Lately I have been thinking a lot about “church” —what it is, what it is not, how it functions.
There are two approaches that have garnered a lot of attention. As I describe these, at this stage I am observing, not evaluating them The first is the formal, structured church. This is evident in not only architecture but also in worship life. Most of “church” revolves around the building and the liturgy. Great care is taken in the details of both.
The second is the person-centered approach to church. Thus, the person’s needs, wants, desires move center stage. Instead of a formalized liturgy the need to encourage, excite, motivate people is the focus of worship. The second kind of church has been an occasional part of my life in the last 25 years. I have participated in some very moving worship times.
Interestingly, though, I have also felt a hollowness of my own spirituality in such churches. As I examined this more, I discovered that there were no long lasting links with the Church. Songs from 20 years ago were no longer sung. The experience of the gathered people in worship spanned maybe 10-20 years. Yet I am in my late 60s. My spiritual and worship life span almost seven decades.
I grew up and have spent almost all of my adult life in the first kind of church. The liturgical form of worship was all I personally knew until I was in my 40s. The temptation was to let my participation turn to auto-pilot. I knew everything by heart, no need for the hymnal, except for occasional hymn that I didn’t know by heart. At times such participation became automatic with little thought of “what was I saying/singing.”
Yet, in some of the deepest valleys in my life, my participation in that liturgy and hymns brought stability when nothing else did. The congregational span of worship was not limited to the age of the participants. It reached back hundreds of years, and even further. The perspective was not limited to any one in particular but to the Church as a whole, throughout the ages. I realized I was part of a community that could carry me along as we sang the Kyrie, even if my lips did not move. As church, we sang, prayed, and meditated. I needed that. And over the years I have encountered others who have realized this “larger than me” experience of church.
The Foundations: Word and Sacrament
In the Church of all ages, there are foundational elements of Church: The Word of God, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Confession and Absolution, and our responses of prayer and singing. They form the heart of Church life.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. (Acts 2:42 CSB)
And Matthew 18:15-20 (CSB)
15 [Jesus said:] “If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. 17 If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church. If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.”