Tag Archives: time

The church, modernity, and time

Transforming Worldviews book coverUsing ideas from Paul Hiebert’s Transforming Worldviews, I looked last time at some general impacts that modernity had on the church.

One specific area that Hiebert focused on is the emphasis on law and order. In the U.S., this shows itself in our emphasis on punctuality. Hiebert notes:

The first influence is the emphasis on mechanistic order over interpersonal relationships. We see this in the emphasis on clock time over relational time. In the former, people must be “on time” according to the clock, because punctuality is most efficient in coordinating the activities of many people doing different jobs. In much of the world people live by relational time, which means they do their best to meet at a given time, but other, human-related activities may intervene and delay them. Although they may set out for church in good time, on the way they may meet a relative or a friend they have not seen for a long time. They cannot simply say hello and good-bye in a few minutes. It takes time to rebuild the relationship, and they will eventually get to the service, which is held every week. (Kindle location 3383)

I’m troubled by the obsession with time in many U.S. churches, especially as regards ending times for services. I much prefer event orientation, where the focus is on what is done, not how long it takes. I hate people saying that we don’t have time to do this or that during our service; we have the time, we just want to use it on our own leisure later.

Hiebert’s point about clock time and relational time is seen in a study that Richard Beck referred to the other day. In this 1973 study, the participants were seminarians who were assigned to preach a sermon on the Good Samaritan. When they arrived at the place they were supposed to speak, they were informed of a change in location. Some of them were told that they had plenty of time to arrive at the new location. Some were told that they should arrive promptly (moderate time pressure). Others were told that they would have to hurry or they would be late (high time pressure).

Along the way, they passed someone who was in obvious physical distress (who was actually an accomplice of the researchers). As Beck tells it:

So who stopped to help? Those on their way to preach a sermon about the Good Samaritan? Or those who had the time to help?

Overall, the results of the study revealed that the biggest factor in helping was having the time. The relevant statistic from the study was (% who stopped):

The Low Hurry Condition: 63% offered aid
The High Hurry Condition: 10% offered aid

And, incidentally, some seminarians in the high hurry condition literally stepped over the groaning person on the way to deliver their sermon on the Good Samaritan.

What was the biggest factor that determined whether or not seminarians would show compassion? Time.

About time

I was thinking about time. Time and culture. Yesterday, someone who was visiting our service asked what time service began. I smiled because the posted time is 10:00 a.m., and it was 10:05. This lady had no problem with the informal starting time; she was just making sure she was there at the right time.

Think about some of these scenarios:

  • The preacher “preaches too long,” and the service lets out later than usual. People complain, saying, “In our society, people have to know what time they’ll be getting out.”
  • A Bible class made up of young families has the habit of starting late, giving parents enough time to drop off of their kids. Some other church members criticize this, saying that these families are “cheating the Lord out of His time.”
  • A Christian agrees to support a new work in another country. One of the stipulations laid down is that the assembly must begin on time and end on time.
  • A predominantly Anglo church begins a separate Spanish service that meets at the same time the English service meets. The elders are troubled to see that the people in the Spanish service are standing around visiting with one another well after the appointed hour for the assembly to begin.
  • A group of Christians travel to Africa. When it’s time for church to begin there are more visitors than local members. The church begins the service “on time”; most of the local members arrive half an hour later.
  • A group of elders travel to Latin America to visit a local preacher they support. They arrange to meet for supper at 6 p.m. When the local preacher arrives at 6:30, the elders tell him that they aren’t sure if he is responsible enough for them to continue supporting.

OK, enough scenarios. It’s funny to me that we can spot the cultural influences in others, but not in ourselves. The compulsion to be punctual is just as culturally-driven as is the tendency to be informal about time. Forcing a service to “end on time” robs as much time from the Lord as does starting late. (And yes, I agree that the concept of robbing time from the Lord is a bit misguided)

What’s worse, when we go to other countries and insist they follow our concept of time, we’re communicating things we never intended. In many countries, it is the subservient person who arrives on time, the one who views himself as the slave of the other. When we go speaking of equality in Christ, we destroy that message by forcing time consciousness on a people that aren’t time oriented.

Those are my thoughts for now. Any reactions?