We Must Rethink What Happens at Our Church Services
A friend once said in his Sunday morning message that some people go to church for the music and put up with the sermon. Others go for the sermon and put up with the music.
The minister’s statement suggests that people feel a church service has two primary elements. One is the worship music, and the other is the sermon: music and message.
I get this. At one point in my life I endured the singing as I waited for the teaching. Then my perspective flopped as I pursued worship and endured the sermon. Now neither matters too much to me.
In recent years I’ve not gone to church for the music nor the message. I show up for the chance of experiencing meaningful community before or after the service.
Put Music or Message in Its Place
Though the New Testament talks about both music and message, neither seems central to their meetings, especially not the way we pursue these two items today.
Music: Though music is a part of Jesus’s church, it emerges more as a secondary pursuit. Paul doesn’t ascribe music to a worship leader but to each person gathered. The purpose of this is to build up Jesus’s church (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Music is part of the one another commands as a way of ministering to each other (Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–19).
An interesting side note is that the New Testament never mentions using musical instruments in their worship of God, as happened throughout the Old Testament. This doesn’t imply that our church singing today should be a cappella, but this is something we might want to contemplate.
Sometimes New Testament singing to God happens apart from a church gathering, such as when Paul and Silas are sitting in jail (Acts 16:25). Let’s consider how we can apply their example to our reality today.
Sometimes the music set at one of today’s church services is worshipful, drawing us into closer fellowship with God. But too often it’s more of a performance for attendees then a tribute to our creator.
This makes the music portion at some churches more akin to a concert, even to the point of including a light show, smoke machines, and accompanying video projection behind the performers.
And if you claim our church worship time isn’t a performance, then why are the singers and musicians positioned in front of everyone and elevated on a stage? If the music is truly a tribute to God and not a performance for us, then why not station the musicians behind the congregation or out of sight so their presence won’t distract us from God?
Message: Another friend calls the church sermon a lecture. I’m not sure if he’s joking or serious, but I get his point. I’ve heard sermons that so sidestepped the Bible, faith, and the good news of Jesus that the resulting words were no different than a lecture from a secular speaker.
There are, however, three instances where New Testament writers describe activity that we might equate to a sermon. These are in specific situations.
The first is educating people about their faith (Acts 2:42). This implicitly is for new believers, giving them spiritual milk as we would feed a baby (1 Corinthians 3:1–3). This basic training grows them in their salvation (1 Peter 2:1–3).
It prepares them to teach others (Hebrews 5:11–14). It’s not something to persist in Sunday after Sunday. Instead it’s a temporary situation we should grow out of.
The second is missionaries who tell those outside the church about Jesus. This can’t happen at a church meeting because those who need to hear the good news of Jesus aren’t there.
Spreading the gospel message requires going out to encounter people where they are, not expecting them to come to us and our church services (Acts 8:4, Acts 8:40, Romans 10:14–15, and 2 Corinthians 10:16).
And the third is traveling missionaries who give updates at the local churches (Acts 14:27, Acts 15:4, and Acts 20:7).
Everyone Participates: Regarding these two elements of music and message—that we place so much emphasis on in our churches today—Paul gives instructions to the church in Corinth. It’s not the job of a worship leader to lead us in song.
Nor is it the role of a minister to preach a sermon. We—the people in attendance—are to do these things, and more, for each other. It’s an egalitarian gathering where we all take part for our common good to build up Jesus’s church (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Remember, through Jesus, we are all priests. It’s time we start acting like it.
What does show up as a reoccurring theme throughout the New Testament is community. But this goes way beyond the time of personal interaction that I seek before or after a Sunday service.
The church, as a group of people, should major in community, on getting along and experiencing life together. Community should happen before, during, and after all our gatherings—both those on Sunday, as well as throughout the week. In all that we do, community must be our focus.
We should enjoy spending time with each other, just hanging out.
If we don’t like spending time with the people we see for an hour each Sunday morning, then something’s wrong: not with them, but with us. Yes, community can get messy.
But we have Jesus’s example, the Holy Spirit’s insight, and the Bible’s wisdom to guide us in navigating the challenges that erupt when people spend time with each other in intentional interaction.
Here are some of the aspects of community that we see in the early church, and that we can follow in today’s church.
Share Meals: A lot of eating takes place in Jesus’s church. We must feed our bodies to sustain us physically, so why not do it in the company of other like-minded people?
In community, sharing food becomes a celebration of life and of faith. (Read more about breaking bread in “10 More New Testament Practices, Part 2”.)
Fast: Although Jesus’s followers do a lot of eating together, they also fast (Matthew 6:16–17 and Acts 14:23). Fasting is an intentional act of devotion that helps connect us with God and align our perspectives with his.
Remember that although Jesus’s disciples didn’t fast, once he left, it was time for his followers to resume fasting (Luke 5:33–35).
Prayer: Another reoccurring New Testament theme is prayer. This isn’t a minister-led oration on Sunday morning. This is more akin to a mid-week prayer meeting, with everyone gathered in community to seek God in prayer together (Acts 1:14 and Acts 12:5).
Listen to the Holy Spirit: As the people pray, sometimes associated with fasting, they listen to the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). Then they obey what the Holy Spirit calls them to do (Acts 13:2–3).
Minister to One Another: In their community they follow the Bible’s one another commands, which teach us how to get along in a God-honoring way. (See treat one another.”)
Serve Others: We serve one another in our faith community (Galatians 5:13). We should also serve those outside our church, just as Jesus served others. And we shouldn’t serve with any motive other than with the pure intent to show them the love of Jesus.
Loving others through our actions may be the most powerful witness we can offer. We need to let our light shine so that the world can see (Matthew 5:14–16 and James 2:14–17). All of humanity is watching. May they see Jesus in what we do (1 Peter 2:12).
Tell Others about Jesus: The New Testament gives examples of people telling others about Jesus in their local community (Acts 3:11–26 and Acts 7:1–53). It also mentions sending people out into the world as missionaries (Acts 8:4–5 and Acts 13:2).
Witnessing, both local and abroad, springs from the foundation of community.
In our community we should pursue harmony. Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:20–21). The early church modeled unity (Acts 4:32). We also covered unity in the “The Acts 4 Example.”
When issues arise among Jesus’s followers that threaten their single-mindedness, they work through it to avoid division (Acts 11:1–18). This unity includes the agreement of their theology (Acts 15:1–21).
We need to rethink what happens at our church, deemphasizing the significance of music and message while elevating the importance of community, one that functions in unity for Jesus.
Read more about this in Peter’s new book, Jesus’s Broken Church, available in e-book, audiobook, paperback, and hardcover.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.
Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.