On Church Attendance and Discipleship

I want to ask a question that is a variation on something I heard Scot McKnight say one time.

The question is basically this: In an age where music and information is available at your fingertips, is a traditional church assembly really a necessity in the Christian journey?

Consider this: everything that happens in a typical Christian assembly can be readily accessed other places…
– Sermons can be heard online – and faith-based blogs can be read. (I’ve listened to more sermons from Rob Bell lately than I have from my own preaching minister!)
– Worship music is readily accessible and only a click away on your iPod
– There is no need to sacrifice “community.” You can still share means with and pray with other individual believers in the same way that early Christians shared the Lord’s supper and prayed together.
– …and you can certainly do ministry work without attending an assembly.

So…whats the point of a traditional church assembly? Is traditional church attendance – particularly in the 21st Century – a valid barometer of one’s faith? And in any event, is it possible that churches spend WAAAAY too much money and time on weekly assemblies (and on the buildings where they occur)?

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15 Responses to On Church Attendance and Discipleship

  1. Richard says:

    I made the argument in Sojourners class at Highland last week (one that came from conversations on my blog) that the weekly church gathering is valuable because it increases the possibility of intersecting with a prophet (or a prophetic voice). That is, outside the weekly church gathering it seems hard to encounter intensive moral critique. For example, during the last week at church I encountered the following:

    -Fair trade coffee in my class
    -A study on social justice from Amos
    -A collection and invitation to participate in FaithWorks (a community-based job training program)
    -Prayer for children in an orphanage in India who have pneumonia.
    -A prayer service for the team my wife is going with to visit this orphanage in India (they are bringing food and medical supplies with them)
    -Bringing sacks full of food forward for the annual food offering.
    -My sons leaving their Sunday School class with food packets for the homeless.
    -A meeting with a team attempting to help our church reach out to the neighborhood.

    And this is just from one week at church! Where else could I go to find this kind of moral community? Rob Bell is great and so is singing, but the stuff you encounter inside a good church (on a weekly basis!) is priceless.

  2. Matt says:

    Richard:

    I agree with your main point – it increases the chances of encountering prophets and prophetic voices. But…

    NONE of the things you listed have anything to do with the traditional assembly last week (praching, singing, praying, Lord’s supper). The “sack Sunday” event was done DURING the assembly, but isn’t an every-Sunday thing. You could have bought fair trade coffee, learned about Amos, given to FaithWorks and food pantries, made food packets, and prayed for people without ever setting foot in the assembly itself.

    To put it in other terms, the assembly itself was incidental to all of the things you listed.

    Which brings me back to my question: whats the point? Surely there are easier, even more effective ways, to put ourselves in a position where we encounter the prophetic…

    (BTW – for readers who don’t know me personally, I’m just asking a question here – I still go to traditional assemblies and even help coordinate a class at Highland…)

  3. Richard says:

    Matt,
    I agree with you. It is all incidental. But would those things occur in any other venue with any other purpose? Can you point to a “secular” venue where all that happens? I don’t see any.

    So I guess the issue is: Why is all this “incidental” stuff collecting around this particular venue? Sharpening it a bit: If you remove the core of the event (the “worship service”) would anything else hold it all together? I don’t think so, IMHO.

    And the reason I feel this is so is that for prophecy to work it can’t be just a human critique. Prophets, to be prophets, must stand above the moral community. They can’t be (or rather their Word can’t be) “in” the community. The Word of the Lord must come from above.

    In short, the “worship core” provides the moral community with a vertical dimension that allows the prophet to gain moral leverage over against the community. If you remove that vertical dimension then all you have is a horizontal dimension, a bunch of humans with no prophets trying to do good works. The whole thing de-energizes into the Shriners.

  4. Matt says:

    First, let me say that I am absolutely opposed to ANYTHING that would even remotely put me at risk of riding an undersized motor scooter in a tassle-topped red hat. I am tempted even at this moment to capitulate for that reason alone. Nevertheless, I’m going to push back one more time before giving up…

    There has GOT to be another way – LOTS of other ways – to form Christian communities that encounter the prophetic without spending the time, attention, and money that go into a traditional worship assembly. It strikes me that this is a problem of creativity (or lack thereof) – and of being “stuck” to/in old patterns – than it is a problem of distinguishing ourselves from secular charities.

    But – I give you this – at the moment I’m stuck figuring out exactly what an alternative would look like. So…for the time being, I’m going to keep doing it the old-fashioned way; but – while I’m doing it – I plan on continuing to ask annoying questions like this one. (G)

  5. Richard says:

    I, too, am very intrigued at the prospect of finding new patterns. I think that is, and I’m not telling you anything new here, one of the big emergent projects.

    I keep wondering, as you can tell, if a moral community can stay “good” without worship of some kind. Even if it is symbolic and perfunctory. It seems to me that to achieve self-giving kenosis on a communal scale you need to live under a Power that builds in the potential and expectation for moral critique and accountability. Worship, for better or worse, makes you submit and recognize that potentiality. So I wonder if any new form is going to look radically different. From a simple house church to an Orthodox liturgical service to a Protestant mega-church, they all will share the same “moral schematic.”

    Happy Thanksgiving my friend!

  6. Jonathan Sharp says:

    Now, is the major complaint money and time spent on traditional worship communities? It seems to me that the biblical example commends spending money and time on worship. A whole boatload of money and time was spent on the temple and the related worship activities there.

    Also, it is true that the early church worshipped in small communities. I would ask if such small communities were intended to be normative, or were they structured that way because of the persecution they faced, with the intention of becoming a large body of believers worshipping corporately in each town just as they used to do in Jerusalem (as soon as they could).

  7. curtis says:

    I don’t have a whole lot to add to the conversation at this point, I think everyone’s making GREAT points. But Matt, I’ve GOT to agree with you that there MUST be another way. There MUST be a way that doesn’t eat up so much time, money, resources simply to put on a show with the hopes that maybe the attenders will “encounter God”.

    Like you, I don’t really have a great alternative at this point. But for me, where I’m at in this process right now, I’m attending a very small, house-church-like gathering. Granted, there’s still music involved, but the sermon has been replaced with a discussion. And that (Spiritual/Biblical discussion) is definitely something that I’m not getting enough of anywhere else. Rob Bell’s sermons are great, but I can’t talk with him about it while I’m listening 😉

    That’s my 2 cents, even though it’s a little late in the game.

  8. nena says:

    Well, I guess we could preach on a hillside or at a giant sports arena. Jesus was partial to hillsides, it seems. But, it appears to me, that the point is to reach out and touch man in some way he can personally respond. There is a difference in reaching him through television (or such) and in actually being there with him. I find strength through Christian music, books, videos, television personalities (some). But Jesus is about the personal touch. When we are together in worship we personally encourage one another by our being together. We are saying “I believe.”

  9. Jeremiah says:

    How about doing what the early church did? They met in the synagogues, marketplace, and more uniquely – homes? As one with a graduate degree in Adult Education with a specializating in distance learning I have seen how bringing things together from a distance fails at making a community. Indeed, electronic medium is usually used as a way to enhance or better stay in touch with the community one is already in and to bring fresh ideas into the flow of everyday life.

    So, if considering what an alternative might look like in light of our information age how about a circuit of homes that meet together that can form a broader community through electronic medium and could even create larger formal gatherings in places like hillsides and statiums? However, I’d not be surprised if those homes eventually went about the business of finding a dedicated facility for meeting (so that John and Sue homeowner don’t have to replace their carpet every year) which would come to look an awful lot like what we have today.

    I think the more important thing is that our traditional modes of assembly fan out and embrace the more traditional (meeting in homes and the marketplace) and use the new mediums technology provides us to further network the community. Then again, even as a technologist by trade, I often long for the day that I can put all of my electronics away and just live life sipping tea having real face to face conversation without having some other place to rush off to or a phone call to answer. Maybe our concern is less about the where and more about the how – the real sharing of ideas, faith, dreams… our humanity. Something the Sunday sermon fails to enable even though we’ve all come together. When was the last time the preacher said, “I’m gonna shut-up, you people turn your chairs toward one another and ‘do church'”….??

  10. Matt Wardman says:

    Can I mix the metaphor with a question.

    Why remain married to your wife? Everything you do in your marriage/family can be done apart – bringing up children, sex with whomsoever, learning, earning a living etc..

    I’d suggest that there are 3 answers to both questions:

    1 – Because life is not only functional.
    2 – Because you want to.
    3 – Becaus human community and continuity in that community is natural. I’d encapsulate this answer in the title of one of Canon Robert Warren’s books “Being Human, Being Church”.

    Matt W

    In the context of human community, perhaps the thing to question is the nuclear family spread over large distances rather than the church congregation.

  11. Danny Ham says:

    Richard
    I just found this site. I want to know how to get you guys some money because of the hard times ya’ll are in. If you and Donna want to leave Zim for a while you can live here in the states with Lisa and I. We have plenty of room. Let me know at (Leisurelawn@sbcglobal.net
    Your mate
    Danny, David, and Jacob

  12. Matt says:

    Danny-
    I think you’ve got the wrong people, here. This Richard that is posting isn’t the owner of this blog, and he is not currently living outside of the US.

  13. Danny Ham says:

    Thanks Matt I’ll keep looking for Richard

  14. Bettie says:

    Gathering together for worship, fellowship, support, etc which occurs through the local church, is as integral to sustaining a body of believers as it is for family members to spend face to face time together. It would be ludicrous to assert that one can sustain and grow a viable relationship purely through a means that precludes the dynamism that occurs in the context of face to face shared experiences. The church experience was never designed to be a lone ranger undertaking and those who attempt it, miss out on the benefits of gathering.

  15. Jeff says:

    I am fascinated by this subject. I am an active member of a large traditional protestant church. Downtown venue, old mystical building, grounds and gardens, ancient and progressive liturgical music. The recent financial state has jeopardized some programs outside of with what Matt classifies as the worship assembly but it calls into question what the cost of the worship assembly is. Is the church, the worship assembly, a garden in which all plants can find their proper conditions for growth no matter what those conditions are thus harvested to feed the world and in turn the kingdom?

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