(Not) going to church on Sundays…

church service I have been a long term reader of Jason Clark’s blog. I first came across it in the early days of what we called ‘The Emerging Church Conversation’ when I was desperately searching for some way to make sense of a faith that found itself outside the bounds of established Church. Jason has loads of interesting things to say that grow from his background as a Vineyard church pastor and academic theologian.

Jason’s recent post about Sunday church attendance has been playing on my mind. Hardly surprising as since I stopped attending Sunday morning services (6-7 years ago) I still feel guilty if I drive past others heading into a Church on Sunday. The conditioning I received in childhood told me that I should not ‘forsake the assembly of the Lord’ and that Sundays were for sitting through services – at least once if not twice. Sometimes three times.

Here are some of the things Jason said;

I am convinced that meeting together for corporate worship is one of the most pivotal things for Christians to understand and engage with if they are ever to have a vibrant life of faith outside church, and a faith that impacts the community around them.

 

Churchless faith is a myth. Or rather it might be the experience some choose to embrace (they enjoy it) as individuals but is not one that leads to the transformation of communities by Christians, and people becoming new Christians.

 

Gathered worship sits at heart of being the body of Christ – like all the other gatherings that sit at the heart of our other lifestyle commitments and social arrangements.

I can feel some of you nodding sagely as you read this. Part of me is nodding too (hardly surprising give my background) but I also feel a rising tide of rebellion. This might be partly about context- Jason is writing to a mainly US audience these days and things feel very different in small town Scotland where the choice to attend or not to attend here is mostly a choice restricted to an aging remnant. The vast majority of people never give church any kind of thought at all, and those that do take a look at our corporate gatherings and say no thank you.

empty-church

I am certainly no enemy of established Church either. I have dear friends who lead Churches up and down the country and would be the first to long for Church to fulfill its role as a repository of grace, hope and love within our fast changing culture. If people do not attend Church services then the institution of Church will whither and die- some would say that this is exactly what is happening. On that level I am right with Jason. Not attending is a decision that can not be based on petty feelings about boredom or the ‘right kind’ of worship music. We are in this for the long haul, not for a consumer hit of instant satisfaction.

But (you knew it was coming!)

Jason was quoting from a talk/sermon he gave so the tone will be likely to take a didactic and even slightly confrontational tone. It was also embedded within an established Church culture with building costs, wages of paid officials, administration costs etc- all of which require membership and financial engagement. I live and move in a world where church (with a small c) operates on shoestring budgets and our resources are whatever we can find for ourselves.

I also tend to take issue with black and white arguments – things are almost always more complicated than that. We need both those who stay and those who set out on a new journey; we need those who rest in orthodoxy and those who bring prophetic criticism.

Change rarely happens from within, it usually requires people to leave and dare to hope for the new. This will often mean LEAVING the establishment, for a while at least. Many (including myself) may yet return. Church has to find a way to set people free but also to reach out and offer support and encouragement in ways that those on the outside do not see to be restrictive. Railing against them for non-attendance seems likely to be rather counter productive.

Of course I read Jason’s comments within the context of my town, my life and my experience. I find myself outside established Church at the moment but certainly not outside church. Neither am I outside fellowship or worship. Rather these things have had to adapt to the new and changing context that my life has taken me to. It is not a full stop but rather a response to the journey I am making. It is informed by both close community, but also by dispersed on-line connections.

For example, I am really looking forward to leading some friends on a wilderness retreat in a couple of months. Some of them I have known half my life, others I have met through on line connections. Our meeting and the significance of our journey together has nothing to do with Sunday mornings.

Back to Jason’s comments though;

Meeting together for corporate worship is a requirement for vibrant faith and engagement in the community around? 

Well there is a lot of corporate worship that has no connection to vibrancy, or to engagement with community. As someone who led worship (the guitar and data projector kind) for decades, the emphasis on ‘crisis-event’ spirituality and its increasing detachment and removal from community was what finally drove me away from Church, looking for a more honest and authentic way to worship and to engage.

Is it at least possible that some forms of corporate worship become the means by which vibrancy is stifled? And after the creation of the religious event, what is left over for really engaging with our local communities in many of the small remnant Churches in the UK?

I was part of forming a loose community of people who set out to explore worship in a community setting, looking for partnership and engagement. We meet one Sunday a month, for most of a day- eating, praying, singing, laughing. Is this any less an authentic way to live out our faith?

Churchless faith is a myth? Or rather, Jason seems to suggest it can not lead to community transformation or convert others to Christianity. 

A myth? What about Spirited Exchanges? What about all those other people who have found themselves outside Church after abuse within the institution of Church?  What about me? To dismiss millions of people as they try to make sense of faith after finding Church to be damaging and problematic is not fair, and not reflective of where we find ourselves within Western culture.

I wonder what Jason means by ‘community transformation’. These are words which seem a tad bombastic from a UK perspective. I feel more comfortable seeing Christians as servants of the broken, who hope for transformation in ourselves and our communities.

That is not to say that wonderful things are not happening in and around Churches – the Fresh Expressions movement for example. My impression however is that activists in Church tend to be busy doing Church. In order to do something outside Church, they have to get their heads around the fact that Sunday is not where it is all at. Many leave because they do not find an outward looking commonality within the pews of the place they worship.

Then there is the bit about making converts. I confess to this being a work in progress for me, in that I have kind of given up trying to convert people. Part of this is that I do not have a ‘club’ that I want to invite people into- which supports Jason’s view I suppose. What I can say however is that I have had more conversations with people about Jesus since I left Church than when I attended every Sunday. The pressure of the sales pitch is gone and it is simply possible to be honest about my own struggles with faith and the love I have for the ways of Jesus.

In my area we do not have large vibrant attractive Churches that bring people the story of Jesus in new ways, so as to make converts. I would go further and say that of all the many Churches I have been in and around, converting people by the power of our Sunday worship has been a very rare event.

Gathered worship sits at heart of being the body of Christ.

It is all in the language again is it not? What is ‘gathered worship’? What do we mean by ‘the body of Christ’? These words are laden with such dense cultural baggage, and much of this is about large scale institutional Churchianity.

I am interested to know what gathered worship can look like in small scale, dispersed communities. I am longing for us to find new ways to understand what it means to be ‘the body of Christ’ and am angered by people who wear this as an exclusive badge of belonging to large institutions.

But buildings do have their uses, and unless we use them, we will lose them…

Cathedral, France 2008

Jason goes on to make some wider points about the life of faith communities beyond Sunday morning;

…reducing church to attendance of a Sunday service is the problem. Those whose understanding of church as sundays service, either just turn up and attend, or end up not attending at all. In other words those attending and those choosing not to attend are two sides of the same coin.

 

Or to put it another way, those who reduce church to just attending a Sunday service are often the people who talk about stopping attending because church should more than a Sunday serivce. A circular logic and experience.

 

Our understanding of Church has to be more than attendance. But not gathering to avoid the boredom of attending, does very little to advance any understanding of church and being church.

The life of faith, in may experience, will bring us all to the point of having to separate our relationship with God from our relationship to Church. The two things are related, but not the same. Often they will be in conflict, sometimes they NEED to be in conflict.

May Church prosper and grow.

May we become church in the rubble left behind by the death of Church.

16 thoughts on “(Not) going to church on Sundays…

  1. blumming heck that was long!…….phew! ……lost the will somewhere in the middle mate…..sorry…..you hooked me to begin with but zzzzzzzzzzzzzz towards the end!!

  2. I’m not often drawn into responding to blogs but, as a full time pastor of an organised (but not institutional) local church, I felt constrained to respond! It would be fair to say that I have probably said most of the things that Jason said and tend to agree with him in broad terms, whilst acknowledging his different American context and recognising that many parts of the UK don’t now have a viable expression of church that many of us would readily fit into. So, if I was living in your area Chris, I’d probably choose to be part of your community, if you’d have me (!), and not attending trad. Sunday church!

    But Chris, I’d call what you’re doing “church” too, and I have the greatest respect for you and what you are looking for. I don’t think I have ever criticised you for the brave decision you made a few years ago to abandon trad church. I admire the Fresh Expressions movement and those who are looking for am authentic new way of following Jesus in community. I’m very much in favour of experimentation, but, I have to say, I have yet to see or hear of any, in the UK at any rate, who are truly having such an impact or discovered something so good that it would cause me to abandon our more traditional model of doing church here. I’m always willing to see, learn and adapt – and lead change from within (which is actually what is happening with us), and I freely admit that there are many times as a pastor when I ask the question: what on earth have I given my life to? Jesus? Church… a group of people who expect me to deliver the “goods” week by week, and if the standard drops, or I don’t meet their expectations (frequently) or I let them down some way (absolutely inevitable!) then they’ll take their ball elsewhere? Disillusion with “church” is probably stronger in us pastors than in the pews! Believe me! Is this really what Jesus said he would build? I doubt it!

    But then I also see all that we are able to achieve by being a church, such as we are, not particularly large, just about 160 or so people meeting on Sundays. But, here’s the point, it’s not just about Sundays. Jason’s right, if it were just about Sundays, then that’s part of the problem. The thing is, by bringing those 160 people together in various community groupings, under the larger umbrella of a local church we are able to achieve far more together than we ever would alone. There are dozens of people being helped out of debt because of our CAP centre, soon we’ll have a Food Bank and Job Club open that will give us a spread of ministries to help the poor locally. Our youth work is currently serving 40-50 young people, our Jolly Tots up to 150 every Wednesday. Our 14 years of support for a Ugandan pastor’s vision has led directly to literally hundreds of children having a home and meals in a “Children’s village” and an education at the school built on site at Bulabakulu. I’ve been there twice. Our people give generously to my daughter Sarah and her husband’s charity, started 10 years ago, with a “Home of Hope” for abandoned children just built from scratch and opened last year in Bhongir, India. I took part in the opening. Then there’s our support for Good Rock Foundation working with orphanages in China… and Hannah serving in Japan, and more. My point is not to brag; honestly…, but just to say that these activities would not have prospered, or even have happened at all, if our small church was not here, functioning week by week and drawing people into a community of people who develop in their relationship with Jesus together, and start to use their gifts, finance, time and energy, not just in sustaining a Sunday morning “worship/preaching experience”, but in serving in the world, locally and internationally, doing something worthwhile with their lives. Knowing that is what keeps me going. And there’s so much more that we could do if there were more of us…! Now I genuinely do think that we are one expression of the church that Jesus said he would build; and there are plenty more like us around. It’s not dead or even dying!

    Our local church is very far from perfect but it is a genuine example of what a community of Christians can do together when we combine in the triangle of worshipping God, growing in community and serving the world in mission. Excuse the Christian lingo… I know it needs unpacking, but this reply needs to end here!

    • Well said Graham!

      I was thinking of you a lot when I wrote my post- and the hope that grows in and around CCF. I hope none of my comments felt like a criticism of Church- it was certainly not intended to be so. Rather it was intended to chew on the impression I had that there was only ONE way to become church, and this involved large scale Sunday morning worship as a central element. This is neither my experience nor conviction. This issue is surely how we love, not how often/where/under what roof we gather.

      As for Aoradh being ‘church’, of course I agree with you- I was playing with the presence or absence of a capital letter. It is the old Church as noun or church as verb thing.

      Your description of the knife edge of leadership, trying to provide consumer satisfaction, upsets me. I have watched you closely and from afar as you carry CCF on your shoulders. The weight of it is worth it my friend.

  3. Thanks Chris! I agree with you. We Christians have done Jesus’ Church a disservice by our over-emphasis on the weekly Sunday experience, yet I am always mindful that for many Christians that is still the main, and sometimes only, active involvement with church that they feel able to give time to in a stressful world of work, family and tough life experiences. Often they are quietly desperate and look to those couple of hours on Sunday for something to sustain them for another week. They might wish to offer more yet feel they can’t. I’m always mindful of this and would always want that corporate experience of church to meet their needs as well as stretch them to a more full commitment to Christ and His people, if that be possible. From that perspective, I continue to invest myself for that good purpose, and mindful too that their generosity with finance, if nothing else, helps make our mission to the world viable.

    Equally, there are so many others who do also give themselves sacrificially to the ministries I have described, who have been with us for the long haul, who are as far from being “consumers of church” as you could wish to see. I am indebted to their love and faithfulness and did them a disservice by my disillusionment comment! They do not disillusion me, they inspire me to persevere! If any of them are reading this, I hope they know who they are!

    The consumer satisfaction thing has been a real issue. Recently, I have publicly voiced that I am ever more determined to live to please God first and not people, for that is an impossibility. Everyone has their own view of what a pastor should be and do – it really is an impossible job. Every leader has to be him/herself using the gifts & skills God has bestowed and not those He never gave them. It is kind of liberating but for someone like me who wants to keep everyone happy and united, still not easy.

    Ultimately, knowing we are pleasing God is what makes life worthwhile.

    Now, back to decorating my office… day 6 of a task that has been pending for 23 years!

  4. I started to write a reply on my phone, which promptly crashed, then sunday happened. I write as a punter and someone who struggles with church and has been asking the questions “what is chuch” and “what should church be like” as I have only been a churchgoer for 5 years and changed from going to a charismatic evangelical church to a Fresh Expressions cafe church in the last 18 months.

    But then I thought I couldn’t be as articulate or as wise as either of you two (I still maintain that the translation of the word ekklesia by church-centric bible translators has something to do with it.)

    I wrote this instead (it’s kind of John Bell style):

    Thaddeus: What’s he saying to old reed-features now?
    Bartholemew: To Simon?
    T: Yeah, did you catch anything?
    B: Well, Thaddeus, sounds like he wants him to change his name.
    T: Change his name, to what?
    B: Well I didn’t quite catch the language he was using, but I could have sworn he said he should be called a stone…
    T: Stone? Surely Tone or Tony?
    B: No he said “Cephas”, you know, stone.
    T: Why stone?
    B: Well this is the bit that puzzles me even more…
    T: Go on, man.
    B: Well he said he was going to build something on the stone.
    T: Build what?
    B: Well, I’m not entirely sure…
    T: You mean like a house that the wise man built, you know in that story he tells?
    B: No, no, something different.
    T: Well what do you build on a stone that is not a building?
    B: That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
    T: A temple?
    B: I know what a temple is and it wasn’t that!
    T: Well what then? What did he actually say Bart?
    B: I think he said “church”.
    T: What’s that?
    B: No idea!
    T: What language is that?
    B: Look! I don’t know! It’s probably Greek or something.
    T: But Greek for what?
    B: For, err… you know…err… “church”
    T: Well I can see why he’s chosen not to build it on you! Church, eh?
    B: Mmmm… doesn’t strike me as one of his better plans.
    T: We’ll have to see.

  5. Hi Chris. Thanks for taking the time to listen to the podcast and then to reflect and write what you have here. Also thank you for your kind words about my thoughts and writing over the years.

    If I may, I’d like to respond to some of your thoughts, prompter as they were by mine :-)?

    1. Context: I’m not speaking to a US context, the talk was for my church community in the UK. I am connived more than ever that the future of the church in the UK depends on communities of faith not disappearing into private Go spaces, but to have a vibrant public life. That is in contrast to the civic religion of sunday services by many churches that are more about cultural religion than faith communities.

    2. My talk and post was not about Sunday attendance. I have no interest, as I mentioned at the start of the talk, about Sunday attendance, and calling people to that. Being church is all to often reduced to sunday attendance, by those who attend and those who don’t. Two sides of the same coin – those just turning up thinking they are doing something and those established by their non attendance as the measure of having done something.

    3. I was focused on something I do believe as mentioned in 1 above as key to the church having any future. Christians will need to figure out a way to not collapse church into private lifestyles. Too much of evangelical church dispenses religious goods and services to people to fit around the lives they were making elsewhere. The logical extension to this, is to collapse church even further until it is just a resources for experience and private God spaces. I believe the church is about real concrete communities, like the household codes in the NT, visible and able to transform communities by living and being something other than personal interest groups.

    4. There is a current trend in thinking we can separate a relationship with Jesus from the church. We can’t, that’s the myth of consumer and secular imaginations.

    5. I’m not naive (at least I hope I am not), I spend a great deal of my time exploring the problems of church, and it has many. But on the other hand I do believe there is also a problem of Christians who don’t understand how to relate to church at all, that is not the fault of the church. It’s a two way problem.

    6. I’m not arguing for institutional church and reject the ‘black and white’ thinking that because we have buildings, staff, programs (alongside experiences and life changing growth), that what I say is aimed at promoting institutions. I actually believe we all believe to institutions, the current preference being for the self in consumer society. What imaginations drive the way we relate about church is what interests me the most.

    7. My post was not a diatribe against non attenders trying to get them to attend. The future of the church is not in attendance, but in participation. I just think people mistake non attendance with participation. We are all attending something weekly, and participating on ways of life, the only choice is what sets the agenda for that participation and regularity.

    8. I get tired of being pitted against fresh expressions, and consider my church to be one. But having new christians, sundays, and facilities means we are instantly labelled as institutional. Again a black and white correlation I don’t accept 🙂

    9. The state of the church in the UK is dire. If I wasn’t planting one, I’d probably struggle with the ones local to me. I hope I’d choose the one that offended me the least and let me serve, give, pray and engage in mission with others. I’d want to be part of the solution and not just walk away, which is what I hope I have done.

    10. Context is everything, and I fear people reading the comments here will do so without listening to my talk and the context within which it was made!

    So I have probably muddied the waters even more, and thanks again Chris for taking the time to listen and interact. I hope my comments here which took some time, are a way to reciprocate your hospitality.

    Cheers, Jason

    • Hi Jason

      Thanks very much for your thoughtful and engaging reply!

      I have been chewing on how to respond- doing so online often polarises and even trivialises the debate, and I am determined to be respectful of both the things you say (within which I find much agreement) and the importance of the issue.

      I will probably post my response in a few days. I quite understand if limited time and energy mean that you are not able to engage with this discussion any further, but your thoughts would be appreciated.

      Thanks again

      Chris

  6. Hi

    An Interesting piece.

    I tend to agree with some points. We need to gather together for Communion, that in my opinion is the heart of Christians and the Christian faith. It is that exchange that is so vital for any Christian, anywhere at anytime.

    I believe we also need to gather to worship and to be there for others.

    A Churchless faith certainly exists, we only have look around us, I know many Christians who just don’t go to church for a number of reasons but that doesn’t make their faith is any less…it just plays out differently as Christianity has for 2000 years. However ,it does have it’s drawbacks as I believe it’s good to be part of a community, preferable not just a faith community either.

    Kindest Regards

    • Cheers Marc- I think you are right, the issue is that as Christianity becomes ever more post-institutional (if that is what is happening) how does the ‘church’ respond? It is that old question again- what is emerging?

  7. Pingback: Leaving Church 1- discussion with Jason Clark… | this fragile tent

  8. Hi Guys. Chris I follow your blog with great interest and do have a say when I feel strongly about something. Having read everyone’s input into this discussion, it perplexes me as to what we mean by ‘the church’? I myself was bought up a Catholic. Good family values and church every Sunday coupled with confession at least once a week. In childhood it is extremely difficult to know if and how to rebel against certain aspects that made us feel uncomfortable. However as we grow older we find we can make our own minds up, about what it is or was that made us feel uncomfortable about continuing? I can be honest now and say that one of the biggest issues I myself have about ‘the church’ are the hypocritical representatives that hide behind the church facades. One of my longest term memories is of a Franciscan friar that we all thought the world of. I was 5 and had to go see him after school. I was asked to sit on his lap and he proceeded to stroke my leg in such a way that I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable. I was jigging around and bouncing my knees together as it didn’t seem right in my mind. I has a pencil in the lining of my coat which jabbed on a bounce in to my leg. I still bear the scar or the tiny blue dot to this day to remind me. Since then there have been copious amount of stories telling us about the abuse given or bought about at the hands of priests, nun’s, vicars etc, all of which are representatives of ‘the church’. I feel so strongly over this that I chose to refrain from going to church. Has anyone given this any thought, as to maybe this could be a huge reason why so many have given up ‘the church’? I know myself that this has no way altered my feelings towards Jesus Christ and God. In fact quite the opposite. I find I turn to our Lord more now than ever before. A church to me isn’t one of gold and jewels, it’s a humble abode in which we can join others in a Spiritual Gathering. I certainly see the great ideas that so many of us have about doing the work of God, and find I am ever more attracted to communities pulling together.
    I’m also a huge fan of the new pope. He preaches his beliefs and lives what he preaches. I have a huge amount of faith in him and in his ability to show so many that the way forward is not to raise as much money to buy gold amulets and chalices, but to find a way of teaching and helping others far less fortunate than ourselves. I don’t now the way forward any more than the next person, but \I do feel that the Lord will show us or let us know if we get it wrong.

    • What do we mean by Church indeed! You will notice that I was playing around with the difference between Church (with a big C) and church with a small C. Church is something we go to, church is something we do, something we are.

      I am saddened to hear of your experience of abuse in Church. The abuse of power in this way is a terrible thing, and those who experience it often struggle to go near Churches again. Who can blame them?

      The fact that your faith is strong and vibrant, and that you continue to try to live it out in active ways even outside Church is precisely the point I was trying to make in my piece.

      Thanks for the comment!

      C
      X

  9. Pingback: What do Christians do when we no longer feel able to attend Church? | this fragile tent

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