For almost 2000 years, Christians have regularly met together at least once per week (usually Sundays) to read and teach the Bible, sing, pray, break the bread and drink wine to remember Jesus’ death (communion), and build community together. This was a natural continuation of the Jewish Temple meetings, affirmed by the writer of the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:23-25), with direction to be orderly by Paul (1 Corinthians 14), and modelled in the Acts of the Apostles. At first: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). And eventually the Churches created their own Temple style meetings using the rooms in the larger houses of wealthier congregation members (Acts 20).
Due to legal complications concerning property ownership rights, services held in dedicated church buildings was uncommon until after Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century. Of the few church owned buildings before Constantine, the earliest known is Dura Europos on the Euphrates River (eastern Roman Syria). Archeologists believe it was a house, bought by Christians, and renovated to suit church purposes between 240-250. After Constantine authorised the Roman Church, he commissioned Basilicas, and church services begun to occur, for better or worse, in architecturally dedicated worship spaces.
There is not space here to trace the history of Christians and their attendance at church services to the 20th century, albeit to say that the model of temple and house gatherings continued in different forms and with different emphasis right up until contemporary times.
The point of this article is to consider the retrograde step of Western Christians, in the past 15 years, to attend services far less regularly.
In my context of Melbourne, Australia, this shrinking commitment amongst some Christians to attend weekly services seems to reflect a shift in priorities: families fitting in extra school activities, weekend holidays, going out for brunch with friends, and seeing church services as “a religious product that is provided for me” rather than an expression of Christian unity and covenant: thus, we have consumer Christianity. Some church attenders express a sense of boredom: a criticism that may or may not be fair. Perhaps the services are dull and predictable. But if the said Christian is beginning from a place of apathy and spiritual dryness, then the expectation that services should inject them with all that they need to be excited about their faith is unrealistic and misguided. If the Christian’s faith is childish (rather than child-like), they may be unfairly comparing their local service, its preaching and music, to large Christian conference gatherings, or podcasts of the flagship churches. (Perhaps the online marketing of churches to Christians via sermon podcasts and groovy websites has had a bigger negative impact on the local context than we expect?)
Of course some blame does go to church leaders, who haven’t worked to adapt their ministry to a culture changing rapidly around them. Just like the local corner hardware store, now a quaint relic, that once was the go-to place for hammers and nails, but whose owner didn’t make any changes to his business plan when the hardware megastore opened up around the corner. Or like the publishers who led their newspapers into redundancy by pressing on exclusively with print media as the advertising dollar shifted online. Church leaders who have dug their heels in and preserved a bygone church culture for the sake of sentimental comfort rather than seriously respond to the challenge of relevancy, have limited their audience to a narrow pool of churchy people. Ironically, even the Pentecostal movement in Australia is now dangerously holding on to past cultural forms, rather than adapting for new cultures (a quality they once held high): notice the commitment to mid -2000s Hillsong ministry forms.
Also, many church leaders suffer from one or more the following problems:
- lack of skill
- anger and bitterness at their own lack of results or circumstance
- turned on more by denominational politics and bureaucracy than their faith in Jesus
- lack of vision
- low emotional intelligence
- unresolved personal sin
And the big one:
- lost their commitment to The Gospel
Why would you want to regularly attend a church service with a leader bogged down in the mire of despondency?
Some writers on the mission of the church from the 2000s have tried to argue that less of an emphasis on the Sunday church service could be a good thing because, in their opinion, there has been too much effort to imitate the mega-attractional church. The missional finger has pointed for a while now at churches who sink all their cash into performance based ‘digital worship’ (with lots of screens etc…), slick music, and a middle-class-upwardlymobile-alpha-male-pastor (with a sexy wife and a minibus of kids). These churches have supposedly forgotten their mission to the world. The other point that needed to be made, but is now twisted as a cliche excuse, is “we don’t go to church – we are the Church!”
Whether it is a shift in priorities, a lack of leadership, or a well intentioned missional trend, attending services with one’s local church once every three or four weeks has not caused an increase in mission activity or passionate spirituality (as could be predicted). Rather, it has led to churches with loosely committed apathetic members – many who pick and choose to attend the community gatherings around convenience or what “worship product” (preacher, topic, music etc) is on offer that particular Sunday. Let’s face the reality that, except in churches with high mission accountability amongst its members, Christians are not substituting Sunday services to get out and be ‘incarnational’ or ‘present’ or whatever missional weasel word we might want to dribble. Let’s also face up to the sad truth that for many churches there is little sense of covenantal community or extended spiritual family.
I want to advocate for the mission focused church to also believe in Temple gatherings. The church that I lead, Merri Creek Anglican, is a mission focused church, and we also believe in the long term power and importance of the weekly church service gathering. Watch this video and see why it’s so important…