I went to two churches this morning, one at 9:00 and the other at 11. One was a typical contemporary evangelical service, not unlike many others I’ve been to over the years. The other was the Episcopal church I’ve been attending for several months. There was a vast difference in style, as one would expect. However, today I became aware of one distinction in particular which bears some reflection.
First, I want to be clear that I am not saying church #1 is in any way a bad church, as evangelical churches go. On the positive side, they really understand how to be welcoming. We were very warmly greeted by people who seemed genuinely happy to see us (granted, one greeter was someone I happened to know). Second, they started precisely at 9am. They even had a TV screen in the lobby counting down the seconds until church started. Even though most people were late, that didn’t stop the worship team.
Here’s the thing with church #1: The service, which was 90 minutes long, consisted of only two items, worship (that is, singing about 4 worship songs) and the sermon. As far as the worship portion went, the band was very good (and loud), and the songs were for the most part well-chosen, including 2 contemporary versions of older hymns (including Amazing Grace, always a winner). The pastor was a fair speaker, but talked way too long, and said virtually nothing that couldn’t have been said in under 10 minutes. Then they did a quick offering during a reprise of one of the worship choruses.
On the other hand, at St. Paul’s Episcopal we sang about the same number of hymns, not counting various liturgical choruses and a responsive chant of Psalm 111. They read selections from the Old Testament, the Epistles, the Gospels, and of course the chanted Psalm. There was a sermon – barely 10 minutes, but well thought-out and providing food for thought (a little pun… the text was John 6:51-58) on a very difficult text.
We also publicly confessed sin, received an affirmation of forgiveness, spent time in intercessory prayer, proclaimed our faith in reciting the Nicene Creed, corporately prayed the Lord’s Prayer, heard some amazing special music and celebrated the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist).
All that, in under one hour.
Food for thought
Again, I did not particularly dislike church #1. But again, the contrast between my 2 church experiences this morning reveals something, I think, about evangelical Christianity. I keep coming back to Marshall McLuhan’s concept “the medium is the message,” because I think it’s directly applicable to church. What we do – or not do – and how we do it reveal both our priorities and our beliefs.
It is easy to see in the Episcopal worship service what they believe and what they value: Scripture, worship of the Trinity, a commitment to the historic faith and the ever-present work of Christ as celebrated in the Eucharist.
In church #1, it was not so easy to discover what they believed. I presume – because I know the denomination – they are Trinitarians and believe in the authority of Scripture, but I wouldn’t know this from the service. It was evident that they valued contemporary music and a quality sound system, and that they valued the perspective of the pastor (the sermon took the majority of the service). But, what does what is lacking in the service say about their beliefs and values?
I am not blaming church #1 for their rather featureless service; I believe they inherited a contemporary, anti-liturgical and anti-historical form and have taken it for granted. It possibly has not occurred to most of them that they leave the service with relatively little, and having done very little. Fellowship, corporate singing and some teaching are, of course, not without value; the question is, is it enough?