“Constituting and Fulfilling the Church”…Yikes
Bloggers can easily tell when a post resonates with a large amount of people because of the way their hits spike over a given 48 hours. A recent post on Why We Need the Call to Worship did that. My hunch as to what resonated was how all those various short blurbs on the Call to Worship pointed to the gravity and depth of what corporate worship truly is.
Some of the best advice I’ve received on reading theology is to regularly venture out of one’s tradition. In doing so, I’ve found a bedfellow in Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, especially on the topic of what worship is and “does.” About gathering for worship, Schmemann says,
The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive fifteen miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place, an act which is the very condition of everything else that is to happen. For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the Church of God. They have been individuals, some white, some black, some poor, some rich, they have been the “natural” world and a natural community. And now they have been called to “come together in one place,” to bring their lives, their very “world” with them and to be more than what they were: a new community with a new life. We are already far beyond the categories of common worship and prayer. The purpose of this “coming together” is not simply to add a religious dimension to the natural community, to make it “better”–more responsible, more Christian. The purpose is to fulfill the Church, and that means to make present the One in whom all things are at their end, and all things are at their beginning.1
We evangelicals struggle to understand this reality (yet thirst to understand better) because many of us have an “underdeveloped ecclesiology”–a very anemic view of who and what the Church is. Our (great) heritage has emphasized our personal relationship with God. If we’ve grown up in the evangelical Church, we will have no doubt been taught at camps, retreats, and in discipleship courses that we must pursue God one on one and cultivate the devotional life of personal piety. This emphasis, wonderful as it is, can have a negative impact on us, causing us to squeeze out any sense of who we are, not as individuals before God, but as the Church. In other words, heavy doses of our individual relationship with God can when left unchecked squelch our sense of corporate identity as the Body of Christ. The result is that when we read Schmemann throw out phrases like “constitute the Church” and “fulfill the Church,” we scratch our heads, cock our eyebrows, and with a gnarled face mutter, “Hmm…sounds kind of Catholic.”
There exists a desperate need for evangelicals to recover a high ecclesiology, a robust sense of who we are as part of the Church community. The beauty of this recovery is that we don’t have to give up much…only add to. A strong, positive view of the Church doesn’t come at the expense of the great Reformational doctrines that we prize or the individual personal piety we emphasize. In fact, evangelicals could be poised to be one of the “brands” of Christianity that have the most full-orbed expressions of historic, biblical Christianity…if we begin to recover a high view of the Church.
What does this mean for gathering for worship?
First, it raises the stakes. If, in worship, we’re more fully “becoming the Church,” we have to take attendance and active participation seriously.
Second, it means that God is doing some actual spiritually formative work in us, even when we simply come and get our backsides in the seats.
Third, it means that in corporate worship (as opposed to in our homes or at our workplaces or anywhere else), human beings gain some of the truest sense of who we are. This is going to sound a little crazy, but in corporate worship, we gain a truer sense of the meaning of life.
Fourth, it means that pastors, worship leaders, and planners can’t just shoot from the hip when planning a worship service. We can’t just look for what’s hip, what’s on the CCLI charts, what technological accessories we’ll employ, what people want to hear, want to sing, want to do. There must be purpose in both the content and form of our worship.
Finally, it means that we want to be very careful of replacing a worship service with anything else. It’s in vogue today to talk about the fact that the church needs to be more active in our communities. It gets tricky, though, when you have such a low view of the Church and her worship that you look at the service of the Church as expendable or replaceable. This happens when churches say, “Instead of worship this Sunday, let’s do a church-wide community service project. We’ll ‘worship’ in that act!” In one sense, we can applaud this gutsy move, because they’re saying, “Hey, folks, serving our community is really, really important. We’re even willing to close up shop on worship to do it.” But two things should give us pause: (a) all that we’ve said above about what happens when we gather; (b) the fact that this seems to be a pretty unprescedented move in the history of the worshiping Church.
I personally feel like I’m just scratching the surface on understanding what it means to be the Church, but the more I scratch, the more I’m discovering that I’ve been missing out on something pretty amazing.