He is moving around the stage, speaking into the hand mike, riding the waves of the crowd’s enthusiasm washing over him….
Rock star at a concert? Charismatic political leader campaigning? No, it’s a Sunday at your local megachurch. Can you tell the difference? Well, hopefully the content would give you a clue. Not much else will.
Because what it absolutely is not is a worshiping community. To be sure, the musicians are offering a talented performance with Christian content in the lyrics. The star on the stage may deliver an intact Gospel message, including the essentials of salvation, crucifixion, resurrection, God’s loving purpose. He, or an assistant, may offer some prayers.
As one who has attended such events (as well as rock concerts and political rallies), and also been part of a worshiping Christian community, let me assure you that there is a qualitative difference. Being part of an audience exposed to Christian content up front may be an introduction to the Christian message. As an evangelism tool, it has its purpose, similar to the old-style Billy Graham crusades. But the latter was not intended as an end in itself. Its purpose was to connect new or lapsed believers with a worshiping congregation, not to become a routine fixture in the neighborhood. The essence of Christianity is the gathering of a local community of worshiping Christians, a branch of the very large community around the world doing the same thing.
In such communities, there is little or no audience. Everyone is a participant in a Christian gathering, except for perhaps some visitors who choose to abstain. The music may or may not be of professional quality, but everybody joins in. It is the sincere offering of it, as well as the prayers, that matters. And there is no star on the stage. Christian worship is a shared effort where we all offer our liturgy.
To a generation which craves entertainment and is oriented to consume, not offer, it may not seem as “sexy” as the megachurch. But ultimately, incorporation in a sacramental, loving community gathered around the God who created you, cares for you and leads you, is what gives purpose and fulfillment in life. It is not surprising that megachurches experience a great deal of turnover. Those who wish to emulate their style may wish to ask themselves what their own purpose is. Because for the long haul, it is the Christian worshiping community which will endure.
Unfortunately, for many contemporary Christians, offering our liturgy in community is obscured by some viewpoints and hangups which make it difficult. To return to the model of the early Church, which we very much need to do, it is necessary to get rid of those impediments.
The first is the establishment of the clergy caste as a group of career professionals who are seen, and see themselves, as the people who run the Church. The division of Christians into clergy and laity, with the latter told to “pray, pay and obey” is not what happened in the early Church, where the rock star was Jesus, not clergy, and people were excited and joyful about participating in the shared liturgy.
The second is to understand that there are no consumers or audience, only participants. Each has a role. There is no “star.” There are a multitude of offices (readers, acolytes, doorkeepers, prophets, teachers, evangelists, healers, etc.). Ordination to one or another of the offices is routine, and not reserved for a few “professionals.”
The third is that ordination is not connected to money. While Paul makes clear he would like some financial support as a traveling apostle, the great majority of bishops, presbyters and deacons were not compensated. Their ordination is more to a role in the “family,” not to a career.
The fourth is that Sunday without Eucharist is a life-threatening drought of the spirit. The early church gathered around the Table, from which people drew their spiritual sustenance. The Eucharist and accompanying “agape” was the center of life and the expression of a close community of the faithful, a spiritual family really, brothers and sisters in the Lord. The process was to bring bread and wine to offer, as a summary of the week’s activity (“liturgy” means “the work of the people,” and they offered all their doings to God every Sunday), and to receive the consecrated elements back, blest by the Lord and filled with his Presence, which they carried with them for the coming week. It was not a Sabbath, some time set aside from daily life for inspiration and rest. It was the epicenter of life, where everything in their existence began and ended, all of it shared with the community, the Body of Christ.
Obviously, to re-orient back to real Sunday worship is a matter of education and conscious effort to make the changes. If there is one single point that could greatly help, it would be the restoration of the diaconal role.
In the shared effort of Sunday liturgy, the deacon’s role was as the leader of the people. While the bishop, and later his delegated presbyter/priest presided, it was the deacon who addressed the people, leading their prayers and reading the Gospel. To restore this role to the deacon in itself sends a strong message. No longer is there a sole leader in the front, whether on a stage, in a pulpit or in a chancel, who appears to be the “star,” or “performer” of the Eucharist. In the Anglican context, the deacon announces the great commandments or leads the recitation of the ten commandments, reads the Gospel, bids the prayers, often preaches the sermon, calls the people to confess sins, proclaims the comfortable words, shares in communing them and dismisses them. More than any other single change, this puts the focus on the people’s liturgy, as led by the deacon, even as the priest stands and presides at the Table.
Deacons in Anglican tradition have been both undervalued and under-utilized. In the older prayerbooks, the bishop prayed that the newly ordained deacons “may so well behave themselves in this inferior [italics mine] office, that they may be found worthy to be called unto the higher Ministries in thy Church.” Deacons were seen mostly as junior or apprentice priests, passing briefly through the diaconal office on their way to the “higher Ministries.” They were indulged to read the Gospel and administer the Cup. The thought that they were leading the people rather than assisting the priest, or that they would remain in the office, it being not at all an inferior one, was a totally foreign idea. It still is in many places.
Along with this is the view that deacons were created (in Acts 6) to “wait on tables.” A more careful reading of Acts reveals that the real problem was a contention between the Greek and Jewish factions. The deacons were created to be mediators, resolve the problem, and administer the needs of the community while the apostles did evangelism. The deacon’s role in the early church was to run things and keep the community together. If the deacons did that today and freed the priest to do evangelism instead of powering his way in the organizational process of the parish and arranging all the details, what a wonderful thing that could be. Assuming, of course, perhaps erroneously, that the average parish priest has real interest in actually doing almost full-time evangelism.
Just this one change in who does what becomes a major catalyst in returning a congregation to the vibrant, shared, joyful, participatory community normative in the early days. In a time of decline for most churches, it will stir things a lot better than Pastor Mega-mike and the “Praise” band. The only loss will be to his star status and ego. It could be long overdue.