Friday, April 17, 2009

How should we do church?

Today I want to start an extended series on how we do church. I know I have other series going on like the one on vitamins and the one on explaining CLL to patients, but I have always had the sort of mind that likes to have many balls in the air.

The impetus comes from ‘The Briefing’ this month. It begins: Some years ago an elderly relative visited our church. She was a churchgoer herself – of a rather traditional kind. Afterwards, I asked her whether she had enjoyed church that morning – at which point, she looked straight at me with characteristic bluntness, “This is not a real church”.

I dare say there would be many who visit our church who would say that ours is not a real church. We don’t have a prayer book or liturgy. We don’t use the organ. Most of the hymns were written in the past 30 years. The prayers are extempore. We don’t have communion at every service. We don’t have a common cup. We don’t have vestments. The Pastor is often tie-less and jacketless. But when I look in the Bible I don’t find any of that.

At the time of the early church they did not have church buildings, and although there are little conglomerations of words that may have had liturgical significance, we really don’t know how they were used. It is probably deliberate that we don’t have clear instructions in Scripture on how we should conduct our services. It is such a contrast to the Old Testament where the Israelites were given instructions in the minutest detail. Remember how poor old Uzzah reached out and steadied the ark of God when the oxen stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6-7) and the Lord struck him dead for his irreverent act.

But we are given few instructions on how to worship God under the new covenant. WE are told that God will pour out His Spirit on all people. Our sons and daughters will prophesy, our old men will dream dreams and our young men see visions (Joel 2:28), and that indeed has happened, but specific instructions on how large a church should be, in what order we should do things, whether we should have a long or short or no sermon, how many hymns (if any), what musical instruments we should use (if any), how we should baptize people, who should pray and for how long, what form the communion service should take, and what we should wear are just not given

Scripture is not silent on church, but there is an open-endedness that has led to different denominations doing different things down the ages. I think we should recognize that many of the things that we do are simply human tradition, no doubt based on a Biblical principle, but they represent a church’s response to the cultural problems and conditions of the time, and quite honestly, many of these traditions are quite archaic and alienating from our own culture. The Salvation Army uniform is quaint, redolent with history, and serves to identify its members, but it isn’t exactly cutting edge twenty-first century. I would not dream of adopting it as a norm for any new church I was planting.

So, let’s start. I think that we can all agree that the ‘church’ is nothing to do with either a building or a denomination. It stands for the gathered local community of Christians; all those who have been gathered together to worship him in a particular place. The other sense of the universal church – all those who have ever trusted Jesus to stand in their stead at the judgement seat – both those alive now and those who have gone to glory, does not seem to be a New Testament usage.

Why have a ‘church’? Because it is a community of believers who worship together and help each other to grow closer to our Savior, who are His witness to our generation, and who need each other for mutual encouragement, support and sustenance.

As the weeks go on I will examine some of the things that we do in church and ask whether these are biblical, necessary, culturally relevant and helpful, and whether we could do things better.


Anonymous said...

I do go to a traditional church; the one I was raised in. I went to confirmation there and was an alter boy (these days they have a woman or a girl...).

It is a Lutheran church, Missouri Synod in the United States. It is a conservative church, but things have changed over the years, obviously. Our pastor is a wonderful man who dresses in robes, the color depending upon the season.

Because of my CLL, I cannot always attend church (neutropenia mainly, but various other problems occur relating to the disease).

When I was away at college, I was only a sporadic attendee (the student 'ghetto' of Isla Vista in Santa Barbara served to isolate students, as well as to concentrate them for parties and other diversions). I have been only a sporadic attendee in the past, but I had a dream that prompted me to attend more regularly. It is the same church my parents attended, so I have a long history there.

I agree that the community of fellow believers is a wonderful thing to be a part of. The secular world offers little by comparison.

I hope and pray you are doing OK. Your posts here and elsewhere are such a help for patients.

Anonymous said...

I attended a Church of England Junior School where we had church services on Fridays and I was in the choir and I loved it. My parents used to send us to church at least twice on Sundays (to get some peace) sometimes with Granny - who wore her best hat) and as it was obligatory to belong to a church if you wanted to use the church youth club, my friends and I joined in services Methodist, Baptists, C of E and one we really enjoyed was the Salvation Army with its rousing choruses. I continued with church(es) right through my teens and only stopped when my local vicar refused me a Cof E wedding service (I was 18 and pregnant and this was 1966). In all these years, all the services had similarities despite the denominations - we all worshipped God and prayed to God and sang hymns to God. We took our joys and worries to God. The modern church does this for Jesus (God's son) along with hugging strangers and raising up of hands and new hymns which worship Jesus and I don't know the words to. The traditions that I loved so much and the poetry/prose of the King James' Bible has disappeared. I have tried attending the modern church but there seems no time for quiet hush and for someone like me who does not liked to be hugged by strangers or children running riot it is not reverant. I have my relationship with God and enjoy debates on religion with anyone, but the best time of all to be in church with God for me is when I am alone, when the church/cathedral etc are fairly empty and I know that He IS there, the God I was bought up to believe in. I am 61, not that old, and so wish there were still services for people like me.