by Ira Hall
And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.” (Ezra 3:11b-13)

As the temple was rebuilt during the return from exile, those old enough to remember the earlier temple were disheartened because it didn’t measure up to their memory of the old days. This very understandable human response equaled the excitement of those who rejoiced to see the rebuilding.

As we work to resume public worship gatherings after a period of absence, we return to a church gathering, which may look far different than it did back in March with social distancing, size restrictions, people staying home for safety. What has been the central expression of our identity as a church, the Sunday Morning Worship Service, has changed, perhaps irrevocably. This change mixes sorrow into our joy at starting to come back together. How do we think about this change?

One of the first things we should examine is our view, especially as pastors, of the Sunday Morning Worship Service. As governors, presidents, and pastors have wrestled with the definitions of “essential” and “church,” we have primarily been talking about the big gathering on Sunday morning in our building, which we also call “the church.”

Having grown up in a small Baptist church in Maine, the definition of “church” has always been closely associated with the white building with a spire on top. Even as I grew up and was taught proper ecclesiology about WHO the church is, that close association has never ceased. We “go to church,” “attend church,” have a “church service,” and so forth. 

Having defined the building as a church, the building has then been extended further by an unspoken association with the temple. We call it the “house of God” and quote Psalm 122:1 in relation to going to church. The main room where we gather is called the Sanctuary, a holy place where we enter into the presence of God.

All these practices and definitions combine to create a powerful cultural feeling that church is something that happens in a specific room in a specific building at a specific time. If we as pastors find ourselves feeling this way, even when we know better theologically, what chance is there for so many laypeople with little theological training, or people who are still learning Christ?

The consistent teaching of Scripture that our bodiesare the temple and that the church is the saints, and the work and mission of the church are conducted by going out, is lost to the emotional power of Sunday Morning.

Many will protest that the church is commanded to gather and that the very concept of the “called out ones” is a community brought together. To these statements, I joyfully agree. However, too often, we have now defined that gathering too narrowly and culturally.

As I have struggled with these issues and thought about gathering, I’ve found myself wrestling with my own heart. As I want to defend the Sunday Morning Service, how much of that service truly expresses the community aspect of Body Life? So often, much of the service involves sitting and listening. 

The elements of Sunday Morning Worship ARE essential. The public reading of Scripture, teaching the Word of God, corporate singing, are all vital, and are dear to my heart. They are an important aspect of being a church, but, by themselves, are terribly incomplete. Gathering as an expression of “one another,” with all that entails, requires dynamics that can’t be scripted into a formal “worship service.” Confessing sins to one another, breaking bread with one another, encouraging one another, and making disciples all take place most effectively outside of the pews or rows of chairs. These essential activities occur as believers assemble in homes, in fellowship halls, in yards, and in public. 

This reality is hard to think through as a pastor. I do not enjoy preaching to a camera, and I miss the faces of my people as I preach to them. I do feel that in-person preaching is superior to preaching by video screen. However, I can still effectively exposit the Word and present God’s truth. They can still hear me and see me. Part of the loss is mine and my comfort. That biases me toward wanting the old ways back. I find I am mourning for what I personally am missing.

In this time of the pandemic, many functions of the church have been far less restricted, yet for most of us, because church is not defined by those activities, we have said that church is “closed.”  As some restrictions are lifted, we still find that some of our favorite things to do, that we as pastors are most likely to lead, are still the most unwise to do on a large scale. Perhaps this fact reveals to us as pastors that our concept of church has not only become too building-centric, but too pastor-centric.

The building is not the church, the Sunday Morning Worship Service is not the church, and the pastor is not the church. This realization becomes the most difficult point of all, perhaps. Much of our culture has made the work of the church the job of the pastor. Who leads worship, makes disciples, gets confessed to, prays & lifts up, encourages, and exhorts? It is the pastor’s job.  Our weeks are full of doing the work of the church.

In my first couple of years of being a Senior Pastor, I discovered this terrible truth.  If a person was laid up at home with illness or injury and many from the church checked in on them and cared for them, but I did not, the narrative was, “no one from the church has come to visit me.” In the same way, if I was the only one who came, but dropped by at least twice, the narrative was “the church has taken such good care of me.” I realized that I had become the expression of what “church” meant, which was not healthy for my congregation or me. I had to set about “unchurching” myself and working hard over time to help the subconscious culture change to where I was no longer “essential” to what it meant to be the church. As a pastor, I have a role to play for sure, but my role is not to “be the church.”

The pandemic has now forced us to confront this same type of cultural construct. The pastor, the building, and the Sunday Morning Service are not the church. All are tools and important elements to the functioning of the Body of Christ as it Makes Disciples by caring for one another and spreading the Gospel. The pastor, the building, or an hour or so on Sunday Morning should not be our people’s understanding of their identity as the Body of Christ, gathered together in and apart from this world for the proclamation of the Gospel and the making of Disciples.

How are we to reset and shift such a pervasive concept at a time when the biggest concern has been falling Sunday attendance? It will not be easy, and I do not have all the answers. I, too, am struggling through these thoughts and the implications of trying to change a culture that we are so steeped in. I know that for me, I start with challenging my assumptions and taking a hard look at how my stated theology differs from what I practice. I look at what I feel strongest about and ask what that tells me about the true hidden values of my heart. I must return to God’s Word with a relentless and honest dedication to what it says, not what I want.

As I examine my own heart, I find that I am like the older men of Israel who are more upset about what is lost than about what God may be doing moving forward. I find I am too easily attached to the ways I like to express what it means to be the church. I will have to journey with my congregation and lead them toward their true calling to be the people of God, the church, every day, in every place. I must learn with them to see the public Sunday Worship Service as only one important aspect of who we are, no matter how and where that public Worship is carried out.