What is Church for? Why do we go? What mental state are you in when you walk through the door? During the songs and the sermon? And when the service “finishes”?
Sunday Morning: A Family Going to Church – William Redmore Biggs
These are the very practical questions raised in How to Walk into Church by Tony Payne. Chapters 1-3 answer the question I’m picking up in this article, “What is Church for?”. I don’t plan to repeat what the book says (it’s so clear and concise!) but to supplement and reflect upon it.
The “Why?” question is in my experience a vital one for churches to ask: it’s so easy to go through the motions of doing what churches do without thinking what the purpose is. We focus on what happens in church, or what we personally hope to “get” from it, and not on why we are here: what is Church for?
“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (Hebrews 10:22). With this verse the writer reminds us of the first reason we come to Church: to draw near to God. Believing that the heavenly visions of worship in Hebrews 12 and in Revelation are both future and present, we want the One on the throne of heaven, and the “Lamb” Jesus who died and rose for us, to be our central focus. We want to sing of God’s power and love, his greatness and his closeness. We want to come to the throne of grace in prayer (Hebrews 4:16). We want to hear God’s voice speak through the Bible as it is read and then explained in the sermon. We want to have our vision stretched and thrilled by seeing the grand purposes of God in coming in Christ to introduce His kingdom, calling us His people to Himself, triumphing over evil, renewing all creation, and seeing every knee one day bow before the throne of His Son.
The good news that God’s kingdom has come, that He chose us, redeemed us, transforms us and prepares us for glory in Christ (Ephesians 1:1-12) is the gospel. And this gospel is what calls us gather for worship, inspires us to put God first in our lives, and sends us out to live for and serve God’s purposes in the world. We want to be a Bible-centred and gospel-shaped church whenever we gather on Sundays: “Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish each other with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing to God in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16). We want to sing songs and hymns that tell this gospel story. We want the gospel to shape our prayers together, whether of confession, thanksgiving or intercession. We want to enact the gospel in the sacraments of baptism (the sign of inclusion in the Church) and holy communion (the sign of being made one Body through Jesus’ death on the Cross). We want the gospel to create and nourish faith in our hearts as the preacher unpacks and applies the Bible for us.
Tony Payne crucially points us to Hebrews 10:24-25 in the book: “Let us consider how to stir one another up towards love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – all the more as you see the Day approaching”. We could equally well point to the focus Paul has in 1 Corinthians 14 on the purpose of Church being to gather for each other’s sake. He uses there an image from the construction industry: building each other up is more important when I am in church than puffing myself up. If I decide not to turn up this Sunday, I miss out – but so do you. We gather for spiritual formation, to help the person in the pew next to us to leave church a little stronger in faith, hope and love – because we shared with them and encouraged them. The preacher hopes to do this, as do the musicians and others leading “up front”; but it is the purpose and calling of us all to gather, in order to spur each other on in our faith. It’s the ministry of the pew, not (as so often) the ministry of the few.
Two practical things follow as I come to church this Sunday:
Pray about where you sit. I loved this suggestion in the book. It is such a powerful reminder that I am not coming to church for myself but for God, for the Gospel and to Gather with others. When I pray I recognise the vital truth that God (not me) is sovereign over my life, and all of life, including Sunday at church, is best that way.
Pray for the people you will meet. Before and during the formal part of the service, I can look out for others. Who is next to me, do they look happy, new, confused, lonely or anxious? Over coffee afterwards, who can I encourage by saying hello, asking what most spoke to them in the sermon, what I can pray for them this week?
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us worship God acceptably, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29).