Courtney Ball

Further Reflections on Church and Worship

Last week, I wrote a piece in which I shared my views on faith, the Bible, church, Jesus, and community. It generated more web traffic and discussion (online and in person) than anything else I’ve written so far. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth doing before you continue with this post.

Some of the best conversation I had related to that writing was about church. In the article, I was critical of the heavy emphasis that Christians place on Sunday worship attendance. I said that all of my most meaningful faith experiences took place outside of Sunday worship, and that I believed that was true for most people.

I overstepped my bounds when I spoke for others, which became clear to me when I heard from readers about how important worship has been for them at times. Do they get bored fairly often? Yes. Do they disagree with what is being preached to them? Sometimes. Would they make changes to Sunday services if it were up to them. Most definitely.

Still, in spite of the frustration they sometimes feel with church worship, they keep attending. They go because they believe communal worship helps shape their lives for the better, brings them closer to God, deepens their relationships with others, and challenges them to think in new ways.

I have to admit that worship has nourished my life in these ways as well, but it has always been secondary to other activities. I think acts of worship are most effective, most meaningful, when they are tied to other shared communal experiences. For example, when youth return from a service trip to West Virginia and they lead the congregation in bluegrass hymns they heard while away, that is a communal affirmation of—and thanksgiving for—their time and work together.

Likewise, worship can be very powerful when it helps a congregation process events affecting the wider community: crises like war, disaster, recession, deaths of loved ones; or celebrations like births, weddings, good harvests, homecomings, recoveries. Better yet, worship can sanctify acts of discipleship as they happen outside of the church building. I will never forget one afternoon when I stood in wind and freezing rain to share communion with fellow seminary students and community members as we witnessed for peace outside the facilities of a weapons manufacturer during the Iraq war. It was a time I felt one with Christ’s body and his purpose on earth.

I know that worship can help a congregation remember the message of the Gospel better than if they are left to work it out on their own. I remember hearing a quote from an African American preacher who said that Sunday was about getting church members to remember that the message they received from society was not the truth that God spoke to them. Society told them they were “less-than, other, unwanted”. The Gospel told them that they were God’s beloved children, and that their special gifts were needed to help others understand God’s love in this broken world. Hard to argue against the necessity of that.

All that being said, I maintain that as important as it can be, church worship should still be knocked down a step or two in its perceived value. All too often, church pastors and their members place too much emphasis on Sunday attendance. Of course, we all know that this is absurd. We know that discipleship is supposed to be challenging, life-changing, world-transforming. But when it comes to measuring a congregation’s health, the two most common criteria church leaders pay attention to are worship attendance and financial giving, those things that will keep the doors open.

I say it’s better to have the doors shut and the building torn down than to have people sit inside it and avoid taking their faith into the world.

Finally, most importantly, I want to revisit this notion of Christian community. Take a second to glance at the picture at the top of this post. I’m guessing that if you have attended church in the last fifty years or more, this looks somewhat familiar to you. Now, let me ask you, does that setting look like it’s built for deepening relationships? The seats are made so that members of the body are not allowed to look at one another head on, eye to eye. Conversation is almost impossible, except whispered side comments. The only dialogue is between the pulpit and the congregation. It’s a performance space. If you want fellowship you have to exit this room. Food can only be shared through rigid ceremonies in which we hope not to spill anything. You could never eat a meal there.

Now, if you had one or two hours per week to: help people get to know each other, discuss issues of utmost importance, deepen friendships, pray for one another, make plans or work on initiatives to strengthen the local community, talk about how God might be acting in the world and how the group as a whole might meaningfully participate, is this the type of space you would create? It almost seems like this room is designed to keep all that from happening.

I don’t want to deny that great things have happened and continue to happen in church, even during Sunday worship. I simply want to suggest that if the typical Sunday worship were done away with, we could probably come up with something better.

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Courtney Ball

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