We had a new family join us at the Big Table for the first time a couple of weeks back. Before I tell the story, I should let you know you that they read this before it was published here, and they’re comfortable with it being shared.
The family has a young baby and on this particular Sunday needed to use our ‘creche’ so their little one could take a nap while Mum listened in on the message. It’s worth mentioning that the creche is the guest room in our home: a room with a fold-out sofa bed that’s equipped to provide a good night’s sleep for planned and spontaneous guests. We also have a baby mattress wedged behind it.
In some ways, this is about unplanned guests for, as we pulled out the baby mattress to use, some small spiders were hanging on for the ride. This caused a reaction of horror for the Mum; what sort of hovel are we living in here?!
My wife, Fi, apologised for the service not being up to standard and offering to work harder at excluding unwelcome guests. Fi is quite good at apologising for things that aren’t entirely her responsibility, but that’s another thing altogether.
When I heard the retell, I had a couple of reactions.
First, we should probably clean behind our couch sometimes. Shouldn’t we all?!
Second, there’s a big difference between a church service and a church service. I’ve always reacted to the former, and I think it’s because of the latter!
Let me explain briefly before adding more words to the thought.
There’s a difference between the gathering or ‘event moment’ (often labelled a ‘church service’) and the behaviours, actions and call to faithfulness that characterise and identify those who are in the service of Jesus and gathered as His Church.
To boldly sing lyrics like “love so amazing so divine demands my soul, my life, my all” and then get all twisted by the range of beverages on offer or the imposition of finding a car park on the way to your ‘church service’ should be convicting. We should never acquiesce to the point where it is not.
Jesus died to provide the salvation way for you and adopt you into a family where everyone gets to play. Sure, there are times when you’re injured, bruised and battered, and to play in times like these would be counter-productive for both you and the team, but Jesus wants you healed and whole. He wants you running with endurance, in the saddle, whatever metaphor works best for you. He wants you in the theatre of the world: shining, flavouring, loving and serving. He wants you to do that with your local community of faith, too. That’s one of the primary places where this love is modelled and practised, and then extended and propagated.
When the church is reduced to a service, it’s also reduced to duty and obligation. “I’d better turn up today because I’m arranging the flowers” (yes, that was once a thing – probably still is in some parts). When it gets to this, we’ve reduced people to a machine that requires servicing, and our communities to vending machines that exist to give us the cheap nutrition that we demand.
When the church is reduced to a service, the orientation is you and your needs. Too hot, too cold, too loud, too long, no spiders(!): these things are real but they’re also the product of an orientation towards self. They place the addressing of these concerns in the hands of those who you look to as ‘service providers’ rather than either personal preferences or something that you can play a part in addressing. Or plain inconsequential.
When the church is reduced to a service, you reduce yourself to a spectator rather than a player. The ‘body’ metaphor that Paul embraces leaves no such room. It’s not a body you come to watch like a Dockers’ match; it’s a body that you’re invited to take your place within, like a mass-participation fun run.
When the church is reduced to a service, mission gets left behind, or, there will be an assumption that it is being done by others ‘over there’. The mission of God is never outsourced from followers of Jesus; it’s intrinsic to the new creation and family that we’ve been invited into by Jesus’ work on our behalf. And the invitation is not exclusive to you; it’s personal, but not private.
To warm a seat, to stand occasionally, to attend, to enjoy your latte – these are honourable and noble practices, but they are more in the ‘appendix’ category than the ‘hands and feet’ category when it comes to body function.