Modern denominational church services are pretty much the same. Well, they vary, but the basic model, the order of the services is all the same. Songs, sermon, prayer, closing. Maybe there are announcements thrown in, maybe your church also does communion every Sunday, but it’s still basically the same: songs, sermon, prayer, closing.
I tried to do some research on how this model, this order of worship came to be, but I
couldn’t find an answer. In the end, I started searching old church bulletins (which also seem to be pretty much the same) to see if there were some clue as to how far back our current order of worship goes. The technology to reproduce typewritten pages didn’t come into common use until the mid-late 50s, but I did find one from 1947, and that bulletin showed the same order of worship, songs, sermon, prayer, closing. It seems almost as if it’s always been this way.
It’s a formula that seems to work, I guess. It’s what church ‘is’, right? Oh, sure, with our modern technology of computers and lights and sound system, it’s become much more exciting, in some churches it’s like a festival or concert, but it follows the same formula.
I contend that it’s time for a change. I’m not talking changing the order or new songs, that’s been tried. Not just a ‘shaking up’ or “modernizing”, really real change. the kind of change that comes from burning it down and starting over. (Maybe that’s a poor choice of words, but you get the idea.)
Let’s start with songs. Songs are great. Old hymns, new worship choruses, all fantastic. One of the biggest books in the Bible is a song book. Many equivalate worship with songs. They think songs are worship is songs. And in a way, that is true. Songs have always been a part of worship, long before the time of Jesus. Worship at the Temple included music since the time of Solomon (and probably since Moses.)
However, I am not aware of a 11th commandment saying “thou shalt always have music at church”. Music certainly has a place in our worship life, you can worship in your car with music, or at home, using earbuds at Wal-Mart. And it has a place at the church. But does that mean that every time you go to church, every service, must require music?
I don’t think it does. Because worship is not songs. We can worship without songs, so we don’t require songs for worship. I’m not saying songs are ‘bad’, or that any type of song should be left out, just that maybe it’s time to seriously reconsider how much we depend on music in church. Early Quakers (or ‘Friends’ as they are often called,) and some Quaker congregations today, do not have music in their services at all, their services consisting only of spoken word shared by members.
Songs are not a required part of worship.
Next, let’s talk about prayer as part of worship service.
Now prayer is hugely important in the life of a Christian and certainly part of the church. But is it always necessary as part of a church service?
Well…. uh…. maybe? I mean, of course, we should pray. We should always pray. But what I’m talking about here is some formal “prayer time” that is scheduled and formal and structured as part of a worship service. Does there have to be a time, after the sermon, before the closing (for example) dedicated to prayer and/or prayer requests? I don’t think so.
This is all opinion, of course, so I’m going way way out on a limb here to say that while prayer is, indeed, part of worship, FORMAL prayer is… kind of fake. Jesus, of course, gave us a model of prayer, but he also warned us of praying publicly, to be seen by others and I think that is what our church prayer time has become. Not all churches, of course, and not all the time, but often enough that it concerns me.
I’ve been to several churches that have a time for prayer including prayer requests. While these can be a good way to bring real concerns before God, other times – I would contend MOST times – they are self-serving times of bragging or begging. It kind of goes like this:
“Now is our time of prayer, are there any prayer needs out there?”
“Hi, I’m Bob, of Bob’s Chrysler Dodge on 14th street. I’d just like to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for how successful we’ve been in selling the new 2017 Viper, available in unique colors, exclusive to the metro area only at Bob’s Chrysler Dodge on 14th. Thank you”
“Ok, great! Dear God, thank you for Bob’s success and your blessing in his life….”
The names have been changed to protect the innocent, but that is a very real exchange that happened when I lived in Denver.
Is that worship?
No, it’s not. And I contend that it has no place within the walls of the church at all. Oh, be thankful for your success, sure. But you can do that alone.
And then there is the boring repetition of prayer. Just about every church (with many exceptions, of course) use the Lord’s Prayer. Some even put in in the bulletin that it will be after the sermon. And everyone recites it together, word for word. But how many actually believe what they are saying? Or ascribe any meaning to it at all? Rather it’s just a part of the service that needs to be done. Is that worship?
To be clear, I believe that any gathering of Christians needs to have prayer of some kind, but it can (and probably should) be as simple as “God, thank you for those gathered here, we love you and we thank you, amen.” But as a ritual? No.
Prayer (as a ritual) is not a required part of worship.
Ok, so what about the closing?
Churches do this all sorts of ways. Many offer the traditional Benediction from Numbers 6:24-26 (The LORD bless you and keep you…), others have a closing song, some ask everyone to hold hand while they sing (something I’ve always found…. uncomfortable).
Of course, there always needs to be some kind of ‘end’, we do live in a polite society after all, and we can’t just stop and wander away, so saying ‘good-bye’ is the least we should do. But does there need to be some sort of formal thing to end the worship service?
Again, I only have my opinion, but HECK NO is the best answer I can give. We can literally just say “that concludes our service, have a nice day” and stop. We don’t have to do a whole thing with songs and the hand holding or raising of hands or any of it.
The closing ritual is crap and can just go away.
So now the big one and the one that I am sure will get many many pastors, ministers, and preachers mad at me – the sermon.
Do we really need a sermon, a formal sermon, as part of a worship service?
Teaching, and likewise learning, are important. Jesus taught. Jesus gave sermons. That is indisputable. But, did Jesus give teachings and sermons as part of worship?
Well, to be totally honest, we don’t know. We have the Bible, but it’s vague at best on that topic. But one thing is clear, for the most part, when Jesus taught, he took and answered questions. Time after time, question after question. Sometimes the answers were clear, other times Jesus answered with parables, but he answered.
But still, is there a commandment ordering us to have a half-hour long sermon as part of our Sunday services?
I have heard some amazing sermons. I’ve given a couple myself (though I wouldn’t call them ‘amazing’ in any sense). There are some shockingly talented preachers out there. And there are past sermons that have changed things. MLK’s “I have a dream” speech is basically a sermon. Many still reference (for better or worse) the “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon given so long ago by Johnathan Edwards (there are claims of people clinging to trees to keep from falling into Hell). But are they even ‘church’?
Well, yeah, since they’ve been part of services forever, just like song and prayer. But….
And again, just my opinion, they don’t have to be.
It can be argued, given Jesus’ example, and Paul’s that sermons are the biblical model. That they are how people should be taught. But as I pointed out before, Jesus also answered questions. Granted, often he knew they were ‘gotcha’ questions and answered accordingly, but he took questions and answered them. So sermons aren’t the only model we have.
Do we need them as part of every Sunday? No.
So now we get to the big question – if we don’t keep following our old models of worship, what should we do?
If we do away with songs and sermons and prayers and closings, then what would church look like? If we’re really talking about making church less like it’s ‘always been’ then how do we make it new?
We need to start with what church absolutely HAS to be, what church cannot exist without.
I’m going to skip the obvious answer, God, because ‘duh’. Obviously, a church needs God. (I’m talking about traditional Christian churches, I know there are many that are church without the Christian God, but that’s a discussion for another time.) That being said, let’s dig in.
A church needs… a church IS a community, a family. Above all, more than anything, what the church needs is a sense of belonging, it needs to be a place people feel like home. If it isn’t that, then it isn’t anything other than a formal ritual. Many, maybe even most, churches are good at this. Potlucks, fire pits, game nights, those are all tools used to build friendships and closeness. But we need that in our services too. In fact, I would contend that this needs to be TANTAMOUNT in our services. I’m not talking about hokey, uncomfortable things like making people hold hands, but real things that really connect people. We’ll look at some examples later.
A Purpose other than self-existence
If a church only serves itself, then what good is it? Who, besides the people in those 4 walls will miss it if it suddenly vanishes? There needs to be something the church does not just for itself, but for its community, its city, the world. Some do well in this area. Many hospitals exist because of one denomination or another, smaller churches have their own food pantry, many provide small financial help to those in need. But it needs to be something the community does, something more than putting some bills or a check in a collection plate. There needs to be something they can DO. They need to get their hands dirty. Now I know that not every church member can swing a hammer or dig a ditch, but everyone can do something, even if it is just putting in money. And it needs to part of worship time.
This is kind of a part of the “community” thing, but I feel it’s important enough to talk about on its own. And by participation I don’t mean “join the praise team” or “lead communion this week” or “do a solo during offering”, but real, complete participation. Everyone is involved. Everyone is included. At least as much as they are comfortable being included. In the ‘old model’ discussed above, church is led by the pastor and the music team and maybe the elders and deacons. And while those roles are important, they are the biblical model, after all, I don’t feel the “few lead while the rest listen” model is how it was meant to be, nor is it fully conducive to the congregation, the community, learning and growing.
Think back to when you were in school, high school, college, whatever. Who are the teachers you remember best? Which do you most fondly remember? Which classes did you like best?
One that stands out for me is the trigonometry class I took my senior year. We were a small rural school, so there were only 25 kids in my whole senior class. Of those 25, there were only 6 of us that could (or wanted to) take trig. Mr. Shultz was our teacher. I had him for at least 2 other classes, and he was a good teacher, but trig was different. He basically let us teach ourselves. He was there, and he answered our questions and led us when there was a new formula to memorize or something, but for the most part he sat in the circle with us and encouraged us to talk to each other and figure things out on our own. We worked through complex problems together and in spite of our differing interests and backgrounds outside of that room, in that room, we felt we belonged as a team. We were all equal, even equal with Mr. Shultz because he respected us and treated us as equals.
That’s what worship needs, everyone together, on the same level. There needs to be teachers, of course, to keep things on track, to answer questions and help everyone get where they need to go, but not at the expense everyone else participating.
More than walls
This might be a little specific and cliche’ but church needs to be more than the gathering place. Central buildings are important, of course, but Sunday services need to be bigger. Jobs and business have changed. People, especially younger people, work Sundays. They work a lot. Church is hard to fit in when it’s formalized and ritualized. ‘Doing’ church online (or at least making it accessible online – both ways) and/or in public spaces, people’s homes, etc – anywhere and everywhere it can connect with people. Personally, I think two-way interaction over the internet would be amazing – if it can be pulled off. But even if it can’t be, that kind of connection to people is what is needed.
So how would this look as a Sunday morning service?
The church is open early, open for everyone. Every Sunday morning is a breakfast potluck, members bring anything and everything to share, donuts, coffee, tons of things, not just for themselves but for anyone in the community that happens by. No cost, just everyone sharing. Leftovers, if there are any, are taken to a local shelter right away.
Service starts with a brief prayer and everyone working on the current service project. This month it’s donating water to the next town over that is having issues with their water system and they don’t have clean drinking water. Many bottles have been brought to the church, so everyone works together to check the packaging and load them on to a truck. The donation will be anonymous, no one will put the churches name on anything, nor will Bible be offered with the water. Just bottles of water given to those in need. When their water system is fixed they’ll vote on the next project, someone mentioned the non-profit rehab clinic needs help with their flooring.
The water is all checked and loaded, it took about half an hour, so everyone heads to the sanctuary. Instead of rows of pews or chairs, the seating is arranged in a circle. Maybe several circles. The leader encourages everyone to sit in a different place than before. Everyone takes their time finding a spot, chatting and talking. There’s no rush. After about 10 minutes or so the preacher calls everyone to order. Today’s lesson is on Luke, chapter 15, the so-called “lost’ chapter. In each circle, there’s also a laptop or two sitting on a chair with someone’s face on it. They’re using Skype or something to be part of the group today because, for whatever reason, they couldn’t be there. And that’s OK. Everyone treats them as part of the group. After checking to make sure the telecommuters can hear OK, the preacher reads Luke 15, then shares some questions that each circle might discuss and then turns them loose to talk about it. In each circle, and elder or deacon is there to make sure the discussion moves forward. The preacher walks around, listening in on each discussion. When a good question comes up that he thinks all the groups would like, he interrupts and shares it with everyone and the discussion continues. This goes on for about 20 minutes or so. The preacher closes the discussion time by asking everyone to share their thoughts on what they learned.
Service closes with a short prayer and goodbye, but everyone is encouraged to stay, hang out, talk one on one with the preacher or one of the elders/deacons about the lesson. No one’s in a hurry to leave. They feel at home. A couple ride along to deliver the water.
That’s just an example. Your idea of what this might look like might be different. Share your ideas in the comments.