Restructuring the church service … ?

One of the kicks with doing a blog is that it’s kind of neat to see what responses you get. After my post, “When the illusion breaks down” went up about a week ago, I got this letter from a reader:

I’m with you on the idea that Jesus should be the absolute focus of everything that goes on in a service. My question is how would you restructure a church service to insure Jesus would be the focus?

It’s a good question. So good, in fact, that I pondered for a few days before answering it, and then decided that it was worth a short essay of its own. And after a week of thought, I’ve come up with an answer that I think makes sense.

Q: How would I restructure a church service to ensure the focus is on Jesus?

A: I don’t believe it can be done by restructuring.

Let me elaborate. I don’t think it is possible to ensure that Jesus gets His due attention by how you set up the liturgy on Sunday morning. The problem is that you can distract people from Jesus by how you set up the liturgy, and I believe that it is precisely that which is happening in the American church – in mainline, evangelical and Pentecostal congregations alike.

There’s an old axiom about coaches in basketball, that they can’t win games for you, but they sure can lose them. An NBA coach can cost his team games by overworking his starters and tiring them out, or using too many players in a game so that nobody gets into a groove, or depending too much on younger players that aren’t ready to shoulder that load. What good coaches do is to prepare the team during practice for the games they are going to play, make sure each player is used in the way that suits their skill set, give pats on the back and kicks in the rear when they’re needed, and maybe badger the refs so that their squad will get more favorable calls. Basketball is not a sport heavily dependent on coaching strategy like football; when the game is on, the best coaches tend to stay out of the way unless they really need to add something. One pro coach of old used to brag that the only thing he did on game days was roll the ball out onto the floor – he trusted that his team was talented and well-trained enough to win the games.

I would say that Christians have a very talented and well-trained Lord and Savior, wouldn’t you? But when we lock into elaborate, detailed systems of worship and use them week after week after week without significant variation, it’s like trying to run a basketball team by only allowing them to run drawn-up X-and-O plays instead of letting them … well, play, and use the talents God has given them. Most congregations – of all stripes — structure almost everything in a Sunday or weekday service, to the point that if God wanted by His Holy Spirit to do something different, something not “on the schedule,” He simply isn’t allowed. And God is a gentleman; He will not force us to do things His way. But if we are wedded to our order of service, we will miss out on His best for us, just as much as the non-believers who don’t attend church at all. Because in both cases, you have people who are too busy doing what they’re doing to see what else He might be offering.

What we need to do, I think, is just roll the ball out there, so to speak, and let Him play.

This won’t be accomplished by a different structure, but it can be helped by having a lot less structure. I mean, there’s nothing in Scripture delineating Heaven’s preference for three fast songs, followed by three slow songs, then benediction, announcements, offering, a 45-to-60-minute sermon, altar call, and coffee and snacks in the fellowship hall. But I could take you to at least fifty churches in my hometown of Stockton alone where darn near every Sunday meeting runs that way (with only slight variations in the number of songs). That’s an industry-standard American Pentecostal church service, as structured and uniform as if it rolled off an assembly line.

But if God has something else in mind for a meeting on Sunday, what’s going to happen? Well, unless God manages to get through to the pastor that He has something else in mind – and the pastor either has carte blanche or can get it past the church board – what’s going to happen is likely the same thing that happened the previous week, and the week before that, and the week before that. Regardless of the blessings God wants to drop.

How about, instead of trying to come up with a new and better (or old and better) structure, we just dropped most of the structure altogether? The pastor could still prepare a sermon, and a designated musician could still have a few songs ready. But there’s nothing that says a strict procession of events has to occur. Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 14:40 that “all things should be done decently and in order” doesn’t necessarily mean a rigid, unchanging order.

Let me give you a for-instance. Imagine coming to church at the usual time for meeting and spending the first few minutes catching up with people, discussing the events of the week, maybe praying or being prayed for. After an appropriate interval, a musician chosen in advance by the pastor comes to the front, gets everyone’s attention and plays a couple of songs of praise to God, inviting people to join in. Then he or she asks if anyone else has something to contribute. Some might have a song of their own to share, or a report of how God has blessed them, or an experience where God taught them something of note, maybe even a confession of sin and request for prayer. Should someone do or say something that goes against Scripture, they can be gently corrected (and shushed) by a pastor or elder. Afterward, the pastor could spend some time teaching the congregation from the Bible, allowing members of the congregation to ask questions if they are confused on some matter.

But maybe the next week, the meeting starts with a short time of Bible teaching, followed by a song or two, followed by a word of prophecy that points to further teaching from Scripture. Or a short teaching that leads to a discussion among the congregation, followed by an hour of singing and music. Or perhaps an opening prayer, followed by a long expository study of a Scripture passage and no songs at all. All of them are perfectly legitimate ways of doing a Sunday service. The question behind it all is simply “what does God want to have happen today?”

I would say that what congregations in the American church need is not a foolproof structure for pointing people to Jesus, but instead leaders who are pointed toward Jesus and willing to do whatever He asks, even if it isn’t in the order listed on the bulletin. For that, we need leaders who are willing not only to seek God and listen to Him, but are also willing to release control over their services (and their congregations) to God and trust that “everything He does, He does well.” If the leaders are pursuing God and His will without “shilly-shallying” (to use Steve Brown’s phrase), regardless of where God’s will leads them, I believe the people under them will usually follow. And if the people are doing the same, that will attract others outside the church that are looking for something real to believe in.  That sure seems to me what was happening in the book of Acts, at any rate.

In short, changing to a new structure isn’t the answer. Better that we should scrap a lot of the structure – but let God change our hearts.

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