The other day I had lunch with a former missional church planter who asked me whether I thought the church service still mattered. After spending the past three years attempting to plant a church by forming what he calls "a network of missional communities," things didn't progress as he had hoped and now he is attending a more traditional church and feeling frustrated with its old school model. He is especially frustrated with the worship service. "It seems like a lot of investment for very little return" he said.
I suppose it depends upon the kind of return you hope to get. In the competitive culture of today's church, the weekly assembly is often primarily a marketing device. It's what we use to attract people. Once we get them in the door, we want them to get busy. They need to prove that they are true disciples by pitching in. Serve in the nursery. Listen as children recite verses on Wednesday night. Use your vacation time to go on a church sponsored short-term missions trip to Uganda.
In other words, in this view the assembly is legitimized only if those who are a part of it can show that their presence adds value to the church and its ministries. Anyone who cannot do this is regarded as a spiritual deadbeat. If you have only come to worship, you are merely taking up space. This kind of thinking not only betrays a low view of worship, it misunderstands the nature of the church.
The church is not a collection of ministries and activities which utilize the assembly as one means to accomplish its purposes. The assembly is church. Or to put it another way, the church is the assembly. Paul says, "when you come together as a church" (1 Cor. 11:18). Of course, there are many reasons that people might assemble. I am not saying that all it takes to make a church is a crowd. Not even if it is a crowd of believers.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about their coming together, he observed "When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation." (1 Cor. 14:26). This was not a complement. The assembly of Corinthian believers seems to have been marked by a kind of frenzied activity, where believers piled on one another in the exercise of their gifts and ministries. There were no spiritual deadbeats here. It sounds like a modern pastor's dream. Yet somehow in their busyness, they lost sight of the nature of the assembly. Their primary aim appears to have been to perform. Paul corrected their thinking by reminding the Corinthians that the aim of all the activity that takes place when God's people assemble as church is to edify. To use the common vernacular, we should come to church expecting to get something out of the service. If we do not, the church has failed in its objective.
But what should we expect to get? Fundamentally, we should expect an encounter with God through the word and worship. Eugene Peterson's definition of worship as "an act of attention to the living God" beautifully captures this idea. When the congregation assembles for worship, it recognizes that the God who is always present everywhere is uniquely present when the church gathers and turns its attention to Him. The central act of this worship event is the proclamation of God's word.
When we downplay the importance of the assembly, we undermine the ability of those who have assembled to exercise their ministry as the church dispersed. In today's typical congregation "ministry" is the word we use to describe the programs and activities that are carried out in the church. It is a model which treats visitors like customers and the church's members like non-paid, part-time employees. The problem with this approach is not that it forces the church to depend upon volunteers to execute its ministries. It is that its definition of ministry is far too narrow. It excludes at least 80 percent of the average church member's life and activity. In this view changing diapers in the church's nursery is considered ministry but teaching in a public school is not. Pushing a wheel-barrow full of bricks in the hot sun during the church sponsored short-term missions trip is ministry but cultivating a relationship with the people with whom your work or simply doing your work to the glory of God is not. It is a view which equates ministry with programing instead of seeing it as the believer's basic vocation of bearing witness in whatever context God has placed them.
As a result of the church's biblically deficient view, our preaching and teaching fail to "equip the saints" for ministry in the realm of the 80 percent. Our sermons run the risk of turning into moralizing pep talks. Or they become wheedling attempts to press the congregation into service in the church's programs. Such church services leave the average attender, who does not have room in their schedule for a part-time church job, either wary or disinterested and wondering what the experience has to do with the rest of their lives.
If the aim of assembling is to edify, then true biblical worship must involve an act of attention to the congregation as well as to God. This involves a kind of collective self-awareness in which we come expecting to "get something out" of the experience, while also having a regard for the needs of others. The church's assembling is not the "first-base" of discipleship but home base. It is the foundation for Christian living and community. In order for the church to be the church, there is always some assembly required.
John Koessler is a member of the faculty of Moody Bible Institute and author of The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap (IVP).