Should Churches Trade in Services for Serving?
What do you make of the church sign on the right?
It’s become popular in recent years for churches to skip the worship service periodically (once a year? a quarter? once a month?) in order to serve their communities. “No church this morning, we’re picking up trash in the park.” Is this thoughtful cultural engagement or another example of good intentions gone astray?
Well, you can probably guess I’m more apt to say the latter, but let’s not assume the worst about these churches. Let’s assume the people love Christ and love to worship him. Let’s assume they value preaching and believe the chief end of man is to glorify God. Let’s assume the sole motivation behind churchless Sundays is outreach. No one is trying to be trendy. No one is hating on the church. They simply want to help their communities, show they care, and maybe even have an opportunity to talk about Jesus. Assuming these are gospel-believing Christians trying to do gospel work, what’s the big deal about taking four (or two or twelve or whatever) Sundays out of the year to hit the streets and do something for others?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong (and plenty right) about wanting to serve others and take our faith to the streets. But before you cancel your worship services consider the following:
1. Consider practically if this is a good strategy. I know in our church if we skipped worship one Sunday we’d miss a lot of visitors. What if the one Sunday you’re out raking leaves is the one Sunday three non-Christian friends decide to check out your church, or the Sunday that one of your members was bringing in her non-Christian family, or the Sunday that a fringe member was going to venture back to church? Maybe you just miss these folks one week. That happens. But at least consider if the “out serving” strategy could prevent you from serving the people you are actually trying to reach.
2. Consider if there is good (or any) historical precedence for routinely canceling your worship service. Did not the apostolic church meet weekly on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2), even renaming the day “the Lord’s Day” because of its unique significance (Rev. 1:10)? Not long after, Justin Martyr explained that “On the day which is called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the countryside gather together in one place” to hear the word read and taught, communion celebrated, and prayers offered with thanksgiving. Granted, in some contexts (I’m thinking the Muslim world) Sunday worship may not be possible. But even there the Christians are still gathering for weekly worship. Given the tremendous weight of church history and apostolic example, we should have pretty good reasons for ditching the worship service in order to do something else.
3. Consider that all of life is worship, but corporate worship is still unique. Paul told the Corinthians to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), but he also recognized there was something unique about the Corinthian community when they “come together as a church” (11:18). Sunday is the Lord’s Day, a day for rejoicing in the Lord’s resurrection. This calls for “worship worship” as opposed to “all of life worship.” There’s a distinction between being the church and being “in church” (1 Cor. 14:19). Six days are for work, but on only one day do we gather to worship. Think of what you are missing when you make that day for worshiping by serving others instead of being served by God in worship.
4. Consider what it may communicate when you replace services with serving. It sounds like a good idea: let’s do something for the community instead of going to church for ourselves. But ultimately we worship because God summons us to worship. It is for ourselves (see below), but it is also for God. He commands it. So why cancel it instead of something else? But why not do the soup kitchen on Saturday or pump people’s gas on Friday night? I suppose it’s possible you can have some meaningful conversations explaining why you are a Christian and not in church. But it also seems quite likely that churches replace Sunday services with Sunday serving because that’s the time they are already meeting. It’s the best time to get most of your people doing something and it doesn’t require any more time out of their week. Except for doctors, police officers and the like serving in their professions, are there really service projects the church has to do on Sunday morning?
5. Consider that corporate worship is a means of grace. Theologians have always considered the right preaching of the word and the right administration of the sacraments to be channels of divine blessing. So why rob our people of grace? Isn’t the easy removal of a weekly worship service an indication that our view of worship is too puny? We’ve come to think of Sunday morning as a few songs and a little (or long) talk. We’ve forgotten that corporate worship, however small or feeble, is a reflection of the glorious worship offered continuously by saints and angels and creatures and elders. We’ve forgotten that the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are more than rituals. They are rivulets of grace. We’ve forgotten that a sermon is not a lecture but Christ speaking to us. Why would we want to skip all this? Why would we think that shutting this down for a week is the best way to serve a needy world? We can worship God by serving our neighbors, but once a week we are called to serve our neighbors by worshiping God.