Thursday, 22 March 2012

Church services - why do we have them?

I thought I'd re-post this entry from around a year ago, about why Christians feel the need to have church services. What's the purpose of them, what are they supposed to achieve, and what sort of things should happen in them? Let me know what you think in the comments...

Genuine question here. Why do we have church meetings, the usually on a Sunday meet up to sing songs, listen to a talk and pray together thing? I've had this on my list of things to blog about for a while but I think now is the time, following on from an interesting chat I had recently with a guy on my theology course. We were talking about the tension between meeting together as a church to share our stories with one another and meeting to be spiritually recharged. I think it's like a bring and share picnic, which works much better if everyone brings something to share rather than a few people being expected to being all the food which they will then give out to everyone. Of course, there will be times where a particular person doesn't have much to bring, both with a picnic and with a church meeting. That's completely fine, but I don't believe it shouldn't be the typical way of things.

I've been thinking for a long time about how our rhythms of church can (unintentionally) encourage us to let our spiritual life drift between meetings. We look forward to the Sunday meeting in the hope of getting a spiritual uplift from the songs we sing together and from hearing great teaching from one of the church leaders. The same thing can happen with annual events like conferences; as the conference season approaches we get excited about what God is going to do there, perhaps forgetting that he can do just as much in our local settings.

It can easily add up to a Christian life that actually amounts to a few meetings per month and not much in between. Surely this is not how it should be, though? A question, then: is there anything about the way we do our Sunday meetings, conferences and so on that encourages this way of living? Someone famous (Albert Einstein, was it?) said that our current systems are perfectly suited to bring about the results that we are getting. Or maybe it was Einstein who said the same thing but the other way round: 'We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them' (I looked this up).

Maybe it's worth taking a step back and wondering why we have the Sunday church meetings. What's the point, what is supposed to happen at them? Firstly, I don't agree with the common view that we meet together to 'worship God'. Look at Romans 12:1-2; one of my favourite little passages in the whole Bible:
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Our whole life should be an act of worship. Paul took the Jewish Temple language of worship and sacrifice and applied it to everyday behaviour, meaning that Christians do not go to a church meeting to worship. Our church meeting should be an act of worship but no more and no less than anything else we do in the course of our day-to-day life.

Why, then, do we have church meetings if not to 'worship God'? I want to share a few thoughts from 1 Corinthians 14, a chapter that has plenty to say about church meetings. In verse 12, Paul notes that the Christians in Corinth are 'eager to have the special abilities the Spirit gives' and he urges them to ask God for those abilities (or spiritual gifts; the Greek word is charismata) that will 'strengthen the whole church'. Paul then talks about praying and singing in the Spirit, which many Christians take to mean using a language not of human origin (speaking in tongues), but goes on to say this:
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you. But in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language.

So here is another clue as to what Paul expects to happen at church meetings. People should speak words that will help others. And this theme is carried on in verse 26:
Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you.

Everything that is done must strengthen all of you. Maybe there is our answer to the question, 'What are church meetings for?' They are for strengthening and helping the believers. Forgive me for tearing a verse out of its context, but Ephesians 4:11 is relevant to this issue, I think. Here, Paul mentions five kinds of people as 'gifts Christ gave to the church': the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers (the last two are sometimes linked together due to the way the original Greek was written). And the responsibility of these people is to 'equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church'. So in our church meetings (and in all our interactions with one another; it's not just a Sunday thing!) we should be strengthened – built up – and equipped to do God's work. What does 'God's work' mean, though? Maybe I'll come back to that another time!

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