Against Decaffeinated Belief: The Sunday Gathering as Missional

A recent visitor to our church’s Sunday morning gathering told me “we really enjoyed the service.” At which point I felt the urge to puke. I understand this is most often the nicest and best of things people can say to a pastor after a church worship gathering. Yet it belies the problem of Sunday morning worship in our day. Sunday morning worship is a spectacle,it too often distances us from God as a spectator event.
I believe despite all the missional protestations, that the Sunday gathering is essential to the Mission of God’s people in the world. Yet I agree, that the worst thing that can happen is this gathering becomes “attractional,” an event for spectators. When someone says they enjoy something it belies the reality that that person has now become a user, a consumer, someone who has put the object at his or her disposal for his or her enjoyment. Continental philosopher/cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek argues this same idea. Zizek argues that when we say “I enjoy my religion” this implies that I don’t take it TOO seriously. For we really don’t want to take it too seriously (this is what the fundamentalists do according to Zizek). We keep it at a distance so to appear to be a Christian with all of it comforts and accoutrements yet not requiring any great disruption to a comfortable way of life. This distance, between the subject and the Symbolic Order, is what allows the subject’s Christianity (or religion) to be subsumed by the existing order. Nothing will change. Zizek calls it “decaffeinated belief,” “belief without belief.” In many ways, the same dynamic happens in our worship, leading to what we might call decaffeinated worship, worship without worship.

One of my D.Min students (at Northern) writes about the problem of decaffeinated belief in his thesis proposal. He says that many of his denomination’s pastors

…agree that a growing number of worshipers are talking or sitting through the congregational singing writing notes during the special music, showing up 10-15 minutes late, not worried about interrupting anything or anyone. One pastor shared that a congregant stopped attending worship opting to stay home and worship with a church on television. When asked about this, the congregant responded, “Why does it matter where I watch the service?” Another pastor commented that people treat everything in the service as if it were a movie preview and it is not until the feature presentation (the sermon) that people really start paying attention. Or in other churches with a more contemporary style of worship a pastor stated, “Once the ‘concert’ is over, they just settle in waiting for a sermon.”

Another phenomenon in (this denomination’s churches) is an exodus of long time worshipers from (this denominations’) congregations to newer non-denominational church plants in their communities. When asked why they are leaving blank churches, they report “the music is better, their pastor is funnier, their drama is better, etc etc. at their new church.” They are right. One of these church plants advertises that they have 3 professional rock bands leading their services. These bands rotate their tour schedules with their worship leading schedules. Another church has some really funny skits and a very gifted pastor who could have been a stand-up comedian. People are not leaving for theological reasons. They are not leaving for churches that are more missional; they are leaving because the churches are more ‘relevant.’

All of the above is nothing new. Yet this D.Min student of mine (I’m privileged to be working with some real excellent projects this year) describes from on the ground accounts the problem of the attractional inertia surrounding the Sunday morning worship gathering. It is one of the reasosn why several missional writers and pastors reject the Sunday worship service in toto. It simply passifies Christians into passive consumers (to use an overused word).

I think this is a mistake. For the missional church communities require a regular practice for the shaping and forming of a people into the Life with God, the Mission of God. Missional people do not grow on trees. If then we would see people formed into the Missio Dei we must order our worship so as to be encountered by the living God. We must learn how to preach not as information but as proclamation and invite people into the Mission. The real presence at the Table must be the center of our gathering, our lives and our community. If we would see people formed into the Missio Dei, our gatherings must take on liturgical shape, a way of inviting people into the prayers, confessions and affirmations of the alive relationship we have with the living God of Mission. We must learn how to listen, interpret Scripture for what God is doing among us and in the world, hear God and then respond to God. This should be the character of our Sunday morning gatherings.

This kind of gathering should be both easier and harder to plan than any kind of programming approach we have hitherto been used to. It should be simpler and less focused on excellence of performance. It should not cost near as much in time, resourses and planning. It should be able to be done in a living room with three to thirty people or in a larger sanctuary with 200. Yet this kind of gathering takes more discernment of the Spirit, theological wisdom, historical sensitivity than we have been used to in the protestant church of our evangelical past (we haven’t paid attention to theology of worship in evangelical church). This way can lead us out of the wilderness of decaffeinated worship.

Has anyone else experienced the decaffeinated worship problem (even) in his or her missional gatherings? What simple tings have you done to unwind the passivity?


On another note – the Seeding Missional Communities Learning Commons Non/Conference is ON!! in Ft Wayne this Saturday, Jan 3rd. Looks like we have quite a group coming. Looking forward to seeing everyone. There’s still time to come. Here’s a link on the conference, and my e-mail is fitchest@gmail.com if you’re coming.

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