This post is part of a series investigating the most important items of Christian doctrine. View all posts by clicking here or the DOGMA tag above.
This past Sunday, I ended our service by taking some live questions from the congregation, but I wasn’t able to address all the questions live. Therefore I’m tackling some of them through this blog.
If the church is the community of believers who are to be continually gathering and working to build the kingdom, why do we meet on Sunday mornings the way we do? How does this fit and/or conflict with the picture of the church in Acts?
One of the claims I made on Sunday was that modern day people who say things like “I don’t want to go to church, I want to be the church” as an excuse to not be a regular part of a local church are fooling themselves. Of course, I agree that no one should merely “go to church” because in the Bible, “church” isn’t something you go to. “Church” in the New Testament refers to the people not an event or a location. Therefore, no individual can “be the church” because “the church” by definition (based on the word Jesus used: ekklesia) is an association of people. If anyone is “being” the church, they are being the church with other people.
Anyway, in discussing that point, I reminded everyone that if they don’t want to go to church on Sunday, they don’t have to. They could do what the first century Christians did and meet every day in public places and in people’s homes. I was speaking a bit facetiously because I knew that the expression of Christianity found in the book of Acts would be rather difficult to reproduce in the hustle and bustle of modern American society.
Nevertheless, this question (quoted above) is profoundly applicable to us today. Basically, the point is that if first century Christianity was so “organic” and ingrained in every part of life, why do we reduce modern Christianity to Sunday worship?
I have to answer this question by dealing with it in two different ways.
Christianity is not Sunday Worship
I could harp on this one all day long, but I’ll simply say that I totally AGREE with the sentiment of the question. Christianity is so much more than Sunday Worship. Christianity is so much more than creating a service with music and professional teachers and kids programs and brochures and greeters and refreshments, etc., etc. Christianity is so much more than attending those services.
Christianity has always been about people reconciled to God, reconciled to others, meeting together for corporate worship, for mutual growth, for pooling resources to do good, and for proclaiming the good news of Jesus.
That can happen on Sunday morning, Tuesday night, Wednesday afternoon, or even daily at lunch. The chosen interval of time between gatherings is irrelevant, but the gatherings are still necessary. In fact, the gatherings are commanded in Scriptures like Hebrews 10.
Therefore, we should never reduce Christianity to church attendance, even though cultural questions like “Do you go to church?” almost presuppose that very reduction. It would be much more threatening, but more accurate, to ask, “Are you living like Jesus?” or “Does your life reflect the gospel?”
Sunday Worship and/or “Church Attendance” is Purposeful
Even though Christianity cannot be reduced to church attendance, there are very good reasons why they are so closely linked. In fact, I can think of four reasons why Church Service Attendance should be considered essential to the Christian life.
1. Church Services are a historical union of Sabbath Observance and Resurrection Celebration
Remember that the earliest Christians were Jews. Jesus was a Jew. As Jews, it was standard practice for them to go to the synagogue (Jewish religious gathering) each Sabbath. God had commanded that the Jewish people preserve the holiness of the seventh day of the week, and they did so by gathering together to worship God with songs/prayers and with teaching from the Torah (the Hebrew Bible). Those who lived in Jerusalem would have likely spent their Sabbath in the courts of the temple and would have seen sacrifices or even offered sacrifices.
However, when Jesus was raised from the dead, the earliest Christians began to celebrate on a new day of the week as well. Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, the first day of the week, and that began a tradition among Christians of celebrating every Sunday. They continued to honor the Sabbath in principle by setting aside one day out of seven, but many chose Sunday to be that day in honor of the Resurrection.
Therefore, Sunday worship is a way of unifying the Old and New Testaments. It is one day out of seven, following the principle of the Sabbath, and it is on the first day to commemorate the greatest miracle of all time.
But that’s not all that history teaches us.
2. Sunday Worship gained prominence as faith became re-integrated.
One thing that is essential to remember about the book of Acts is that the earliest Christians did much of what they did with the belief that Jesus was coming back VERY SOON. I mean, they thought he’d be back in a few days or even in a week or so. That’s the major reason the church in Jerusalem grew so big so fast. There were all these people who visited Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, heard the gospel, and chose to not return to normal life. So what do you do when a church of 120 is suddenly infused with 3000 newcomers, many of whom are not locals? There was great hospitality, there was a strong “house to house” culture. People sold property to buy food for all these newcomers.
No one needed to go back home to work, no one needed to keep property, no one needed to worry about going broke because Jesus was coming back possibly this very day! The long term result of this behavior is that the church in Jerusalem eventually did go broke and Paul twice had to run a fundraising campaign to meet the needs of that church.
You see, the first church was an “apocalyptic” community that expected the end of the world to be at any moment. They didn’t work. They met every day, all the time.
However, after years and years, Jesus still hadn’t come back, and the needs of everyday living came back to the forefront of people’s minds. The church, then re-integrated their faith into normal life. They went to work, they worked six days out of the week, they worshiped on Sunday.
Therefore, Sunday worship serves the purpose of giving people a way of keeping faith a part of everyday normal life.
3. Church Services allow certain gifts to be expressed that can’t otherwise.
In the Old Testament, God commanded that there be only one Temple. Before that, there was only one Tabernacle. Having only one place where worship happened meant that the very best of the best craftsmanship could be displayed there. Gold could be abundant in that place. Ornamentation could be more elaborate. Since God gives greater talents in rarer amounts, some talents can only be expressed in large gatherings. Some teaching gifts, music gifts, and leadership gifts are better expressed in larger gatherings. Of course, some gifts are better expressed in small gatherings, but that doesn’t diminish the need for the large gatherings too.
4. Finally, Church Services provide a modern day expression of the “temple courts”
We are told in the early chapters of Acts that the first Christians met from house to house and also in the temple courts. That’s significant because the temple courts served a key role in their society:
- The temple courts were places where Gentiles were also welcome to honor and worship God.
- The temple courts were public places with clear religious significance so that all were welcome, but their presence indicated they were open to spiritual truth.
- The temple courts were large enough to handle large gatherings and to allow the proclamation of the message of Jesus to reach believers and unbelievers alike.
Simply put, the temple courts were the place where Jews, Gentiles, believers and unbelievers together could hear the message of Jesus, worship God, and experience the presence of God.
Home-based groups can’t do all that.
So, back to the question…
After all that, let’s return to the original question.
Question: Considering the behavior of the earliest Christians, why do we do Sunday Worship services at all?
Answer: (1) The earliest Christians began by living an unrealistic communal life based on end-of-the-world beliefs, but as they began to realize the importance of living faithfully in the midst of their everyday world, they established the practice of uniting Sabbath principles with Resurrection celebration. Our Sunday Worship follows that historical tradition for the same historical reasons. (2) Sunday Worship allows people to experience certain spiritual gifts in ways that can’t be experienced through casual “organic” gatherings in smaller settings. (3) Sunday Worship offers the modern church the ability to have a predictable presence in the midst of the culture, welcoming believer and unbeliever alike to hear the message of Jesus and experience the presence of God.