Church Services: Who Are They For?
Who church is for is an important question for anyone in church leadership. The question is particularly important for those of us in low-church traditions, where we just sort of “have church,” and the entire flow of the meeting depends on the pastor and worship leader. But I think the question is also important in liturgical churches. Should we follow the seeker-sensitive model, where church meetings be geared towards unbelievers? In this model, the entire service culminates with the preaching of an evangelistic message. Or should we follow a discipleship model of church, where church meetings are geared towards believers and evangelism accomplished through other avenues?
Having pondered this question for several years, I have come to the conclusion that church services ought to be worship services. Church is neither for unbelievers nor for believers but for God. And if church is primarily for God, then we have no right to whine when church meetings do not go the way we might have wanted or when the preaching does not seem to meet our needs. After all, it is not about us, but about God.
But that leads to another problem: if church is for God, why preach? In fact, the old Roman Catholic masses were pretty much like this until the reformation. There was no preaching, masses were spoken to God in Latin, and Priests faced the altar rather than the congregation. In our sevices, it is tempting for the preacher to put himself implicitly in the place of God, speaking for Him to His people. Though there is a place for prophetic ministry, it becomes dangerous when the pastor places himself week after week on God’s side rather than on the congregation’s side. I do not intend this as a judgment on preachers, but rather an observation arising from years of personal preaching experience where I found myself asking, “How can I best tell the people what they need to hear?’
I am not suggesting that we remove preaching from our worship services. It was not just the Protestant churches that changed after the reformation, but Roman Catholic churches changed also as a result of the Counter Reformation. Preaching really should be a part of our worship services, but it is hard to know what role to assign to preaching if we decide that our church meetings are for God.
The answer, I believe, is found in a covenantal approach to scripture. If the Bible is our covenant document with God, then we honor God by remembering and reflecting on our covenant with Him. Preaching that flows from the Biblical text, becoming a meditation on it or providing insight into the text, is a normal response of worship when the people of God meet with their covenant Lord. The preacher’s purpose, then, is not to minister to the congregation, but to facilitate ways for the congregation to respond appropriately to the scriptures.
For the people of God, we expect to encounter our covenant Lord when we gather together. When we worship Him in spirit and truth, we can rightly expect that He will show up, and I think we can expect that He desires to speak to His covenant people. But hearing Him speak is not the purpose of our church meetings – ministering to God is.