This recent article found via the United Methodist News Service highlights a practice I’ve seen a number of churches doing in recent years: canceling Sunday morning worship and replacing it with mission in the community (I am not singling out this particular church, other than the fact that this is the most recent article I’ve seen. This has been going on at various churches for at least a decade as far as I can tell). I don’t doubt the good intentions behind these movements, and I am sure good, meaningful ministry in the name of Christ is done by trying to do church differently. I am sure some have come to join churches and have become faithful disciples of Christ through this ministry. However, I think the practice is problematic for several reasons.
Sunday is the Lord’s Day in Christianity, and it has been the day where the church gathers together for Word and Table for as far back as we can determine; Acts 20:7 describes the gathering together of the church community on the first day of the week, and we see throughout church history the regular gathering of worship. To replace worship of the triune God through proclamation of God’s Word as revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments with mission in the community suggests a few things that unintentionally undermine both mission and worship:
First, mission and worship are not compatible. In order to do the most good, we need to cancel church to get our faith into the community. Our worship won’t serve the poor or do the poor and needy any good, so we are better off doing service outside of our church.
Second, worship doesn’t do good for our community, and so we need to cancel it every now and then to show our usefulness to the community.
Third, worship doesn’t matter, at least not as much as social service. In the article I linked above, the pastor said this, “Instead of doing church, we went to be the church,” which suggests that regular corporate worship of the church is not being the church.
I worry we set up such a dichotomy between worship and community service that we end up diluting both. We need to be empowered by the Word of God and strengthened by the sacraments to go into the world and serve God and humanity. If worship isn’t compelling us to action, we are not being the church. But at the same time, if we are doing mission in place of worship, what is the message we are sending to those who we minister to? It seems that we are suggesting that they need not come to worship, that they would be better off serving in their community on Sunday morning, and that worship of God really doesn’t matter as long as you are a good person.
I’m reminded of this week’s lectionary passage (Luke 10:38-42) where Martha wants Jesus to rebuke Mary for sitting and being in the presence of Christ. But instead, Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, even though Martha is doing something much more practical and useful. We should be careful of getting into the habit of privileging service over worship and suggesting that we are not being the church when we gather in worship to praise the Triune God. Our praise and worship should lead us outside the church, but that doesn’t negate the need for weekly corporate worship where we gather to hear God’s word proclaimed and give thanks in the breaking of bread.
I have seen an alternative which I think does this better: having worship out in the community in an abbreviated form, then doing service and mission. This is probably a more biblical way of worshiping than gathering in a large gothic sanctuary, and it doesn’t negate our worship of God like canceling worship altogether does. It also more directly connects our faith and worship to the service we are doing – if we hear God’s Word, are fed by the sacrament, and then immediately are sent out to serve God’s people, the connection between our worship and sending forth make it clear that we are doing this as disciples of Christ and reminds us of how God’s Word demands that we both serve the world and worship God.