By Calvin Lane
Language matters. It shapes our perceptions and priorities, and (we hope) reflects objective truth. No, I’m not talking about pronouns or identities, but rather something perhaps closer to home in the mission and life of a congregation. Here I’m referring to the common offhand way of using the word church or the phrase going to church when what one means is worship.
This simple yet deeply problematic substitution or cognate reveals a great deal about how we conceive of church, our ecclesiology and sense of mission and purpose. Up front, this reflection is not simply about the tired, mid-century contrast between going to church and being church, but rather how, in our common speech, we regularly equate only one gathering of believers as the sum total of the church’s life and witness.
So what’s the problem? While I’ll heartily join with theologians like John Zizioulas and recognize “the church,” in its eschatological fullness, as the bishop and all the baptized gathered at the eucharistic feast, a foretaste of the eternal banquet we’ll share with the Lamb of God, I’m pretty sure that’s the last thing going on in laypeople’s minds when they say “going to church” or “in church” as a cognate for worship.
Here’s the issue. The church — in its being, as a body, as the body of Christ — does a lot of things.
For example, the church serves the poor (Matt. 25). What does that look like? Believers assemble to serve in soup kitchens and shelters, sort donations at food pantries, build Habitat houses. The list goes on and on.
Another example: the church learns (Ephesians 4). What does that look like? Believers assemble to read Scripture together in small groups, to hear lectures from biblical scholars and theologians, to offer Vacation Bible School, to serve as storytellers in Godly Play or Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The list goes on and on.
Another example: the church holds fellowship (Heb. 10). What does that look like? Believers assemble for potluck suppers, Mardi Gras parties, or Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers, home-group gatherings, Easter brunches, and, yes, coffee hour. The list goes on and on.
Another example: the church engages in evangelism (Matt. 28). What does that look like? Believers assemble in new clusters, plant new churches, offer testimony in non-church spaces, create avenues for people who would have never imagined themselves in a church space winding up in one, and work together to produce media materials (including this very blog) for those who will listen or read. The list goes on and on.
Those are only four pivotal — and I would suggest non-negotiable — things that the church does. There are, of course, more. And at each moment, the church is there. When believers assemble for VBS, this is the church. When believers assemble for a potluck, this is the church. When believers assemble for Alpha, this is the church. When you do these things with other believers, you are indeed “at church.”
And yes, without any qualification, the church worships. And not simply worship, but worship that turns on the proclamation of the Word and the dominical sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.
Now, none of this reflection is meant to dethrone the Eucharist, but rather to clarify that the church’s being and doing is not exhausted in a eucharistic assembly (or any other worship event). Yes, the Eucharist is mysteriously both the most basic Christian experience and its apogee. We gather to celebrate the mighty works of God, to receive grace, to be remade by the presence of Christ himself. One may even argue that the Eucharist, in being so Christocentric, gathers together all that we do as the church. But again, I don’t believe that’s what most folks mean or think when they casually equate church with worship. It sidelines all that the church does — and must do — in this world.
When we casually refer to worship as “going to church,” it relegates education, serving the poor, fellowship, and missionary projects as somehow unnecessary for the individual disciple. These other vital activities become parachurch.
The unexamined thinking runs, “Hey, I went to church (i.e., I went to worship). I don’t need to go to that Bible study, or hang around for that potluck, or serve at VBS, or bring cookies for that Kairos prison ministry. I went to church.”
The church’s method of record-keeping even reinforces this. Average Sunday Attendance usually focuses singularly on worship. While “butts in pews” in worship on the Lord’s Day does matter (lest anyone get the rather gutless idea we should stop tracking that data), perhaps we should also track other data sets to achieve a more complete evaluative picture of how we’re responding to our Lord’s unambiguous command to make disciples of all nations.
To be clear, we can affirm that the Eucharist is the apogee and center of the church’s life without equating the totality of church (and by extension the Christian life) with worship. What would happen, in an active parish, if few if any people spoke or thought like this?
I worship God in a lot of places throughout the day. About 2x a week I go to the church’s building to worship. Worth remembering.
And yet the telos of the Church is neither fellowship, nor serving the poor, nor education, nor missionary endeavors, but worship. There is a kind of wisdom even in the sloppy grammar of “going to church.”