Let’s say, I don’t come from a Christian background. At some point I decide to be a follower of Jesus. I know nothing of Christian culture. The friend who introduced me to Christ invites me to join him in a Sunday worship service. Clearly this is the most important meeting for Christians. On Sunday, my friend and I join a group of people in a hall. I am a bit nervous but there is not much time to chat with folks and to make new friends. Soon the service starts. Everyone is in rows facing forward. There is a team on a stage providing leadership. Instructions are given as to how to worship God. There is a lot of led singing. There are prayers by some people on the stage. Then a leader comes and delivers a message that gives God’s word to the people. Money is collected, though it is not clearly stated what the money is for. The service ends with an invitation for those who have needs to come forward to be prayed for.
As someone not used to church culture, I would make the following tentative conclusions about church through this experience of corporate worship.
- It is mainly impersonal. There is no space to get to know folks. I am told that there is something called cell groups. I am encouraged to attend those but clearly those meetings are not as important as the Sunday gathering.
- Some people — the folks on the stage — are more important than others.
- The experience is mainly a passive one. We go to receive from the Lord and do nothing more than experience God emotionally (singing) and rationally (sermon). It is hoped that I will take some action because of the corporate worship experience but there is no real follow up to see if that happens.
- God and the church is very concerned for me and my needs. They are concerned that I go to heaven. They are concerned to let me know that God cares for me and wants to meet my needs. There is little talk about the crying needs of those outside the church community. I end up very conscious of me and my needs.
Is the above write-up too harsh? Isn’t the Christian faith:
- Highly personal? To be in Christ is to be in a community where love for one another is central to the Christian experience.
- For all? While different people have different roles, all in the church community are important as all have been given God’s Spirit.
- Highly participatory? All have a role to play and are expected to play them.
- About caring for the other? God is concerned for us but He is also concerned for the needs of a broken world. We are blessed so that we can bless others.
Here is a write-up about some elements of the American church:
The number envy and competition among Evangelical mega churches mirrors the consumeristic competition to build larger and larger malls. People flock to these large consumer edifices, sit in stadium seating (not pews), with the lights turned dim so they cannot even see their neighbor, much less the person sitting on the other side of the theatre, and are entertained by professional musicians, lighting and stage show, and pastors who provide a feel good message directly aimed toward individual and personal success. It is an alienating, bewildering, and lonely experience. Intimacy, true intimacy with God, with one’s brother or sister in Christ, and especially with the poor and needy, is tossed aside in favor of ever greater numbers, larger buildings and increasingly audacious ministries and mission trips that are aimed at providing congregations new and novel experiences. The contemporary church in North America is in crisis and this necessitates thinking biblically and theologically about what an authentic ecclesiology might look like. (1)
Is the Singapore church that different from the American church? Of course there are many types of churches in Singapore as there are many kinds of churches in the U.S. Yet as I scroll through my smartphone, looking at reports from key churches and key Christian organisations in Singapore, I can’t shake away the feeling that large-group, platform-led events are the norm for Christian expression, and the most significant events are those who have the largest number attending and with the most-gifted people up front, leading. Do we need to rethink this? If the medium is the message and our main activity is large-group platform-led meetings, what does that say about our most important values?
Last Saturday morning I had a very different “church” experience. There were five of us and we met in the void deck in an area of many rental flats. (These are flats heavily subsidised by the government that are rented out to those who can afford no other housing.) We offered food and beverages to all those who came. Two from the group had been doing this for the last ten years. The community knew about them. Folks who came by included someone from India working in Singapore and his son. They took some of the food and drink and we had some good chats. There were two boys aged 4 and 5. Cheeky and full of life, they said they knew Vietnamese but not Chinese. Later their grandma came by and joined us. She gave us some Vietnamese sweets. It was really fun to play with the two young ones. One of them kept wanting to impress us with magic tricks.
Then another brother came by. He had a flat but he had hoarded so much that it was simpler for him to sleep on the streets. He had had a few run-ins with the law. Another man sat at a distance. He said he worked at Changi airport but it was a Saturday so he didn’t have to work. He accepted our offer of a hot drink. Being the Deepavali weekend, it was a long one, and so many of the usual crowd didn’t show up. We sang some worship songs and we prayed. The brother who was sleeping rough read the Scriptures for us. The passage of the day happened to be John 14. It spoke to many of us. I couldn’t help but think that my experience last Saturday was closer to what church should be.
The Covid years gave us an opportunity to rethink how we do church. There was a time when we couldn’t have our large-group, corporate worship gatherings. We had to look for more creative ways to meet and do life. Now that the Covid pandemic is over, many are going back to the old ways of doing things and that means a premium on large-group, platform-led meetings. A few churches are still soldiering on with meeting in smaller missional groups. The question, however, is what message are we sending out with the way we do corporate worship? What message should we be sending out?
(1) Douglas A. Hume, Virtuous Friendship (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), 167.