Suspended Services

Suspended Services

Suspended Services

Suspended Services

May 27, 2020

May 27, 2020

May 27, 2020

May 27, 2020





A conversation that seems to be happening in many parts of the Church at the moment is about the forms of worship that we will seek to rebuild in the next normal. 

The pandemic and its subsequent movement restrictions and then relaxations have forced us to suspend, reshape, and re-order our larger worship gatherings, and the question is: When we can go back, what should we go back to?

And one common response to that question seems to be to ask another: ‘Should we go back? Do we still need the larger Sunday gathering?’

And it’s worth asking. During this time it’s been exciting to see the innovation that has taken place as local churches work out how to be both present but socially distant as they serve in their neighbourhoods. In my role at St Paul’s Theological College Malaysia, training people for ministry, I get a ring side seat of what many churches have been up to in this season and it has been so encouraging. There has been so much fruit. 

And for some this fruitfulness has been seen as a sign not to go back to the pre-pandemic ways of gathering to worship - in particular championing a the model of dispersed church gatherings that are exclusively small groups without the larger weekly gathering. 

Although I can understand the attraction, having chatting this through with friends and students I think this would be an error. I’ve reached this conclusion partly through experience, or more to the point lack of experience - I’ve never seen it work. When Sunday isn’t strong it’s hard to maintain the midweek mission and care. But also theologically, the church doesn’t primarily exist for mission it exists for worship.

As Alastair Roberts has said: 

“We often hear that ‘the Church is the only organisation that exists primarily for the benefit of its non-members.’ No, no, no. Primarily, the Church exists to worship God. To bear the image of Christ. To be the temple of the Holy Spirit.” - Alastair Roberts

Of course the climax of that worship and encounter with the love of God is service of our neighbour - you haven’t really fully enjoyed something until you’ve shared it. Sharing is declaring and worship without mission is like chewing and tasting food without swallowing it (or potentially other more sensual allegories). 

Worship without mission is odd, but so is mission without worship. 

Mission without worship slowly becomes the kind of humanism defined by Charles Taylor as

“…accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.” - Charles Taylor

It’s unlikely we would be as blunt as to state it like that but it’s a fairly good description of where we sometimes go wrong. (It’s like reading John 10:10 and treating ‘I have come’ as simply the preface to the truly important bit about me having ‘life to the full’). It’s a mission with an shifting motive so it gets lost along the way.

If your motivation for justice is anger and hatred then once you get justice you are left with anger and hatred. If the motivation is love and compassion then what you are left with is love and compassion. - Michael Ramsden

This of course is the root of some of the problems we are facing in the world at the moment, we hunger for ‘justice’ but even when we see it, it does not satisfy. If you only breathe out but never breath in then - well it doesn’t work. 

Which is kind of my point - you need both, and it will always be a tension, and any idea or model of church that pretends that it won’t be a tension is missing the point. There is no silver bullet. 

Consider Jesus’ words: 

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. 

And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:36-40

Jesus is being asked: “How do we live out the story of God, what’s the priority?” And he responds: Love God and Neighbour. The Law and Prophets, in other words the story of the people of God ‘hang’ - the word is κρέμαται (krematai) meaning: suspend, hanging, hung - on these two. The life we are called to live only makes sense when it is hung on these two, and it is uncomfortable - it’s a cruciform position, obedience to these two took Jesus to the cross. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we struggle to do both well and we also shouldn’t be in a hurry to try and resolve one at the expense of the other. 

Like the question posed to Jesus the pandemic is a testing, and the test is: are we willing to remain in the cruciform position? That even when the suspension of services ends, our call is to keep our services suspended - suspended between the command to love God and love neighbour. 

So what does that look like? I’d suggest that throughout the global and historic church our faith seems to flourish most when it is expressed at three levels. The Temple, The Home, The Heart (thanks to Miles Toulmin for the clarity on this). 

The temple is the larger gathering with a focus on the corporate expression of worship (Celebration, Lament, Gratitude etc.) which is especially important in an individualistic age that is struggles to respect and champion diversity as it creates a place for you to participate that is not primarily about you and makes space for others who are not you too. I love watching the congregation on a Sunday and seeing people sitting next to each other, worshiping alongside each other, who would never meet or connect in any other place in society. An outworking of what Jesus has done, and a picture of what he is doing, a weekly reminder of the bigger picture of where his Church is ultimately headed.

The home is the smaller gathering of both the biological and faith family - where you ‘do life together’ extra hard but especially important in cities where you can easily live like ships in the night with your neighbours. And we’ve definitely felt that the Holy Spirit’s priority in this season has been to challenge and strengthen us in this area. 

And the heart is your personal relationship and friendship with your Father in heaven. Whilst this is personal it’s never totally private and the personal relationship is fuelled by corporate interactions - which again is why it is important to consider the shaping of the first two.

All three parts cultivate a life of faith and without one part we are not as fruitful as we would otherwise be, and so I would encourage us to keep this in mind as we work out what it is we are going back to when we finally do get to go back and can resume our suspended services.