaking our assembly" should look like.

Over time, in Western Christianity, our assembly has been shaped by our work schedules and preferences, as well as capitalism, politics, and a general desire to model the culture around us.  Not exactly Biblical reasons at all for designing a corporate worship schedule, but it's what we've had as a long as anybody can remember.  Mid-morning on a Sunday was a time that worked for anybody who worked in agriculture - which used to be almost everybody - since many early morning tasks are required of a productive farmer. 

And choosing who preaches to us (or for us)?  We elect church leaders by popular vote because that's how all good leaders are made, apparently.  In the book of Acts, they drew lots for a replacement disciple, but popularity is a lot more democratic, right?  Besides, drawing lots sounds an awful lot like gambling, and gambling is a sin (although with casting lots, it's not that a God-given resource is being frittered away; a choice from a selection of relative equals is being made).

In countries like China, where evangelical Christianity is illegal for the most part, Christ-followers worship together wherever and whenever they can, with whatever leadership is currently not being detained by the police, if their "church" isn't one of the government-sanctioned "three-self" facilities.

How much we take for granted!

Not that congregations in the United States should be faulted for being creative with their corporate worship times.  But it's easy to see that for many churches, making corporate worship more convenient is the motivating factor.  Yet how convenient is the Gospel supposed to be for us?  Don't you think it's probably unBiblical to feel like we have to make corporate worship less like a scheduling conflict?  Is church the conflict, or what we want to do in place of it?  Should the created be trying to find a spare hour in the week to corporately worship their Creator?

How about, instead of trying to find an easier time to schedule corporate worship, churches simply take another step into history, and schedule corporate worship for every day of the week?  How bizarre does that sound to you?  Unless you're Roman Catholic, or familiar with the Anglican tradition of daily "vespers" or "evensong", it probably seems like overkill on the church's part, trying to stage a worship service for every day of the week.

Yet think about it:  How much of the staged worship your church organizes every week is really necessary?  Few churches have the financial and staffing resources to put on a big production every day of the week anyway.  So if you want to think creatively, whatever happened to the simple things, like the plain, public reading of Scripture, the congregational singing of songs (instead of being entertained by miked singers), the undecorated preaching of the Gospel, without special effects, videos, and props?  How much more focused could corporate worship be?  How much more immediate?  How much less cluttered and distorted by culture? 

And what about the senior pastor?  Having so much preaching, wouldn't that be too much for him?  Well, the Bible never says anything about senior pastors, either.  That's a Western invention.  According to the Bible, elders should be able to teach, right?  Why can't a church have several teaching pastors, none of whom is the "big kahuna" or top dog, pulpit-wise?  Is such a concept too foreign to us, since we're used to identifying with one preacher for our church's spiritual cred?

Imagine how suddenly oversized your church facilities would likely be.  Having a corporate worship service every day of the week likely means that most of our sanctuaries are too big.  Maybe instead of "planting" new churches all over the place, existing congregations could consolidate and thereby expand their ministry outreach through their shared resources.  Culture-wise, it would accommodate the growing reality that America's employment picture has spread out from the conventional Monday-to-Friday routine.  Parents with kids in sports would have to come up with another excuse to keep their kids out of church.  If you're having a particularly rough week spiritually, maybe attending several services that week would be a big help.  It would also negate the argument that select worship times need to be more convenient:  If congregants can't find one day of the week to worship corporately, it definitely won't be the church's fault.

The biggest objection most folks might have is that there is such a thing as too much church.  And with that, I would agree.  Whether our churches meet on Sundays or other days for corporate worship, we seem to leave a lot of that church stuff in the sanctuary when we leave.  All the reconfiguring churches make to their schedules isn't going to change that.

If church is just something we do as a religious activity, it won't really matter when we do it.