On one-dimensional church services


I’ve been thinking about Sunday morning services for a long time. From several angles, I’ve had recurring, gnawing criticisms of our Sunday paradigm. While I lack the time to address them all, I will focus on one of them and, perhaps down the line, address some of the others.

This particular splinter in my mind started in my second class in seminary, a hermeneutics course taught by a brilliant German scholar. While a lot of the lecture time was spent blowing apart many of our typical conceptions of biblical interpretation, there was one thing he said as more of an editorial aside that continues to echo and haunt me: there is no singular instance of preaching to the believers in the New Testament. This caught me off guard, and when I thought about it and followed that up with a somewhat more-than-cursory scan of the text, I discovered that he was obviously right. Preaching in Antiquity was a primarily evangelistic task, requiring the inspired and intelligent savvy of the presenter as well as taking care to not insult the intelligence of the audience.

So why do we settle for preaching on Sunday mornings?

I greatly value and respect the art of oration and the well-trained rhetorician; those of you who are familiar with me know this is pretty much by default. I welcome both these things in a gathering of the Christian community. However, what has happened over time is that the dynamics of the Sunday morning service have been neutered by our assumed, liturgical commitment to a one-dimensional, unidirectional mode of communication. And for those of us most familiar with an Evangelical Christian platform (pun may or may not be intended) tend to bristle at the notion that our services follow a liturgical pattern. And yet they do. Even this viciously, deliciously satirical clip is a caricature of contemporary liturgy.

(sorry, I couldn’t help but to watch it. again. I’m back now.)

I posted a very distilled version of my question on my facebook profile yesterday, and a friend noted that we can blame Luther for this, when he said that the pastor is the mouth of the body of Christ, while everyone else is ears. To which I responded, since when was Luther, who himself proclaimed the foundational tenet of sola scriptura, considered canonical?

Further, if we are to take Luther seriously, what distinction is there between a consistent core Protestant criticism of ex cathedra–the doctrine of Catholicism that puts the papal voice on par with infallibility–and the Sunday morning pastor who is purportedly proclaiming the word of God? Instead of a pope’s chair, we have thousands of lecterns, pulpits and soapboxes, all claiming divine authority for their speech. Instead of one problem, we now have many, not entirely unlike the inherent problem of cell groups. We can also see this growing problem accelerated with the advent of McChurches, where divine authority is reconstituted unto one person via television.

Beyond Luther, though, the Sunday service model (leaving music alone in the meanwhile) is downright static. If you watched that clip above, the ‘lead pastor’ said it perfectly: “I have all the answers.” And, when it comes to reflecting on Christian behavior with regard to Sunday mornings, we tacitly admit that they do, we attend a church service precisely because they are providing a service, the word of God. I’ve argued this before and I’ll say it again: our ‘services’ are not an exercise in theology, but economy. We pay for these services with our time, presence, offerings and negotiation with said church for our self-satisfaction of a need to perceive ourselves as fully human.

And when one observes this phenomenon, we see that it is static and one-dimensional. When our critical capacities are un- or under- developed, or turned off, we uncritically tend to accept that which is presented. Hence, people who think Dan Brown is a crusading redux of Upton Sinclair against the Catholic Church or that there just isn’t any lovin’ like vampire lovin’. And people who, when confronted with the stark errors of a particular message, reflexively dismiss said criticisms because, at the essence of it, it wasn’t the critic who was up at the pulpit that Sunday. The congregation may respond, but seldom is it because they truly agree, but partially because it is conditioned into the audience and also because the presenter is looking for it. As someone who has held a lectern in this context, I can tell you, unequivocally, that we/they look for positive feedback and sometimes blatantly go for it. Pathetic, but true.

Consider the historical architecture of a cathedral, chapel, church building, theater, stadium, concert or lecture hall or even a strip club: they weren’t designed with interaction in mind. At the front is the object of our immediate concern, and around us are rows of pews, seats, desks. The masses face one direction, while the few (if not one) are at the front, elevated. The room is designed to be unidirectional, from the platform to the seats. If someone speaks up, contesting something from the presenter up front, what is the response of the rest of the audience? Anxiety and an immediate tendency to reject that person. After all, who is he to speak? He’s one of us. So much for the priesthood of all believers, or the appeal to authority as a logical fallacy.

Do you know a place where interaction is encouraged by design? A restaurant, a bar, a coffee shop. The focus isn’t on the product–unless the product is crap; I’m looking at you, Starbucks–but the social experience. In a way, a pub is a better example of ecclesia than the modern (or, *gag*, postmodern) church could ever be, because the emphasis isn’t in one place, but in one another. The early church recognized this and sanctified their shared meals as sacred time, punctuated by the sharing of letters, experiences, the celebration of the messiness of human relationships and the mutual pursuit of what it means to be Christ-like. Certainly there is wise biblical admonition for order and structure, but I don’t think our Sunday liturgy was what Paul had in mind, either. The commitment to a cult of personality was rebuked in the New Testament, with Paul declaring that the emphasis must be in Christ, which liberates us to give a crap about each other and allow one another to speak, listen, push back, agree and disagree. The pursuit of Christ was tied to the pursuit of truth, both in the public disputations of Paul at Mars Hill and to the colonies of believers throughout the world.

And to think they, for hundreds of years, didn’t have a Bible to work with, either. There was a creative and ingenuous power present in those early years that is markedly absent in the canonical era, save a few decades here and there, where theological creativity saw brief renaissance. And with that creativity came a need to resist and push back against flawed theology, even in the time when Augustine argued for unity in the essentials and liberty in the non-essentials, a phrase that, to our grave detriment, has largely rendered our ability to avoid falsehood moot.

There just isn’t a historical, logical or theological anchor for our Sunday morning PR for God. But there is for sharing life and the scriptures together, something that wouldn’t theoretically be that much different than the routine, but impossible because we are practically slaves to it. There is a time for the lecture, as there is a time for the prophet, a time for excitement and a time for solitude, but that time is not 10 AM every Sunday, when our slavery to routine, obstinate kids, elderly Baptists and thoughts of how to beat said Baptists to Golden Corral after the service is done threaten our salvation before we even darken the vestibule/lobby/narthex/entry/breezeway/pearly gates of a church building. By the time the pastor has finished with his/her opening joke, the mind is on cruise control, until the piano player sneaks up front, informing the audience to put their tray tables back in their upright position and fasten their seat belts.

Even if what has been presented is theologically sound, rhetorically astute and entertaining, whatever has been said will ebb from memory as cars empty the parking lot, and they will return next week for the exact same thing, while listening to podcasts from other preachers during the week and doing the exact same thing to each one. This isn’t growth or ministry or maturity in Christ, it’s slavery to favorite programs, like putting the same eight songs by the same eight artists on shuffle every week.

It’s long past time to rethink whatever it is we’re doing in the name of Christ that we pass off as sacred time, to cast off our liturgy of mediocrity and rediscover what it is to be influencing culture for Christ and finding ways to earn the credibility we need to present the honest and dynamic gospel. If what we’re offering is clever speeches dotted with witticisms and illustrations, people can go do any number of other things with their time on Sundays. If we are living examples of the resurrection, though, we at least earn consideration of what it is that makes us alive, and there are six other days of the week to work with, too.

The day when we gather, then, is the least important day. We owe it to God, ourselves and the world to be something more than unintentional about it.

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