In my previous post, I reflected briefly on a recent post by David Fitch about the Sunday morning gathering in the local church. He suggests that contrary to the position taken by some missional thinkers now, the Sunday gathering is not non-missional — or at least, it doesn’t have to be despite “the problem of the attractional inertia surrounding the Sunday morning worship gathering.”
A lot of this has to do with how we view the gathering in the first place. In introducing the subject, Fitch writes,
A recent visitor to our church’s Sunday morning gathering told me “we really enjoyed the service.” At which point I felt the urge to puke. I understand this is most often the nicest and best of things people can say to a pastor after a church worship gathering. Yet it belies the problem of Sunday morning worship in our day. Sunday morning worship is a spectacle,it too often distances us from God as a spectator event.
I believe despite all the missional protestations, that the Sunday gathering is essential to the Mission of God’s people in the world. Yet I agree, that the worst thing that can happen is this gathering becomes “attractional,” an event for spectators. When someone says they enjoy something it belies the reality that that person has now become a user, a consumer, someone who has put the object at his or her disposal for his or her enjoyment.
As I read his post and considered the differences wrought by the manner in which we view the Sunday weekly gathering, I had a bit of a sense of deja-vu. Some years back before my CLB was “LB”, there was talk at the leadership level about the difference between a church that had small groups and a church that was made up of small groups. This, of course, was back in the days when cell churches were the model-du-jour. The idea was that if the small group were truly seen as the focus and the nucleus of church life, it would matter more that people were “connected” to a small group than it would matter that they attended the Sunday morning gathering. The life of the church was, we said, in the small groups. I think there’s some good wisdom in that, despite the fact that at the time I don’t think we really took it far enough.
At the time, the church was, iirc, in the 800-member range, and the Sunday morning gathering took a lot of energy, focus, and resources. For all our effort to turn people’s focus toward the small groups, the major effort that went into the production of the weekly worship times (a focal point which a few of us later referred to as “Worship Train”) tended to pull the focus back to Sunday morning. As a church, we were running the Alpha Course and ran our own newcomers’ classes for people to get acquainted with the church — either one was essentially a gateway into the life of that particular local church, depending whether one came from a non-Christian background or from another church. Sunday gatherings would often feature an altar call that included an appeal to the unsaved.
Not that all of this was or is entirely bad, but there was a fundamental shift in our conception of the Sunday morning meeting that we never did make.
Flash-forward about eight or ten years or so, to maybe a couple of years ago. I was sitting with a pastor-friend from another church (after I had already become the ecclesiastical vagrant you see before you today). Over coffee at a local Starbuck’s, something in the conversation made me remember some of these themes. I asked him what the doorway into his church was, and as I explained the question I had posed, it gave him some food for thought. To be completely dualistic about it, the doorway for most people either is or isn’t the Sunday morning meeting. If it is the Sunday morning meeting, then the shape of that gathering must be determined by this fact. In other words, it should cater to the unchurched, be attractive to them, welcome them, and put them at ease. Back in the day, we used to call that “seeker sensitive.”
On the other hand, if the “door” into the church is not the Sunday gathering but the small groups or the relationships that exist through other church members, then those must be welcoming to the stranger, the “other.” The the Sunday morning gathering, by contrast, necessarily serves a different function. Perhaps some will enter the fellowship of the church through this means, but they would be the exception and not the designated pattern.
The truth is, most local churches don’t do either one very well — by attempting to serve more than one purpose, they dilute the effectiveness of both. Consider the implications of the question: how do you want people to enter into the community life of the church and come to faith? What fundamental changes must therefore take place in order to best serve this purpose — and specifically, how will the Sunday morning gathering (if there is one) be shaped as a result? Perhaps the question in some contexts can only be answered in reverse: how to you want people to come to faith and enter the community life of the church? This, too, is very telling, and has a significant effect on how one envisions the entryway into the body of Christ and the fellowship of his Church… and if one of these must necessarily precede the other.
I think that what Fitch is saying about the Sunday meeting not necessarily being anti-missional is correct, but it must take a deliberate and consistent effort to keep the gathering from slipping into an attractional mode. Perhaps the answers to the preceding questions could form the basis of what must be done to keep a public gathering like this missionally-focused despite the natural gravitational pull in the opposite direction.