I have had a weird relationship with Sunday church services for a while.
Up until the last couple of years in Ithaca, an ever-increasing amount of energy, effort and people-hours went into putting on the Sunday morning worship gathering. And we got pretty good at it.
However, as our time there came to an end, and we prepared to move to Dublin, it was clear that we could not use that same model here. There were a number of reasons, chief among them being:
- It wasn’t sustainable. The number of people needed, the number of hours it required of the staff, and the pressure (internal and external) to keep doing it better was intense and did not feel healthy in any way…and I know I was not finding life in it.
- It kept us from discipleship. After getting ready for Sunday, there wasn’t the time or the energy to focus on discipleship. (And while we said/thought discipleship was happening in our small groups, it really wasn’t…the popular small group model is usually more about keeping people connected to the church rather than it is about discipleship…In fact, you’ll more often hear the phrase “Closing the Back Door” when church leaders talk about small groups, than you will “discipleship”…)
- And it was creating something that felt less and less like what was supposed to be happening. It was becoming more common for people to critique the worship songs, the style a specific worship band used, the way the speaker spoke, etc.
As we settled here in Ireland, I often spoke about the community of faith we were hoping to start by saying that I didn’t want it to be “Sunday-centric,” but in actual fact, I was coming to a point where I had a very difficult time seeing much value in a Sunday morning church service at all.
And as I walked around my community here in Clontarf, and saw people taking part in all kinds of recreational and leisure activities, my aversion to Sundays only grew. “How could that possibly relate to these people?”
I wrote a few weeks ago that I believe a lot of people who recognise that the church needs to change to engage culture, have a hard time imagining “church” without all of the current bells and whistles.
And the vast majority of churches are designed to appeal to people who already like “going to church.” The standard way that churches usually grow in this model is by providing better “services” than the other churches in the community (better worship, better kids’ programming, better youth services, etc.).
Despite all that, I was never ready to dump Sunday. And I knew that while I never wanted to lead an “attractional*” church model again, I’d want anything I lead to be attractive to people rather than repulsive.
(*Attractional is often used to describe the model where the staff and leaders put on quality church services, and people in the church are encouraged to bring their friends. So rather than going out among the community, the idea is that the church waits for the community to come to them. And while it’s not that cut and dried, you get the idea.)
So for the past few years, I’ve been wrestling with this, and how it all fits together…and recently I had a bit of a light bulb moment.
I was reading Planting Churches in the 21st Century, [affiliate link] by Stuart Murray. And in a section entitled, “Incarnational Versus Attractional” he wrote this.
“The Christendom era, sometimes blamed for the attractional approach, can be interpreted instead as an attempt to transform an entire society incarnationally without the witness of a distinctive community. The outcome was a weak and compromised church rather than a sanctified culture. In our post-Christendom context, we must not make the same mistake. We need distinctive and countercultural expressions of church more than ever if we are to sustain authentic incarnational mission.”
Basically, the problem wasn’t that the church gathered on a Sunday, the problem was that outside of Sunday, they didn’t live as a community of Jesus followers (disciples). In fact, they didn’t live all that different from those who didn’t gather as the church.
(Which leads to the question, if they are not living as Jesus followers, then what actually is the nature and purpose of their gathering?)
I’m still working through what all of this means. I still know we can’t go back to the model we were familiar with. I have no desire to put on a Sunday morning performance, or to lead a Sunday-centric type organisation.
But, I’m excited about being part of a community that tries to live out the gospel in every facet of their lives… I think that might actually be pretty attractive.