In my circles I regularly hear a quote attributed to the US theologian John Piper. “Mission exists because worship doesn’t.” I think the statement must be profound because a lot of people seem to like it. Personally, I do not understand the meaning. I know that our Lord cited the prophet Hosea when he said: “Learn what this means. I desire mercy not sacrifice.” I am confident that this expressed a critique of worship in the temple. The saying places greater value on compassionate acts in places of pain over sacrifices and liturgy. In our time it might be read as justice over choir music.
I realize that there are landmines whenever one considers the Sunday morning worship service. But let me ask: What is the purpose of the church? We would all probably agree that there are multiple purposes including worship. But surely one of the primary objectives is to encourage discerning global discipleship. We talk about this theme at Canadian Baptist Ministries. None of us have a tight definition. But we agree on the basic dimension. Global disciples are women and men who:
- Shape their values by the teaching of the gospels.
- Practice the disciplines of prayer to God and the disciplines of grace in social relationships
- Live in some form of community with other people of faith
- Serve God’s rule in their social locations through expressions of evangelism, compassion, and social justice.
- Celebrate solidarity or fellowship with other Christian people and communities in the broader world.
- Act as guardians of creation and protectors of people at the margins.
How many of these themes are addressed in the average worship service?
In most congregations, the only opportunity for teaching and moral guidance (shared discipleship formation) is on Sunday morning for 60-90 minutes. I am old enough to remember when the average congregation had Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening services, Wednesday night prayer meetings, Sunday school classes, women’s fellowships, men’s fellowships, thriving youth groups, and home Bible study groups. I can play well the game of remembering the glory years of the church. There were multiple opportunities for Christian formation and discussion of themes. Now the local community of faith has Sunday morning.
Adding to the challenge of discipleship formation is the trend of defining faithful church participation as attending a Sunday morning service once or twice a month. What do we do in that period? Music, Prayers. Offering. Announcement. Preaching. The current mixture is not working in most places. We are losing people. Church attendance is declining. Evidently, a lot of people do not find our worship services to be meaningful. We place them in seats as spectators. There is virtually no participation except for singing hymns and putting money in the collection plate. We say hello to visitors at coffee time while trying to catch up with friends.
There is so much potential because we have the potential to meet with the same basic group of people 52 times a year. I was struck by Richard Rohr’s observation that at least 80% of people seeking or working for personal and social transformation are bored in our worship services. I was once a member of Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in Vancouver. Worship was not boring. Tim Dickau, the pastor, believed that the Sunday service was the time in which the community was welcomed to God and to one another. This time prepared us to extend that radical welcome to of God in Christ to our neighbors and the world. Music, art, and even different languages of prayer reflected the diverse cultural backgrounds of the congregation. I remember that there was an order of service each Sunday at Grandview Calvary. But there was also a disorder of service as multiple people participated in ways that could not be scripted. Out of worship and prophetic preaching, Grandview Calvary has launched a refugee centre, a community housing program, an advocacy initiative for just wages, and community employment options. The church has grown to have a morning and an evening congregation.
I suspect that most of us have limited power to institute fundamental congregational change. My guess is that most local pastors feel the same way. We can at least draw attention to people and movements that point a way forward. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s faith was nurtured at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church when he studied at Union Seminary. He was obviously an outsider and yet he was welcomed into that prophetic church. I believe that we can find ways to encourage and resource new creative forms of congregational life. But we will have to find ways to bring the prophetic nature of the gospel into our Sunday morning worship.