While I have no crystal ball to forecast the future, I do believe that the gathering as we know it will die if it’s only about the delivery of content. Now that all of us can listen to a message from any pastor around the world on our little screens or even worship with a team of our choosing even if they are far, far away, why would we be motivated to physically show up at a specific time and place if only to hear a message and maybe sing a few songs? I don’t believe content will drive anyone to make the effort. There must be far more to the experience that would cause a person to say, “You had to be there!”
Back in 2004, which honestly feels like a hundred years ago to me, I released a book titled The Hour on Sunday: Creating Moments of Transformation and Wonder. Recently, this sentence from the book leaped out at me: “I have never believed more strongly in the potential of the hour on Sunday.”
Interesting. Do I still believe that now? How invested am I in caring about what happens or doesn’t happen when a church opens its doors on Sunday morning or whenever that community chooses to gather? As I sit with these questions, the big-picture answer I offer is yes. I believe even more strongly in the potential of the hour on Sunday! But the key word is, of course, potential.
Why should we invest resources and time creating experiences on Sunday mornings if followers of Jesus can do all these same things at home, individually, whenever and however they choose? For it’s true that we can always
- pray alone.
- worship alone.
- confess and lament alone.
- be silent alone.
- receive teaching alone.
- take the sacrament alone.
To be clear, I believe we can and should frequently engage these spiritual practices in solitude. But something profoundly different happens when we practice them together. When the followers of Jesus gather in a space of any kind to offer praise to God, to sit in silence or lament, to confess our sins through guided prayers, to hear the Word of God taught and learn as one, to celebrate and remember our Savior at the Table with the bread and the cup, to lift up individuals and our communities in prayer, and even to laugh at the absurdities of our humanness—all of these are opportunities for moments of wonder and transcendence.
For over fifty years now, I have both attended and helped to create countless hours on Sunday in more than one local church. What do I see now as I look in the rearview mirror? What do I believe is still true and needs to be held on to, and what is essential to reinvent for the future? One of my observations is that church leaders and key volunteers tend to swing pendulums. We often look at values or strategies as all-or-nothing rather than as tensions to be delicately managed. Maybe it’s just easier to overreact and push ourselves into the land of extremes.
In my life, I have experienced church gatherings in widely different places around the globe—everything from a repurposed bowling alley in New Jersey to a glorious cathedral in London to a small hut with a grass roof in Zimbabwe. I hold tightly to the vision that what we experience together has the potential to shape, move, and transform us. And while a thriving church is about all seven days of the week, the catalyst for life change and ministry impact is often propelled by what God will do among us next Sunday! Therefore I declare, The hour on Sunday isn’t everything . . . but it can truly be something!
Why isn’t church more beautiful? Whenever I hear my mom trace the map of her life, this question grabs me. It’s what she remembers wondering as a young girl, trying to sit quietly through stuffy church services. This question became her compass.
The arts ministry she went on to build included actors, dancers, designers, painters, and storytellers. Because of them I grew up sitting in church wondering, How can I be a part of this? On Sundays my imagination soared. It was in church that I discovered my love for theater and my gift for writing. It was in church that I first witnessed the power of the arts to disrupt, comfort, name, provoke, question, and transform.
I suppose we are always building in reaction to what we inherited. The productions my mom’s team created were undeniably powerful, drawing large crowds and changing widely held perceptions about what church is: namely, I think, they helped to change a generation’s understanding that church was irrelevant and boring. But with my peers I sensed a new barrier to entry. It is an impression forged by a reputation defined by what (and who) we are against: massive political power, an allegiance to white supremacy, a disregard for science, and other reasons. For some it is a suspicion shaped by their church’s rigid focus on correct beliefs absent of the feeling of embodied love. My friends don’t worry that church is boring. They worry that the institution can’t be trusted.
Perhaps sensing this seed of suspicion, the look and feel of Sunday gatherings are evolving in certain places. Some churches have moved toward a service that feels wholly unproduced and laid-back. The farm-to-table approach wants you to know it has nothing to hide. No matter how long the meal takes, you can trust that it’s all prepared fresh. Some leaders, sensing our distrust in big church and a desire for intimacy, have called for doing away with a collective Sunday experience altogether and returning to a house-church model. A potluck experience in which we all contribute. And other churches, it seems, are working overtime to build brand loyalty with digital natives through an aggressive social media presence, polished graphics, and tweetable sermons. “Hello Fresh” church comes right to your door with the ingredients already cut and measured, no work required. During the Covid-19 pandemic, all churches have had to learn a virtual language. I wonder what will become of our mother tongue.
Can the underlying Sunday-service values that my mom instilled in me—authenticity, excellence, liveness, creativity, and intentionality—still guide us, even if the aesthetic shifts? What if beauty was never the problem? Could it actually help to welcome those brave young souls who would dare set foot inside a place they fear is unsafe? How might beauty build trust? And, for the cynics with good reason to retreat, what might we discover through our presence?
Because I still long to be invited to a feast. What meal can compare to the banquet of a great host, who has thought through the seating, the courses, and toasts at a table open to all?