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Metro cars and church

photo by Carmen Andres

The other day, I took the Metro into DC. The station was at the beginning of the line, so the car was only a quarter full. I grabbed a seat, took out my phone and started scrolling through email and social media apps. By the time I put away my phone 10 minutes later, the car was packed.

You’d think with that 60 or so people crammed in one little space, there’d be some noise, but it was so quiet that I could hear the rustle of a newspaper page being turned half a car away from me. Some riders were reading or looking at their phones while others closed their eyes or looked at nothing in particular. No one was talking.

This isn’t unusual. There’s a certain etiquette for riding public transportation that creates a kind of unspoken social order to protect personal space and politeness. And as an introvert, I don’t mind at all.

But that morning it suddenly struck me that one of the only other places where I could sit with that many people in silence was in a church service.

And that got me thinking.

Silence in services can be a good thing. No doubt, many are silent before a service begins out of reverence for a sacred space or the desire to take a few moments to quiet before God rather than out of politeness or respect for personal space.

But I can’t help thinking there are some connections between the silence on the Metro and the kind of interaction that characterizes Sunday mornings in a lot of churches.

After walking in the doors, it isn’t uncommon—especially of larger congregations—for a lot of people to know only a few, if any, of those they pass in the halls or sit beside. Perhaps they exchange a few greetings on their way to claim their seats, where they sit silent, eyes forward, looking at their phones or reading something until the service begins. Then they’ll sing songs, listen to a sermon, perhaps stand in line to take communion alone or with their family, sing some more songs, and leave—walking through the doors again, like Metro riders reaching their stop, having had nothing more than a superficial conversation with another person, if that.

I’ll be honest. I’ve had shades of this experience. A lot.

Don’t get me wrong, I find many aspects of worship services very meaningful, but—and if you’re familiar with this blog, you know what’s coming—the current way we define church and how we structure our gatherings opens us up to creating an experience echoing that of a Metro car full of strangers rubbing shoulders instead of the kind of people of God we are called and enabled to be.
                                                  
While we can point to and pour efforts into programs supporting small groups and discipleship as ways to create more intimate interactions, the resources and emphasis we continue to place on the Sunday morning (or Saturday evening, etc.) service—and how many we can get into the pews, chairs or stadium-style seating—belies the true focus of many congregations.

And what we do when we gather can trip us up, too. In Pagan Christianity, Frank Viola suggests something as taken for granted as the “order of worship represses mutual participation and the growth of Christian community... There is absolutely no room for anyone to give a word of exhortation, share and insight, start or introduce a song, or spontaneously lead a prayer” (which are elements expressed in the meeting-togethers in the New Testament). It “encourages passivity” and “implies one of hour per week is the key to the victorious Christian life.”

But I think what trips us up the most is how so many of us still think about church—as a place to go instead of people to be.

We are God’s called-out ones, called out of darkness to light, sin to righteousness, death to life, the world to the Kingdom. And the church is us called-out-ones living-together—and the vast majority of the time we do that takes place outside the walls of a building.

And our living-together in the Kingdom is the visible community of those living out Kingdom mission and Kingdom family. We are like those in the early church, as Joseph Hellerman puts it in When the Church was a Family, “a society of surrogate siblings whose interpersonal relationships are to be characterized by …intimate, healthy, long-lasting relationships” which place “the good of the church family above their own personal goals, desires and aspirations” and can “count on support from the community to meet their material and emotional challenges” which often comes “with commitment to Jesus.”

This living-together family becomes a living, breathing message of the good news to a world that desperately needs to hear it.

I am encouraged by the creative ways some believers are rethinking themselves and how they gather—Meeting House and Hill City come to mind. They are wrestling out what it means to be and live like a people characterized more by the family relationships Hellerman references than the Metro-car like atmosphere that too often creeps into Sunday mornings.
                                         
I continue to long for the spread of missional communities that yearn and actively seek to live as the families that God calls and enables us to be, who don’t see church as a place to go—one more activity in our week full of activities—but families who live and breathe gospel rhythms, eat together regularly, are the first ones we pick of the phone to call in joy or sorrow and the ones with whom we love and serve side-by-side our neighbors.

Just because a congregation has Sunday morning services doesn’t mean it’s doomed to a Metro-car-like atmosphere. But I think it is one more obstacle in an uphill battle when it comes to a full experience of what it means to be the people we were created to be—a people in which God, as Dallas Willard puts it, “is tangibly manifest to everyone on earth who wants to find him.” 

Comments

Bob Ewell said…
Carmen, great observations, as always, and I share your view of the weekend service. As David Platt wrote, "[church is] a performance at a place with programs run by professionals." I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the book Imagine Church by Neil Hudson, published in England but available from www.vereinstitute.org. Basically, Neil asks, "How can we use the at most 10 hours of church activity per week to equip people for the 110 hours that they are awake and somewhere else?" It doesn't solve all the problems you mention, but it does give church leaders some ideas on how to use the time to help folks understand they're on mission everyday where they are.