Assemblies that build us up, please God, and attract outsiders

Church AuditoriumI’ve been proposing several things about our church assemblies:

  • The main focus of our assemblies shouldn’t be worship. In the same way, God shouldn’t be the exclusive focus of our worship assembly. If we are people whose very lives are worship, then worship will naturally occur when we come together. If we are people who put loving God at the center of our lives, then we will seek to please God when we gather. But if we make focusing on God our exclusive goal, then we will fail at making the assemblies what they were meant to be.
  • Church services are primarily for the edification of the body. By doing so, we will please God. And as a body of worshipers, we will naturally worship when we are together. But what is done during the times we are together is done primarily for believers.
  • Our assemblies should be intelligible to outsiders. We don’t tailor the service for them. Instead, we invite them to come and see who we are and what we do. The assembly is not primarily about evangelism. It’s not about selling the church, either. As outsiders see us love and edify one another, they should want to know about the God that makes all that possible. Our hope is that what outsiders see in our assemblies will make them open to hearing the gospel message.

So, in short, we seek to build one another up in a way that is pleasing to God and makes sense to outsiders. We don’t expect non-believers to perfectly understand everything that goes on; we do hope that what they see will convey a message of love and mutual edification.

How and when do Christians worship?

cathedral worshipIn talking about the focus of our assemblies, I suggested a three-pronged focus: God, the church, outsiders. My suggestion was that we dare not neglect any of the three. But can we even discuss focusing on humans in the same breath that we discuss a focus on God in our assemblies?

Some of this discussion hinges on whether or not our assemblies are primarily a time of worship. Or, more specifically, can we relate them to Old Testament worship? I would say no.

We need to keep in mind the structure of Old Testament worship. Growing up, I thought that the Jews basically did what we do, except they did it on Saturday. As I got older, I realized their worship was very different, very much focused on sacrifice. (At least until the Exile; the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem radically transformed Jewish worship) Continuing to study and learn, I realized that their religious lives had a different rhythm than ours.

First, there were daily sacrifices, offered twice daily. The average Israelite had little interaction with this. This was done by the priests in the place designated by God. (first Shiloh, then Jerusalem)

Second, there was the Sabbath. Sabbath is focused more on family than it is on corporate assemblies. Over time, the Jews began having regular meetings in the synagogues on Saturday; this was a later development, from the Exile forward.

Third, there were the annual feasts. In theory, every Jewish male made three pilgrimages to Jerusalem every year; this doesn’t seem to have been done in practice, from what I see in Scripture. Most tried to make it every year at Passover, though I don’t even see that as being a universal practice.

There were other regular sacrifices offered by priests and special celebrations like the observance of the new moon and the tithe feasts.

Individuals would offer sacrifices at other times, based on vows, sin, or a need to give thanks. This was done on a personal basis; the one wanting to offer sacrifices went to the tabernacle/temple, sought out a priest, and presented the sacrifice.

What also needs to be included in this are the whole hosts of things that Jews did because they were Jews. Their religion dictated how they dress, how they groom themselves, what they ate,… dozens of daily reminders that they were part of a community that belonged to God and worshiped this one true God.

So which of these things are worship? In the strictest sense, it was what was done at the temple. We see that in Paul’s language in Acts 24; he had gone to Jerusalem “to worship” (Acts 24:11). Yet one could also argue that all of the above was a part of worshiping God.

So what about us? Help me out. What is Christian worship? When is Christian worship? Is the assembly a time of worship? Is all of life worship? How do we meld these ideas?

Image courtesy of MorgueFile.com

Microphones do not a leader make

churchI want to repeat myself a bit. I think this point gets lost in so many of the discussions about gender: much of the problem stems from an overemphasis on public worship.

We define our churches by that once-a-week gathering of the saints. We define much of the work of the church by what is done during that time. Think about your church’s budget. What percentage goes to providing for that time? I’m talking about salaries, about building costs, about everything involved in allowing us to bring dozens or hundreds of people together. Isn’t that the main thing our church does?

If it is, then our church has little right to exist. Our weekly time together prepares us to go out and do the work of the church. If three hours a week (or five or one) make up the bulk of our Christianity, then something is really, really wrong.

Much of the discussion about men and women in the church comes down to who is going to get to stand up, who is going to get to speak, who is going to get to be seen by everyone else present.

So let me restate my radical views:

  • I don’t think the focus of the early church was a once per week assembly. To be honest, you have to do some piecemeal Bible study to even present a case for a weekly assembly.
  • I don’t think the focus of the church was on gathering hundreds of Christians together in one place. That wasn’t practical in many settings. And if it were the focus, wouldn’t we have more discussion of such in the New Testament?
  • I think a lot of our angst comes from the modern design of assemblies. Not the New Testament example. The modern design. Suddenly stepping up to a microphone implies authority. Where someone telling their story to a gathered group of friends feels like sharing, “giving your testimony” to a crowd seems to place you above them, if only for a moment.

I know that not all of the problems mentioned in gender discussions revolve around public worship. But a high percentage of them do.

I also know that pointing out that problem doesn’t solve it. Fact is, we have large weekly assemblies. We are guided by modernism’s idea of what should be done at such times. And we’ve got to work out how to proceed.

Let’s just recognize that there should be flexibility in how we proceed, with each congregation being given the freedom to work out its own standards and norms. Those who damn other Christians for not being more inclusive of women are running the risk of damning themselves. Those who damn other Christians for allowing women to participate more fall under the same threat of divine judgment.

Women, men, and what the church is supposed to be focused on

02forangeOne thing that worries me about the many church controversies, including the role of women, is the battlefield of choice. We spend an awful lot of time talking about what goes on during the worship assembly. That’s worrisome to me because it’s directly opposite of what we see in the New Testament. The New Testament spends very little time talking about what goes on when Christians get together; why is that our main focus?

I’ve already argued that I think one of the great mistakes of the modern church is its obsession with the weekly assembly. (See the series starting here) It’s definitely the modern church that has made this mistake, for our assembly is a shrine to modernism. From the time consciousness to the focus on study, the assemblies that most of us grew up with (especially those of us from churches of Christ) are steeped in the traditions of modernism, much more than biblical tradition. That’s one reason we’re struggling to get postmoderns interested in being a part!

One reason we don’t find more information in the Bible about what women can and can’t do in assemblies is the fact that the Bible doesn’t talk much about our assemblies! It’s a bit like wondering what the New Testament teaches about food preparation; you’re not going to find much there.

Years ago, my friend Bill Richardson was talking with a group of people who were frustrated at the lack of change in their congregation. He said to them, “Maybe you’ve done all you can right now with improving worship; why don’t you focus on other things in the church that need improvement?” He says they looked at him like he was from Mars. What else is there besides the worship assembly?

As long as we stay focused on what we can sing, how we can sing, who can preach, and how shall we take the Lord’s Supper, we’ll always be off balance. We’ll always be “majoring in minors,” as the old saying goes. Look at the people whose lives are dedicated to service, those who are focused on evangelism, the ones whose ministries do more outside the building than inside the building. Few of them are obsessed with the “big issues” that rock churches.

Just an observation. I want to talk some more about women and the church, but you need to know that I think most of the conversation is focused on all the wrong things.

How worship practices changed in the Bible

Travis raised an interesting point in the comments yesterday. He wrote:

Here’s another question I’ve been pondering. Maybe you can start a thread on this some day. We have passage after passage about not changing “worship” or adding to/taking from God’s word, etc. But in studies I’ve done over the past few months, I’ve noticed how much the worship and celebrations within Judaism changed through the centuries. Hannukah is a religious celebration (of a sort) and Christ took part (it appears He did. We have no record of Him rebuking those who celebrated it.). Also, the Passover feast changed significantly from its origins, adding the drinking of wine (nowhere mentioned in the OT), the reading of certain psalms, etc., and we see Christ celebrating the Passover on multiple occasions. In both of these examples, we see Christ later using them as teaching moments, first to teach “I am the light” (Hannukah) and second the institution of the Lord’s Supper during Passover. My question is, from these examples, does this signify acceptance on God’s part that we are not obligated to keep 100% what is specified for worship? We can change it, without penalty?

We do see a worship evolution in the Bible. Along with the things Travis mentioned, I think we can point to the synagogue as a major “innovation.” (The fact that the King James uses the word “synagogues” in Psalm 74 does not mean that the Old Testament “sanctioned” synagogue assemblies) There were also numerous Jewish traditions which are reflected in the New Testament.

Considering what we talked about yesterday, it’s helpful to me to see that the church didn’t try to start from zero. They continued with what was being practiced in their day and adapted it as necessary. For a long time (possibly until A.D. 70) the Jerusalem church functioned primarily as a Jewish church. Acts 21:20 tells us that the Jewish converts remained “zealous for the Law.” To some degree, worship continued to be related to the temple. We have in mind that all of that was immediately left behind, yet we see Paul participating with Jewish Christians in temple worship in Acts 21, to the point of planning to make an offering!

The early church took the synagogue format of weekly meetings and adapted it to their own needs. Early Christian writings show that Christians saw Sunday assemblies as a replacement for the Sabbath meetings of the synagogue. In Ignatius letter to the Magnesians, he wrote:

We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained to a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord’s Day instead (the day when life first dawned for us, thanks to Him and His death.)

That’s what I see in the Restoration Movement. When early leaders of the movement sought to return to biblical practices, they took what was being practiced in their day and analyzed it in the light of Scripture. They didn’t start from zero. They built off of the practices in vogue in the 19th century in the churches they had been a part of: weekly assemblies centered around preaching, Sunday contributions, singing of modern hymns, etc. (Jay Guin had a wonderful post about this a couple of years ago; my searches of his site have proved fruitless, so if anyone can spot the post I’m talking about, please mention it in the comments section)

I do an exercise with my anthropology students, talking about the reactions a 1st-century Christian might have if he were somehow transported to one of our churches today. Personally, I think he’d be shocked to find out it was a Christian church! So much of worship and the trappings around worship have changed through the years.

As Travis asks, is that a bad thing?