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.
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…
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.