This week on my drive home from the assembly of the church, I saw a billboard on I-40 with the headline, “Church like never before.” Perhaps there is a valid reason for such a theme. Many churches seem to encourage routine, even rote, worship in which there is little feeling. Many people are tired of just sitting in an assembly and being preached to. So it is understandable that some might be looking for something different. But does that mean they should be looking for something totally new? Instead, should people not be looking for what made the early church grow? Is like never before any better than like God intended in the first place?
God has never wanted mere routine in worship. “To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.” (Prov 21:3) Nevertheless, he also wants sacrifice. God has never demanded something new in place of what he has asked. I can understand the desire to make worship more than what some experience. What I have a problem with is the idea that something unique is better than what God wants. So what does God want in worship? How did the early church act when they were growing at the greatest pace in history?
In most churches today, the majority of the assembly is taken up by the sermon. And most of the time that consists of one man standing before the crowd andRather than church like never before, we should go back to church like it was in the beginning. delivering a one-way communication to the rest of the people. Other than an occasional “amen” or “hallelujah,” nobody has any input. Is it any wonder that many people lose interest in the assembly? They have no investment in it.
Even the best preacher cannot always hold the attention of everyone in the audience. We don’t know when Paul began speaking in one Trojan assembly, but we do know he preached until midnight. (Acts 20:7) Further, we are told that the room was stuffy, and as a result a young man fell three stories and died. Most preachers today only worry about the members falling asleep, not falling dead. After Paul brought the young man back to life, he continued preaching until morning. So there is biblical precedent for long sermons. But there is also biblical precedent for falling asleep during the sermon.
The story is told that one man went to hear Alexander Campbell preach, in the early 1800s. Mr. Campbell was a dynamic speaker in an era of dynamic, and long-winded, speakers. It was even said that had he been born in the United States instead of Scotland, he could have been elected President. On this occasion, the man who had traveled a long distance on the American frontier to hear Mr. Campbell complained at the shortness of the sermon. When his neighbor in the crowd told him to look at his watch, he realized he had been listening for three hours, and it had only seemed like a half hour. (Would that people complained today that a half-hour sermon was way too short.) Yet even Alexander Campbell probably had people fall asleep in some of his sermons.
It seems, though, that the long sermon may have been the exception rather than the rule in the first century. Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 14 that the assembly may have included a number of short educational or inspirational talks, rather than one sermon. What we know today may have grown out of the development of a professional clergy decades or centuries after the church began. Perhaps Paul’s sermon in Troy was a rare exception, because he was only to be there a short while.
Rather than church like never before, perhaps we should go back to church like it was in the beginning. If a number of men presented shorter lessons, maybe more people would learn better in the context of the assembly.
Next to the sermon, the public prayers are often the most dreaded aspect of worship. Perhaps that is because people don’t pray, themselves. Perhaps it is because in some churches prayer has become little more than meaningless repetition.
In Tibet, some people write their prayers on a piece of paper and attach it to a prayer wheel. Every time the wheel turns, their prayer is supposed to go to the gods. While many will hold the wheel on a stick in their hands, and keep it turning, others came up with the idea of letting the wind turn the wheel. That way their prayers would go to the gods whether they were even present or not. Sometimes that is how public prayer can become. In some churches the prayers are repeated, with no originality, from week to week. Everyone says “the Lord’s Prayer” so often that they don’t even realize what they are saying.
In Jewish assemblies, much of the time is taken up repeating the seder, the order of worship including prayer written hundreds of years ago. Nevertheless, every Jewish person is encouraged to add his own prayers to the repeated ones. The rabbis teach that a prayer that is merely repeated without the heart’s involvement goes no higher than the ceiling. But Jesus taught the same thing. In contrasting the proud Pharisee who told God everything he did for God with the tax collector who merely prayed, “Be merciful to me, a sinner,” it was the latter prayer that he said was effective. (Lk 18:9-14)
Perhaps our prayers should be “church like never before;” at least if that means like we have never prayed before. If our prayers have always been empty repetitions, or if we let our minds wander as someone prays an honest prayer, then we should pray like never before. We should, however, pray like others who have gone before, who speak with God rather than just praying to God.
Public scripture reading
The Jewish people have a holiday known as Simchat Torah, which roughly translates as the Joy of God’s Law. Nor is the joy of hearing the word of God limited to one day a year. Every week a portion of scripture is read in the synagogue assembly. It is an honor to be granted to read a portion of the scripture.
In some churches today, the public reading of scripture is limited to what is read in the sermon. And in some churches that means that scripture is never read publicly. Paul told Timothy to “give attention” to the public reading of scripture. (1 Tim 4:13) If we have joy in hearing and reading the word of God, publicly and privately, then we will have church as God intended, which for some might be like never before.
The Lord’s Supper
Over the past forty years there have been debates in the churches of Christ about whether we should sing during the Lord’s Supper. A significant portion of each week’s assembly (for this group believes in weekly observance, at a minimum) is spent in silence, waiting for others to receive the bread and fruit of the vine. During that time some meditate, and others merely nap. A few people have thought that it would be good, therefore, to fill that empty time with something more productive. Others believe that concentrating on the death of Jesus is quite productive in itself. Because of centuries of tradition, we really do not know how the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Was it silent meditation? Was it a social time of teaching and conversation? We don’t know.
We do know that Paul considered it to be a time for the church to be one family. He condemned the Corinthian church for making it a drunken feast for some while neglecting others. (1 Cor 11) Whatever it was like “before,” the remembrance of the death of Jesus can be an important time of teaching. After all, it developed from the most important time of teaching in the Jewish calendar. Perhaps we should worry less about whether to be silent in this time, and worry more about teaching our children each week what it is all about.
Some people list the contribution as part of the worship in the assembly. Some are not convinced it was a regular part of the assembly, but only on special occasions. When I was a deacon of the congregation on an aircraft carrier, we only took a contribution one Sunday, and that was because we needed some written materials not otherwise available. We had no expenses, so we needed no treasury.
If the contribution is to be considered part of the assembly of the church, then maybe this is the one area where it needs to be church like never before. But even then, that might be wrong. Acts 4 gives the examples of people who sold their property to contribute to the needsWhen scripture reading is limited to the sermon, sometimes scripture is never read publicly. of the church. So, again, it might actually be a case of like at the beginning, rather than like never before.
I don’t know what the billboard meant by “church like never before,” but in my experience, most churches mean that the singing has become boring, so they need to make church into entertainment rather than worship. It is more important to make worship an “experience” for the members and guests than it is a time to give God the glory due him.
Over time, churches grew away from congregational singing, and developed professional choruses. Today those choruses have turned into rock bands. Churches compete over who has the best “worship leader” (meaning front man for the band). Church like never before has come to mean “we have the best concert.” Even the music has become “look at me” rather than directing the mind toward God.
God likes music. He wants his people to sing. But in that singing he wants them to teach one another, and to praise him. (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16) The emphasis is not on entertainment; nor is it on the ones singing. The emphasis is on the congregation, and on God.
Church—that is, the assembly of the church—should be interesting. It should be engaging. It should involve the whole of each member of the congregation. In that sense, perhaps some might want church like they have never experienced it. But it should be like God intended from the beginning, rather than “like never before.”