I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the appropriate thrust of the Sunday service. My thoughts were reignited recently by a comment this past Sunday at a congregational meeting. Someone noted that a few Sundays ago I made the comment “we’re all Christians here…”. Now, I may well have made the comment…it wasn’t in my notes, but then I don’t go verbatim from them and add quite a bit to certain parts of my sermons as I’m preaching. My wife also insists that I made the comment, and so, I did.

But the observation got me thinking. Certainly one should not assume that everyone listening to the sermon on Sunday morning is a Christian, but I wonder if sometimes our mistakes lie too much in the other direction. It seems to me that the problem with a great many evangelical worship services is that they are primarily evangelistic while a lot of liberal protestant services don’t see the need for evangelism at all. Maybe I’m exaggerating–but only slightly. Because of this I’ve consciously tried to gear my preaching and teaching on Sunday morning to the people who gather as believers in Jesus Christ… in other words, my sermon is meant to encourage discipleship and the worship is, well, worship.

All this made me remember an article I’d read several years ago in Touchstone Magazine by Gillis Harp entitled “Mall Christianity:

There is, in fact, no biblical warrant for turning Sunday worship into an evangelistic meeting (though there may well be evangelistic elements within the liturgy). This transformation of the main Sunday service actually began in the early nineteenth century. It was evangelists like Charles Grandison Finney and his successors who turned church worship into a revival meeting. In some respects, “seeker sensitive” advocates are simply extending the logic of this earlier innovation.

They are extending with considerable creativity and characteristic American energy this Arminian, market-driven model. Finney spoke about the need for what he termed “excitements.” What many American Evangelicals have discovered is that the old excitements no longer work; they have acquired churchy associations in the wider culture, and thus new excitements are needed. The oral culture of the nineteenth century could accommodate long lectures, but postmodern seekers have notoriously short attention spans. Victorian folk wanted earnest Evangelical didacticism; contemporary seekers want entertainment.

The New Testament Church did not, however, show this confusion about either the nature of evangelism or its proper setting. It did not provide “excitements,” other than the excitement of the Good News. In the New Testament, the ecclesia gathered together on the first day of the week to hear the Word of God, for corporate prayer (“the prayers”), and for the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42 and 20:7). Significantly, none of the evangelistic preaching in Acts occurs within the context of the church gathered for Sunday worship.

I did a little digging and found that Peter Toon makes a similar point in one of his essays for the same magazine entitled “Sunday Guests.” in which he notes that he recalls “the days when the Salvation Army called the Sunday morning service the ‘Holiness Meeting’ and the evening service ‘Evangelism Meeting.’ That is a careful and workable distinction between a service of worship, edification, and calls unto holiness for believers, and a service to which others were invited with a view to converting them to Jesus Christ. Many churches today, especially those much into “church growth,” have conflated, confused, and complicated the relation of evangelism to worship.” I recall reading similar sentiments somewhere by a former Episcopal Priest turned Eastern Orthodox from South Carolina, but I can’t remember where I read it.

All this is to say, that the Church has some real confusion going on about what our Sunday worship is meant to be. This isn’t the problem of one segment of Christ’s Church, but the whole body–I think we’re all guilty of missing something. In my own background as a Southern Baptist I became disenchanted with what I experienced as two Sunday Schools on Sunday mornings, with the second one being called “Church.” I was deeply concerned by the fact that so many people–especially the elderly in the congregation–would come to Church on Sunday, attend Sunday School and then not stay for the service–what’s more important? I think I’d rather give praise and worship to God myself. When I became Episcopalian I discovered a Church tradition that truly worshipped on Sunday, and it felt so good–still does. But what I eventually discovered is that while Episcopalians may worship on Sundays, they often haven’t set up good formation opportunities at other times either, so that in some (many perhaps) cases, people who want to go deeper into God’s word and reflect on his plan for thier lives are forced to study on their own…many don’t.

In my title I suggested that there are three sorts of services that vie for us: worship, lecture or entertainment. Perhaps another could be added, such as “social” or perhaps that could be rolled into entertainment. So which of these should we strive for? My own inclination (and the inclination of the way I’ve labeled them–sneaky I know…) is to emphasize worship first and foremost. The lecture doesn’t make sense because there are other forums in the Church for people to learn that are more suited to this type of teaching than the worship service. Entertainment–which can come in many forms and doesn’t just include one segment of the Christian population–is one that has become a major issue in the church.

Entertainment and the role of the people in worship is another thing that I’ve been thinking off and on about for several days, especially since I’ve been reading quite a few books targeted at church growth. One thing that kept setting off my “inner speech” was the number of times the authors referred to the people in Church on Sunday as the “audience,” and how many elements of the entertainment industry were pulled in. Don’t get me wrong, there were some good ideas and information. For instance, one thing that I might take into consideration is the fact that Sunday mid-Morning is the time when most seekers visit Churches. So no more comments about how we’re all Christians–at least not consciously. And I’m considering the advice that most formational studies, classes etc… for those who are already believers take place during the week, freeing Sunday up for worship and fellowship with newcomers. But I don’t think we’ll be incorporating lighting from a Celine Dion show anytime soon, or coaching our “worship leaders” on smiling, or making sure the camera shows their faces during worship *enter rant mode* (one of my greatest pet peeves with some mega-churches is the zeroing in on people’s faces during worship and putting them up on the jumbo-tron *shudder*–who can take any arguments against iconography from evangelicals seriously when that sort of blatantly idolatrous stuff is going on in some of their largest churches and no one calls them on it? Come one, put up a nature scene or something!).*end rant mode* [caveat: I consider myself evangelical, but of an older sort…]

There are obviously different understandings of what the worship service is supposed to be and to accomplish–and that’s fine. To a point. But at what point does an emphasis on entertainment or evangelism in the Sunday service supplant the whole point of the body coming together? I mean, folks, in the early church catechumens were sent out of the service before communion! Obviously the assumption of the Christian Church has been that Sunday worship–with communion as central to it (and that’s not Roman people, that was the goal of the early reformers who hated the idea that people were only receiving once a year)–is intended for the building up of the body, and there are other mechanisms for evangelism. But it’s late and I’m rambling… I’ll have to unpack it more later. Any thoughts?