I had a conversation with my dad recently about church and liturgy that sort of caught me off-guard. The main gist of it was something like this:
Me: We celebrate the Lord's Supper every week at church because it is a proclamation of one of the central tenants of our faith.
Dad: Well, Rob is teaching us how to live out our faith.
By Rob he means Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church and the NOOMA series and by "live out" he means doing lots of social justicey things. I think that what my dad was saying without really saying it was, "what does going through a liturgy and celebrating the Lord's Supper matter if you don't care about other people?" I didn’t have a response right at that moment, but the discomfort has been percolating for a couple weeks and I realized that it comes down to one question: “What is church for?”
The way I’ve observed it during my forays into various facets of Protestentism it seems that church (services) are for one of three things:
1. Evangelization with theology-lite presentation of the gospel (“Seekers, come get coffee!”)
2. Rallying the troops (“Jeannie, why don’t you talk to us for a half-hour about the neighborhod children’s ministry?” Or worse yet: “Jesus wants you to succeed at your job and your marriage.”)
3. Proclaiming the Gospel and celebrating the sacrament of the Eucharist.
4. Some combination of the above
It seems to me that my Dad and others are mostly concerned with #2…so now that we are Christians, what do we do about it? It’s not an illegitimate question; in fact it’s a good one and an important one. What I’m wondering is whether it is a question that is, ironically, distracting us from the gospel itself. Do we spend so much time talking about what we should do that we forget about what Christ has done? Do we spend more time thinking about what God wants us to do rather than who God is?
I would say yes. By the time I got to my Christian Theology class sophmore year of college I was starving for the basics. Hearing the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation articulated and receiving the Lord’s Supper every week infused my understanding of God with a richness I didn’t know was there. I’m studying Eastern Orthodoxy right now, and the other day our class took a look at the earliest description of Christian liturgy from Justin Martyr. It was very much centered around the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist. The liturgy wasn’t an evangelistic tool, it was for Christians! It wasn’t for strategizing or self-congratulations, it was for worship!
When I heard this, my remaining evangelical sensibilities sounded the alarm bells. “What good is ‘going through the motions’ if you’re not reaching other people?” First of all, as my professor pointed out, these were the people who evangelized the world…and they didn’t have “seeker services!”Second, isn’t right doctrine foundational to right practice? We forgive because we have been forgiven, we love because we have been loved, and what better reminder of that love is there than the Eucharist? Mostly, I think that Evangelicalism in America is underestimating the simple power of the Gospel. We would do well to quit with all the moralizing and start by proclaiming the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. If not, everything will just become about social justice, anti-racism, and good parenting with Christ tacked onto the end.