As our long season of Coronatide rolls on without any sign of abating—and in fact is steadily worsening in most areas—perhaps it is time to reconsider our focus on Sunday worship gatherings.
As I noted in the previous post Sunday gatherings are by far the largest priority of congregations with paid ministry personnel, judging by budget allocations and time commitments of staff and volunteers.
We are focussed on Sunday
Even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sunday gatherings continue to be the focus. Congregations have spent considerable amounts of money on the technology to allow for recorded or live-streamed services, and leaders and worshippers have invested countless hours in learning more than they ever imagined about Zoom and YouTube.
Some congregations and judicatories have developed meticulous Covid protocols to allow for in-person services, with strict limits to the number of participants, the distribution of face masks and hand sanitizer, prohibitions on singing, and regular disinfection of the premises.
Along with the purchase of technology and the investment in new skills, these safety protocols reflect a huge investment in the Sunday worship gathering.
I keep wondering, Why aren’t we getting the message?
This is no time to gather
This is a pandemic. It depends for its continued existence on gatherings of people, particularly gatherings of people from different households who don’t otherwise interact with each other a lot.
Now think of the congregations you are familiar with. In the mainline church’s current diminished state most of our congregations are remnants of what they once were, and now represent a tiny minority of the surrounding community.
Our worshipping communities bring together sets of people who otherwise have little contact with each other. Our congregations are heavily skewed to older age groups, those at heightened risk of serious illness due to coronaviruses.
While it is true that online worship does not represent a safety risk, the larger point I want to make is that our overall focus on Sunday worship as the primary, dominant, or even sole expression of what we mean by church is problematic—and especially so in a pandemic.
It is especially problematic in a pandemic because it underscores the message that gathering is the whole point of church and that as soon as we can safely do so we will gather again.
Church wasn’t always like this
But perhaps this pandemic is trying to tell us something, or better yet, to remind us of something.
For us the Sunday worship gathering, with its mix of polite sociability and sometimes slightly boring ritual, is the main event. It is a pleasant Sunday tradition for those of us who still participate.
But it was not always so. The past few generations of church as an innocuous Sunday habit have dulled our awareness of the church’s rich history as a place of radical and countercultural behaviour.
Yes the church has always been a community that is gathered, drawn together out of the surrounding community. But even more so the church from its earliest days understood itself to be primarily a body of people committed to living in the world in a particular way—the way revealed by Jesus.
Gatherings are a means to an end
That meant that the gatherings were a means of supporting the congregation in living their vocation in the world. The main thing was to be out in the world living the way of Jesus. Gatherings were a means to an end, and not an end in themselves.
I think it would have been inconceivable for early Christians to imagine devoting the kind of resources we do to the Sunday worship gathering. They often met in private homes or in multi-purpose spaces and devoted their offering to the needy in their midst or in the surrounding area.
In its earliest days—and in many eras since—the church committed itself to the needs of the most vulnerable in the context of a hostile surrounding culture and legal persecution. In that context, the explosive growth of the early church is often attributed to the Christians’ commitment to care for the needy, particularly those who were not members of the church.
Are there lessons for us here? In the next post, I’ll suggest some ways to refocus our attention and resources.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Seaton is an Anglican priest and former United Church of Canada minister, church leadership consultant, and author of Who’s Minding the Story? (Wipf & Stock, 2018).