Letting the Church be the Church

During the June holidays, I managed to spend a month at L’Abri, a Christian centre started by Francis Schaeffer. This centre or shelter drew different kinds of people who were exploring or searching for answers pertaining to the various aspects of life. Some of the people who went there were Christians, others were formerly Christians and still there were some who were not Christians at all. Having such a mix of people living, working and intentionally spending time to seek certain answers together made some of the most interesting and eye opening conversations. Out of all the conversations I had, one in particular stuck with me as I thought that what was shared had implications for the direction of churches today.

It was well after dinner and a few of us were seated outside, just chatting and enjoying the weather. Somehow, the conversation moved to the topic of churches and people were sharing some of the reasons why they left church many years ago. A girl shared that she left church when she was in her late teens and her reason for doing so was that youth ministries at that time was just about having fun. She said she could not recall having a serious bible study. Every meeting they had was about going out to play or doing something in an attempt to entertain. The services did not help either. According to her, the service was like a concert but more lame. The lightings weren’t done up as well, the music wasn’t as good and the hyped up atmosphere the church was trying to create seemed so artificial as compared to real concerts held outside the church. To my surprise, others who had previously left church also agreed and said that they shared similar experiences. Now if you’re struggling to imagine what kind of atmosphere professional bands can create, struggle no further! Take a look at this video by Coldplay during one of their concerts.

Compare this to our experience of what modern churches or perhaps modern services have tried to do. I think it doesn’t take a lot for us to realise that a large majority of churches will never be able to provide such an electrifying atmosphere as compared to what professional bands can do due to multiple factors such as playing full time professionally, budget involved in setting the stage, manpower involved, skills needed for visual effects etc etc. The lack of all these resources and yet the desire to replicate what attracts people to concerts resulted in church services that were in the words of the people I met, “lame”. I reflected on what was shared and something came to mind. Perhaps in our attempt to replicate what the world offers, a first class concert, we end up becoming at best a second class concert. In trying to look appealing and relevant, we may have lost certain Christian distinctives while at the same time failing to achieve what worldly concerts can offer. The result is that we (the church) end being neither here nor there. To put it bluntly, we become both a second class church and a second class concert.

Some, perhaps a very small group of churches may have all that is needed in producing a first class concert. They have staff whose job is to just play professionally, they have so much money that they can replicate the same kind of visual effects and they have enough manpower to make everything happen such that this same hyped up atmosphere is felt by its members. But at this stage, a question still remains – why is the church trying so hard to look like a first class concert when it can be a first class church?

And for that matter, I do think church and concerts are mutually exclusive in that the church is not a concert, neither can it be a concert. Concerts seeks to centre the attention of the audience on whatever band is playing. The goal of concerts is for the audience to leave feeling like that they had a smashing good time and hopefully they may purchase more albums or merchandise by that band. The church in contrast is understood primarily as a community called to worship God. The liturgy during service isn’t like a concert where someone stands and sings a song to entertain the audience. Rather the liturgist (the person leading worship) leads the entire congregation in the worship of God. In church, attention is drawn not to the band or to the worship leader but to God. Which is why in some churches, applause for the band or someone singing during service is deemed as inappropriate. An example of someone who holds to this would be Joseph Ratzinger who made the remark in his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy” that

“Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. Such attractiveness fades quickly—it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation.”

In fact, there are some churches that are structured such that congregants may not even see the musicians. This is to enforce the message that during service, the musicians are not at the centre of worship. Concerts on the other hand serves precisely that function of drawing the audience to themselves and the music they produce.

All that being said, the point of this reflection is not to suggest that there should be no contextualisation that takes place. I think contextualisation is inevitable. At the same time, I don’t think contextualisation requires the church to mimic first class concerts – something the church by definition can never be and must be cautious of if it wants to remain the church. If anything, members of the church must ask themselves what it means to be the church. I also understand that churches adopt concert-like styles for services as an attempt to attract people to their church for potential opportunities to evangelise. Regarding this point, something can be learnt from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. During an interview with Christianity Today, an interviewer asked Kallistos Ware, an Eastern Orthodox priest and professor of theology at Oxford University, how the Eastern Orthodox church has been reaching out to the unreached. Ware while recognising that more could be done on the part of the Eastern Orthodox church had this to say:

“To me, the most important missionary witness that we have is the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic worship of the Orthodox Church. This is the life-giving source from which everything else proceeds. And therefore, to those who show an interest in Orthodoxy, I say, “Come and see. Come to the liturgy.” The first thing is that they should have an experience of Orthodoxy—or for that matter, of Christianity—as a worshiping community. We start from prayer, not from an abstract ideology, not from moral rules, but from a living link with Christ expressed through prayer.”

The Eastern Orthodox church while recognising that the entire liturgy serves as a missionary witness, has not adopted concert-like styles for their services so as to draw people in. For them, the worship of the church is in itself a witness to who God is, not merely a means to evangelism. Because they understand worship as a missionary witness of the church and a life giving source through her Eucharistic worship, they have been all the more careful in preserving and ensuring that the liturgy bears faithful witness to who God is. Protestant churches today may not necessarily agree with everything in the Eastern Orthodox service order, but I think we can learn from their approach in seeing worship not as primarily concerned with trying to bring people in but rather faithfully portraying the God that the church worships and the relationship He has with the church. As it has become increasingly popular these days for churches to adopt a more pragmatic view of worship which often results in it looking similar to concerts, maybe it’s time for us to stop trying to be a second class concert and start being a first class church instead. Or as my lecturer mentioned once in class, we should let the church be the church.


3 thoughts on “Letting the Church be the Church

  1. Thank you very much the essay, I grew up in a Catholic Church and moved to Presbyterian Church after meeting my wife to be about 20 years ago. I fully agree that the protestant church tend to “emotionalize” the service, if I may use this word. And the most disturbing phenomenon to me is the lack of silence during or before the service. There will always be some form of music in the background even during meditation. Even in a small church I am attending, we have two diverging movements, one to make the service more contemporary, and therefore more relevant to the young, and the other more traditional, going back to the roots. It is almost like having two churches in the same building. I don’t know where it leads to but perhaps it also boils down to a fundamental question, how much must a church modernize to attract new members? Is the growth of a church measured by number?

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  2. Hey Allan, thanks for your comment. I am not a roman catholic but I do attend mass fairly often. My personal thoughts is that the protestant church at least in singapore, can do more to consider what the liturgy is. In so far as worship is viewed merely as a means to evangelism, or as a platform to make people feel welcome, then a more pragmatic approach would always be taken. But if worship is seen not as the means to evangelism but rather a testimony in itself to who God is, then i think a greater thought will be put in to worship services in ensuring that worship brings across the church’s relationship with the triune God. One thing that has puzzled me is how there have been modern attempts to tailor worship for non christians. To me this comes across as strange since the worship of God by definition is an act made by the people of God. So much more could be said but maybe i should create another blog post instead 😀

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