Paul is writing today to the churches from the perspective of the visitor. The stranger. The one who drops in just to see what goes on inside. He holds up a mirror to the church in Corinth for them to see they appear to be putting on a show – an act – lots of bells and whistles to their behavior as ‘church.’ And he warns against appearing too unwelcoming, too haughty, not accessible and perhaps even vacuous – all the show with little or no meaning attached.
In Paul’s day it was the practice of speaking in tongues and prophecy to which he was referring. And it looked to him that a visitor might see something like this bunch – a photo I found of a ‘charismatic’ church of the 1950’s speaking in tongues. Not terribly inviting looking is it? Who would feel comfortable walking into this group for a first time?
It is helpful to look at how we are living as a church community from the perspective of the the unchurched and the seeker. When we hold the mirror up, as Paul is doing to the church in Corinth, it can look pretty silly, exclusive, self-righteous. People going through motions just for the sake of appearance – it looks religious, the people look like they know or have something others don’t.
Worship, Paul says, is about God, not about you. Not about me. God’s church is called to make disciples of Jesus Christ, not disciples of those performing as religious people. Worship should be done “decently and in order”.
That’s what many would say about my tradition’s liturgy – it guides worship in a decent and orderly manner. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and the accompanying hymnal which ground our liturgies were composed of scripture and traditions from the apostolic age, and are to my mind, the closest rendition of early church practice in the English language. Closest to the kind of churches Paul was founding and guiding.
And yet. Being a church close to the apostolic tradition and considered decent and orderly does not have the appeal it once had. For visitors and seekers the decent, orderly fashion of the liturgy is confusing, pedantic, over-ritualized and off-putting. And at the Eucharist, which is the focus of our Lord’s Day worship, newcomers are often wary to approach the table, uncertain if they are welcome. The visitor to today’s church, could feel just like the visitors to the church in Corinth – excluded, an outsider, with no clue how to ‘do’ worship in this particular place.
Once The Episcopal Church took the seriously declining numbers seriously, a concerted effort was put in motion, nationally, to be considered more welcoming and accessible. To that end, changes were made in practical and theological areas for how we ‘do’ church, including Worship. A few examples: we employ a wider variety of music, we print out the service in full rather than flipping pages through the Book of Common Prayer, we invite all baptized Christians to the table, and we speak about God in gender-neutral terms.
We didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but added to out liturgical foundation, materials that speak to the changing demographics and cultures in God’s church. And we looked at our tradition from the perspective of baptism – that is, that our mission as church is not to just welcome willy nilly to Sunday worship, but to help one and all to live out their baptism in Jesus Christ, as followers of Jesus – Monday through Saturday. With baptism as the defining feature of our worship we see the gathering of God’s people on the Lord’s Day quite differently. We are there to encourage one another, to welcome ‘the other’ to know how to live as a disciple, not a church goer. We gather to be renewed by the Holy Spirit in communion to go out into the world to do God’s work in the world.
Big changes in my tradition but I am not sure the visitor or seeker not raised as a Christian or in The Episcopal Church feels more welcomed than before. The way we ‘do’ church is so different than what seems to appeal to seekers, today.
At least to visitors or seekers looking only for a Sunday ‘churchy’ experience, not a life-style change that makes their baptism the foundation for living in the world.
The Big Box Church is what some have named churches who aggressively go after such seekers and newcomers, whose mission or purpose seems entirely focused on getting new folks in the door. There is no liturgy, so to speak, there is no Eucharist. Rather worship is akin to a concert-like gathering complete with hip looking praise bands on stages, video back drops, light shows and featured ‘prophetizers’ Quite a contrast not only to what my tradition offers, but also to Paul’s recommended ‘decent and orderly’ church.
In Paul’s day I imagine the tongue speakers and prophets would have been quite entertaining to listen to and put on quite a show. But what Paul was warning against was that the church in acting out this way was essentially preaching to themselves. Do church this way. Copy me. Imitate me. Showy. It was all about them.
That’s how the big-box churches feel to me – its about the cast of characters up on the stage who invite us to know God like they do, to have Jesus in our hearts like they do. Look like me, be like me, and you will know the glory of God in your life.
Box churches with all the bells and whistles aren’t a bad thing – they do offer the glory to God, but I wonder how they help – or not – form and mature God’s church, God’s people. Just as I wonder whether an old-school decent and orderly version of church is helping, or not form and mature God’s people.
All I know is that at the local level, in my little corner of the world, my parish is growing. Seekers from all walks of life have come into the church doors, found a welcoming community with an accessible liturgy that invites their participation.
Maybe that’s the difference. Participation. The church Paul was writing to had gotten carried away with themselves. They were doing all the church stuff and visitors, in his view, would have been put off by this. A worship experience that requires full participation in prayer, music, the proclamation of the Gospel and in table fellowship – the Eucharist – is one grounded in the idea of the priesthood of all believers.
Both and, again. God’s church needs all the help it can get to bring new believers to Him. But church leaders have more responsibility than to just attract folks to Sunday worship.
It is a good thing to hold up the mirror to our worship services, as Paul did with Corinth, to see just to whom we really are preaching and teaching. Is our worship about the people leading it or is it about God? Who do we let participate? Who do we invite to the table?
And after engaging in worship has the visitor left with some idea that our church would be a place to grow as a disciple? Would they have the sense that this place is where they can learn to walk the walk? It is the call put on God’s church after all – the great commission – the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus. Not of ourselves.