We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, November 29, 2013

Downplaying Worship?

In his posting, "COMMENTARY: Sunday mornings are broken, Tom Ehrich argues that Sunday morning worship is no longer as important as we think it used to be, and churches and their pastors should devote less time to it. He argues, "Sunday worship isn’t growing churches any longer. Sunday morning has become a time for sleeping in, kids’ sports and shopping. Young prospects want engagement, not pew-sitting." He continues, "Churches grow when they have active small group ministries, high-commitment mission work, lively online offerings, and activities beyond Sunday mornings."  Ehrich thinks that both churches and pastors resist the idea that they need to devote less time and attention to Sunday worship, and he esp. senses that pastors will feel remorse over the loss of what has been their primary function.  Nonetheless, the clergy must invest itself in more contemporary media and in small group ministry than in Sunday mornings. He insists that congregational worship "isn’t working and it probably never worked as much as we wanted."

Ehrich has a point but only up to a point.  While worship is apparently less well-attended today than it has been in the past, does this fact warrant reducing the time pastors, church staffs, and lay leaders devote to it?  We need to be careful here that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were.

We should consider the following:  first, while church members are much more mobile today than they were fifty years ago and there is more competition for their time on Sunday mornings, Sunday morning worship remains important for them.  After an absence of a week or a month or the entire winter, it is the place to which they return to reconnect with the church.  It is the place that more than any other engages them with the fellowship of the church.  Beyond the time spent in the worship service, most churches use Sunday mornings for fellowship and often for meetings.  The morning is the focal point of congregational life and the worship service is the focal point of the morning.  It is what draws people back to the congregation.  Church members, moreover, still value quality worship even if their more mobile lives bring them to worship less often. It could be argued, then, that in a time of high mobility stable reference points are more important rather than less.

Second, Ehrich seems to be measuring the value of Sunday worship by how many new members it brings in, which if true is a concern, but that does not mean that worship is any less important for the life of the church itself.  He also fails to take into account the fact that for those seeking a church family Sunday morning worship is an important gateway into the life of a congregation.  It is where church shoppers get their first best impression of a church.

These are not minor considerations.  Ehrich himself raises a third concern when he states, "Sunday worship should be part of the mix and it should be done well."  How, we must ask, can it be done well while reducing the amount of time and effort devoted to it?  Perhaps in some churches the service could be less elaborate, but simpler services do not necessarily take less time and effort to plan, prepare for, and carry out.  The countervailing move in contemporary worship is toward services that involve more technology, newer songs, and creative styles, all of which command more time and effort not less.

In sum, Ehrich seems to have focused too tightly on the decline in Sunday worship attendance numbers as the single measure for its value.  We do better to weigh its significance in terms of its overall contribution to the health, vitality, and unity of the church as the single most important focal point of congregational life.  Perhaps there is a need for a new focal point or additional points of focus, but for the immediate future it is hard to see what it might be that will effectively replace or sufficiently augment the central role of Sunday worship.