Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Church Services: Who Are They For?

Who church is for is an important question for anyone in church leadership. The question is particularly important for those of us in low-church traditions, where we just sort of "have church," and the entire flow of the meeting depends on the pastor and worship leader. But I think the question is also important in liturgical churches. Should we follow the seeker-sensitive model, where church meetings be geared towards unbelievers? In this model, the entire service culminates with the preaching of an evangelistic message. Or should we follow a discipleship model of church, where church meetings are geared towards believers and evangelism accomplished through other avenues?

Having pondered this question for several years, I have come to the conclusion that church services ought to be worship services. Church is neither for unbelievers nor for believers but for God. And if church is primarily for God, then we have no right to whine when church meetings do not go the way we might have wanted or when the preaching does not seem to meet our needs. After all, it is not about us, but about God.

But that leads to another problem: if church is for God, why preach? In fact, the old Roman Catholic masses were pretty much like this until the reformation. There was no preaching, masses were spoken to God in Latin, and Priests faced the altar rather than the congregation. In our sevices, it is tempting for the preacher to put himself implicitly in the place of God, speaking for Him to His people. Though there is a place for prophetic ministry, it becomes dangerous when the pastor places himself week after week on God's side rather than on the congregation's side. I do not intend this as a judgment on preachers, but rather an observation arising from years of personal preaching experience where I found myself asking, "How can I best tell the people what they need to hear?'

I am not suggesting that we remove preaching from our worship services. It was not just the Protestant churches that changed after the reformation, but Roman Catholic churches changed also as a result of the Counter Reformation. Preaching really should be a part of our worship services, but it is hard to know what role to assign to preaching if we decide that our church meetings are for God.

The answer, I believe, is found in a covenantal approach to scripture, as I outlined a couple days ago. If the Bible is our covenant document with God, then we honor God by remembering and reflecting on our covenant with Him. Preaching that flows from the Biblical text, becoming a meditation on it or providing insight into the text, is a normal response of worship when the people of God meet with their covenant Lord. The preacher's purpose, then, is not to minister to the congregation, but to facilitate ways for the congregation to respond appropriately to the scriptures.

For the people of God, we expect to encounter our covenant Lord when we gather together. When we worship Him in spirit and truth, we can rightly expect that He will show up, and I think we can expect that He desires to speak to His covenant people. But hearing Him speak is not the purpose of our church meetings - ministering to God is.


Jason Dollar said...

I was just popping in, reading for the first time. I enjoyed your thoughtful post, but thought I'd comment on this statement.

"The preacher's purpose, then, is not to minister to the congregation, but to facilitate ways for the congregation to respond appropriately to the scriptures."

I appreciate the sentiment of this idea (and the God-centered desire behind it), but it appears to create a false dilemma. It almost assumes that ministering to a congregation and leading a congregation to respond appropriately to the scriptures are mutually exclusive - as if to say you can't have them both.

But doesn't the latter entail the former? If one does respond appropriately to the Scriptures, has that person not then been ministered too? Is it not the Scriptures (and our response to them) what ministers to our hearts the most?

It seems to me that the very things that honor God the most also benefit and minister to humanity the most. As Piper says, "God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him."

R.T. Jones said...

Hi Jason. I am just sorting through these ideas for the first time, so I am not entirely sure I am consistent yet. Thank you for your comment to help me work through it.

Perhaps a more appropriate way to say what I am trying to say is that preaching should be an act of worship, where the preacher places himself with the people and asks how best "we" can respond. This is opposed to the way I used to preach, where I considered an act of discipling or teaching, and I placed myself above the people by asking what "they" need. There is a time and a place for teaching, but I do not think church services are that place.

A lot of this is coming from my meditation on what being a pastor is all about, and what caused me to be so frustrated when I was pastoring. I hope to go back to pastoral ministry once I get my M.Div., so in the meantime I want to get as much of this sorted out as I can.


Brian LePort said...

I have often wondered myself why we gather like we do. It could be for us to get together as Christians, but then again we could do that anywhere. And it could be for evangelism, but often church services can be counter productive in that area because they substitute for other elements of evangelism that may be more essential. Frankly, I am often bored in church and would rather be at home reading a book.

But I like your thoughts on worship. To add a thought, whatever worship means, it must be more than singing several songs. That can also get really meaningless.

Maybe the answer to the preaching dilemna is to place the preaching early and the rest of the worship can follow in response. Most churches have preaching last.

godwatcher said...

Wow, you've been cranking high speed on your blog! I like the new layout and organization.

Anyway, here's my only slightly educated opinion to throw into the mix of way more intelligent thoughts: I think church has definitely got to be God-centered, because all of our lives and everything we ever do should be God-centered and not people-centered. Even ministry to people for their benefit must be God-centered or we'll wind up burned out and hating the world soon enough.

I think, though, that this may not change so much what we do in a church service but more how we do it.