What is a church service for?

Why do you go to church (if you do)?  I’m in Texas, and this morning we went to a Methodist church about 40 miles away because my brother in laws sister, who is a reknown organist and a professor at Wesley Seminary, was doing workshops in Austin this week and was going to be playing at the 11am service.  Her playing was, of course, outstanding.  The sermon was good too.  And they had a choir.  They didn’t have communion (which I missed) and they had some liturgy.  

Every church service is different, and some emphasize things others lack.  My brother in law sent me an article link about what one should do if your pastor isn’t John Pieper.  (link below)  Now obviously, this is written by someone who thinks John Pieper is among the best preachers to have lived in our lifetime, but the larger point of his article was that nowadays, when we have access to many superstar preachers and teachers and we can often see a difference between that superstar and what we have at our home church, what should our response be?  (You could ask the same thing about your local churches worship music, education program, etc I suppose).  His answers were good and helpful,  I particularly appreciated what he said about encouraging our pastors through interacting with them and responding physically in the service and afterwards in dialogue– that has to be encouraging to them. 

 In these times when technology allows us to have all kinds of access to all kinds of teaching, there is an extremely high bar set for the local minister.  In fact, with all the access we have to teaching online and through other means, the local sermon from the local pastor is kind of like music– at one time the only way to hear music was live– but now we have all kinds of ways to hear it apart from it coming to us live.  Technology has made theater and parades and circuses a little less magical and also, a little less essential.  Obviously there is something about a concert or a circus which is lost in a video or recording or internet search, but the point is still relevant.  You can get a lot of knowledge and teaching through private access at home, without going to church.  So a question arises: what is church for?

I know that for the Reformed Christian the sermon is the centerpoint of worship in the service.   The gospel preached is the pinnacle of worshiping God.  In a Roman Catholic or Orthodox service, I think most would say that the Eucharist or communion is the pinnacle, because this is where the Christians partake of Christ.   

I grew up going to church thinking the sermon was maybe the centerpoint of the service, but of course that is not necessarily the case in all Christian traditions, and I think that I’ve begun to appreciate the non-sermon aspects of a service more as we have practiced liturgy and weekly communion.  The sermon’s value can be headlearning or heart-transformational.  The liturgy and communion bring out an aspect of community in Christ– all of us going forward for the communion, all of us speaking truth together in unison.  I think hymns used to do that in church, until they were replaced with worship music which is by-and-large self-expressive personal worship (not that that is bad, but it is not communal in many cases).  I have been brought almost to tears at times seeing the various people go up front together for communion at our little Lutheran church Celeste and I attended in Milwaukee this fall.  To see the variety of the body of Christ, all included in the grace and mercy of Christ, all submitting to Christ and sharing fellowship together– this has been very powerful to me. 

Also, as I have come to appreciate liturgy more and more– responsive readings of Scripture, recitations of historic creeds of the church in unison together, speaking out prayers together much like the ancient Israelites used to do in the Old Testament– these activities have become more and more central to what church is for me.  And as I have appreciated these, I have also come to see why I like hymns so much– the more theologically-rich ones are a form of unified assent to particular attributes of God and realities of the truth of Christianity and the Gospel. 

It is good and helpful to be taught by teachers who know what they are doing and who now the Bible– especially if they have a strong spiritual walk and know how to submit to God’s leading and direction.  It is so fantastic to find ministers who you completely trust and feel God can speak through.  But I’ve come to see that the church service should not just be about me getting knowledge from the sermon and a self-expressive worship time.   That is a consumer mindset which overlooks the important community and congregational aspect of the church service.  Without going to church I can hear plenty of great sermons and sing loudly to fantastic personally expressive worship music in my car (I don’t do that, by the way– I mostly stick to hymns…) What I cannot do without the church service is communally share the body of Christ in the Lords Supper, and speak in unison with other believers truths of the church which we uphold together (whether that is in song or liturgy). 

The church service has become for me, then, something which as an event it is nearly impossible to replace or substitute for it.  Meeting together with other believers for these purposes has become more and more essential to my own spiritual nourishment, and my appreciation of these parts of Christian life has grown so that I think differently about what church service is for than I did up until just a few years ago.  And by the way: one more thing you get at church that you can’t get at home: organ music!

May God have mercy on us all.

If you want to read the article I mentioned above about what if your pastor isn’t john pieper check out this link: 

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/01/06/when-your-preacher-is-not-john-piper/

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2 responses to “What is a church service for?

  1. Thank you Andy for your thoughtful words, as usual. As a pastor, who is not John Piper or Allistair Begg or, or, or, I have to also ask why I attend services. A paycheck is an obvious one. But I go back to the early church, in Acts 2 for this. They devoted themselves to 4 things: 1. the teaching of the Apostles; 2. Fellowship; 3. the breaking of bread (communion). 3. Prayer; These foci resulted in the Lord granting them awe, wonders, signs, and an incredible communal existence. We would all like to have a third “Great Awakening” and I believe it is available if the 4 items become our focus. I believe the local church does well on 1, 3, and 4, but it does not do well on fellowship (koinonia). Fellowship is not what happens in the foyer. It happens during the week, in fact, every day. The Church is the BODY of Christ. So many debates arise about whether a crust of bread and a sip of wine are the body and blood of our Lord. In context, 1 Cor. 11 indicates that discerning the Body has to do with the intimate fellowship with those in the Body! I have found a terrible lack of community among Evangelicals. Many wonder today how to draw close to the Lord. If His Body is the Church then we should at least start there. I am in awe of your home church, Andy, in many ways. Chiefly, I find that from the beginning it was the center of community. I remember the story about the tornado that took out much of your home place. I also remember the fact that, the next morning, cars lined the street.

    So, why do we go to the church if the pastor is not John Piper? Because it is the Body of Christ, that’s why!!!

  2. Hi Andy – glad I stumbled across your site. The stuff on your About page is inspiring. You make some good observations in this post about the centrality of sermons in evangelical worship, which I’ve had doubts about for some time. I think we miss the point by emphasising knowledge and understanding above multiple other aspects of our faith.
    Angus, many people look at the early church for inspiration and in itself this is not a bad thing. The ongoing question about the passage(s) you refer to (and the whole bible, really) is whether the statements are descriptive of prescriptive. My current feeling is that we attribute too much prescriptiveness to passages which simply describe what happened. I’m not convinced by your apparent assertion that “…These foci resulted in the Lord granting them awe, wonders, signs, and an incredible communal existence.” Your subsequent text suggests that we can bring about these types of blessings from God, based on doing certain things, but this is hard to swallow. Surely the wonders and signs and so on were gifts, and the “4 items” the early church’s grateful and worshipful response to the grace demonstrated by the gifts? To suggest that if we do certain things or follow a certain programme, in order to receive God’s Gift(s) is not the Gospel the way I read it.

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