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Church as a Social Occasion

Or perhaps as the social occasion.

Thom Rainer has a post titled Seven Things Church Members Should Say to Guests in a Worship Service. It comes complete with a header picture of people who, to me, look like they’re forcing excessive smiles. I probably see it that way because I’m an introvert. I suppose that there is nothing wrong with these seven things, though I must note that I prefer that the restrooms be well-marked with signs so that I don’t have to ask someone where they are, and I’m very likely to be the guy who forgets who you are even though you’ve been down the pew from me for months. In fact, I’d just as soon you let me sit there, think, and pray as come try to make a social occasion out of it.

There’s nothing wrong with being the social person. There’s very much right with being a friendly person. Yet I’m left with several questions. The most important question is just what it is we’re trying to accomplish.

It seems to me that all of this is aimed at getting more people to attend your church service. The goal is to make people “church-going” and to make sure that an adequate number attend your church. In order to accomplish this we try to make church a great social occasion with a friendly atmosphere (provided one likes that sort of thing).

I confess that I may be hypercritical here. But all of these lists, and in fact a huge percentage of the talk about church growth seems to center around how many people we have in church. So if you have a church that is a very strong social club, you’re a successful church.

But in reading the gospel commission I can’t seem to find the part about making sure large numbers of people attend church once per week. That isn’t even mentioned, much less presented as a goal.

Someone’s going to say that this is the goal. We get them into church and from there we make disciples of them. But I don’t seem to see as many lists of ways to make disciples out of the people you manage to get to attend your worship service. I don’t see nearly as much about getting the people who are good, church-going people to go out and make those disciples. I don’t see nearly as much about getting those people to observe the things Jesus commands.

I recall a pastor recently who said to the church: The only excuse for a church to exist is to be a witness to Jesus Christ. I’d refocus that to this: The only excuse for us to have a church service is to help us be and become better disciples of Jesus.

This means that there is a good reason to get people to attend church, provided that church is about becoming better disciples. As I’m been reading about fellowship, I think there’s much more to the idea of communion as a shared meal celebrated regularly. Our church gatherings are not so much services as training and motivation to become active servants. In order to do that we need to be reminded of who we are and of how we are part of a body.

Perhaps if we built these times around a common meal where interaction involved more than greeting and attempting to remember names, singing a few songs, and listening to someone lecture, we might be able to build the body of Christ as a community that serves, and in fact embodies Jesus Christ for the world. That might mean we need to break up some of our huge congregations and spread out into the community in smaller groups.

I’m no expert on church organization or church growth. I’m pretty sure that, despite my own tendency, Sunday morning isn’t designed as a time of individual prayer and meditation for me. I can do that many other times. Yet I can’t help but get the impression that our church activities are centered around that Sunday morning worship service. If singing hymns and listening to a lecture of variable quality doesn’t light up your life, you’re just the wrong type of person.

But do these worship services really help us to be Christians? Do they carry out the gospel commission? Are the spaces in which we do these activities well utilized in pursuit of the gospel? Despite being a person whose habit it is to be in church every week almost without exception, I’m seeing it as less and less productive.

Perhaps our problem is that the goal is the wrong one. Filling our church sanctuaries on Sunday morning was never the aim of the gospel commission. Making disciples was.

Is it?

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  1. When the question of “making disciples” arises, one needs to ask, “What is the goal?” I see a disciple as one who is committed to living the two Great Commandments. How do we learn to do this, and isn’t that what “making disciples” is all about? Certainly, regular worship is a part of this. Yet, the task of making disciples, which is a congregation’s calling, is mostly formed in praxis. The congregation needs to be exposed to and led in opportunities where we serve the world, beginning from our doorstep. One hour on Sunday mornings and/or Wednesday evenings isn’t even barely sufficient. Worship needs to remind us that in serving the world we serve God. Just providing opportunities (outreach?) isn’t enough. Leader/servants need to take people by the hand and show them how it’s done. After all, that’s what Jesus did. If you measured the time Jesus spent in the synagogue as compared to the time he was with the people, we might see how our priorities are upside down.

    1. I agree that a disciple is one who lives according to the two great commandments. We can argue details, but Jesus did say that was the umbrella statement. So I could rephrase my question: Is the worship service helping us more faithfully observe the two great commandments?

      Leader/servants need to take people by the hand and show them how it’s done.

      This is an element I see as missing in the congregations of which I’ve been a part over the last couple of decades. Every church has given me a survey to see what I’d be interested in doing. As one who is very much a “church person” I know what all the words on the survey mean and I’m willing to put myself forward to help in those areas. But many people just aren’t going to do that. Current members need to do more than learn their names; they need to spot their gifts and then go with them to get active.

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