A visitor to our church came up to me at the end of the meeting last Sunday and said to me, “That was great, where I go to church we don’t normally do that.”
“Normally do what?”
I asked, casting my mind over what element of the church service was out of left field or could be considered something unconsidered.
“Read the Bible. Longer bits of it.”
“You mean the Bible readings?”
“Yes. Where I go, they don’t do that.”
“What do they do?” I’d like to say that my curiosity was piqued, but it wasn’t, and I had a fair idea where she was going with this.
“They maybe use a verse, but mostly the pastors talk about their ideas. They never explain a passage of the Bible that tells us about Jesus.”
I’m not astounded by that. I’m kinda used to it now. I consider our church services to be fairly bread and butter recipe that looks like this:
A liturgical process (although not obviously liturgical), that walk us through a call to worship, some praise time – older hymns and some modern songs -, a community focus for five minutes about where we are at as a church, Bible readings, sermon, prayers of confession, communion every week in which people come to the front to receive it, the so called “long prayer”, some singing that announces our freedom in Christ and our call to live in light of the gospel we just heard, then we are sent out with a benediction. People stay behind for specific prayer times or have tea and coffee, meet people, encourage them, go home.
And repeat next Sunday. And probably the one after that.
In between people get together in some formal and less formal groups, some serve in the community, most work or do study and get together in evenings for small groups (not formally organised by church), or for our monthly community meals. Some of them – many of them – quietly serve others in both our church community and the wider community, helping with meals, mentoring refugees, assisting at prisons, stuff like that.
We do occasional other things that are formal, but mostly we “outsource” and join what other groups are doing. Oh and we’re gearing up some training for leaders in Bible teaching next year, because as we get bigger we realise we need to spread that load, but that’s about it.
That lady’s comment struck me that there’s something abnormal about our normality. We’ve gotten into a rhythm of life – a liturgical rhythm – that is metered, predictable and incredibly challenging to the secular liturgies of our age. The secular liturgies have no centre, no Jesus, no hope beyond the grave, so they have to be far more exciting than our liturgies, at least on the surface, if they are to gain any traction.
I was reminded again of the old ways when I was out running early one Sunday morning and I heard the church bells from the local Roman Catholic church. That it was an odd sound in my ears told me that it’s virtually an alien sound in the ears of those whose liturgy on any given Sunday morning will not mention the name of the Lord.
Our weekly routine of liturgy has at its centre the most astonishing claim in the universe, that God’s Son came to the world incarnate, lived the life we should have lived, died the death we should have died, was raised for our justification, ascended, rules, and will one day return to renew the creation and complete the work of glory within his people that his Spirit has begun.
I guess when you put it like that, why would we need to embellish it. It would be liking trying to paint a big grin on the Mona Lisa in order to improve it. There’s something beautiful about the understated nature of that painting. Something that clings on and draws us in. Something a little like the steady drip-drip of weekly liturgy does to us, embedding in our very consciences.
I wonder how churches that don’t showcase Jesus publicly and often from the pages of Scripture manage. Churches that don’t explore how the Messiah is promised in the Old Testament; that don’t announce his arrival to fulfil God’s purposes in the New Testament, that don’t remind their people that Messiah is coming again to complete God’s sovereign plans for the universe. How do they help their people cope with the tsunami of secular narratives headed in their direction, with all of its sexual flotsam and cultural jetsam. We’ll find out when the tsunami hits the shore.
The sheer ordinary routine of gospel liturgy is a thing of beauty and strength in an increasingly ugly and weakened Western culture. Let’s never be the church of which someone might say when they visit another church when it opens the Bible to proclaim the excellencies of Jesus; “We don’t normally do that.”