An Ecclesiological False Dichotomy

I find that I tend to use bigger words in average conversation now than I did just ten years ago. I'm not sure whether it's the fact that I'm involved in academics or that I finally know some big words that have brought me to this change. It might simply be that I used to think I couldn't be both deep and down to earth and I've finally come around. Regardless, sometimes nothing else makes quite the same impact as tossing out some polysyllabic words. In my life's context, constantly dealing with people who know everything, you have to sometimes let 'er rip. And that's the preface to this post's title. It's really not that complicated, but it's the first thing that came to my mind when I started writing this post.

Let's break down this phrase: "ecclesiological false dichotomy." For starters, "ecclesiological" is the theological study of the church— how we Christian folk do stuff. And we all understand what "false" is, true? Finally, "dichotomy" basically means "split into two parts." Often, a dichotomy can simply refer to choices: choose one or the other.

So when I'm thinking of "ecclesiological false dichotomy," it's an instance where the church has made/must make a decision, but the choices offered are not really the only choices. What led me here was an article at the interestingly named website "Church Marketing Sucks" that discussed a major outreach in Atlanta, Georgia. Almost 80 churches in the region will be cancelling their weekend worship services at the end of July in order to go out and do service projects. It reminded me of something I read a few years back where a church did the same thing. I was so fascinated, I even saved the pastor's quote in a Word doc: "we need to spend less time GOING to church and more time BEING the church."*

I've refrained on commenting on this for awhile, but it has finally worn me thin. I personally know quite a few churches who have done this same thing. They have great intentions and do some very good things while cancelling their worship services.

But they are misguided. And I think I'll go as far to say that they are actually wrong.

And here's where the "ecclesiological false dichotomy" comes into play. People would have you believe that there are only two choices in this issue: 1) Going to church or 2) Being the church. But it's much more complicated than this. As I've already offended some of you who think this is an phenomenal idea, you're likely crafting a response in your mind that creates a false choice. Go ahead and pick your poison:

  • "Serving is an act of worship. All they're doing is choosing a different way to worship."
  • "Those churches will do more good in those two hours of service than they would have worshipping in their church."
  • "The world will be more impressed with the church being out serving than inside singing"

I'm sure there are others I didn't think of. In the end, those who dare to critique cancelling services for service are offered only two reactions: buy into what we're doing as brilliant or come off as a negative, stick-in-the-mud Christian who doesn't have a heart. Frankly, I am not satisfied with those choices.

So now that I've decided to criticize, let me offer my full critique. I ask that you grant me some patience as I break this down. And it all has to begin by asking "why?"

1. Why do Christians gather every week for "corporate worship" (a.k.a. the worship service)? Why do we sing songs, read the Scriptures, pray, and have communion together? My response: we gather on Sundays to worship together because it is the biblical/historical mandate; this is what the first Christians did, it's what those immediately after them did, and it's what the church has done for almost two-thousand years. By and large, most Christian worship services still adhere to these basic elements of a corporate worship service because it's in the Bible (Roman Catholics might frame this answer differently, but they'd still agree that the Bible offers a template). Ultimately, our Sunday worship gatherings are regular and consistent because it is what the church has been called to do throughout its existence.

Protestant Christians don't view corporate worship as sacramental (that is, something we must do for merit) but rather as something we do out of love, honor, and respect for God. Yet we must understand this: what we do in corporate worship has a definitive purpose—to please God. Even though we might want to be "seeker sensitive" and not offend any non-Christians in our midst, the service is intended for believers to worship God together. So when the world criticizes the church for coming together on Sundays to worship, we mustn't be surprised. They don't understand why we do this. We do it for the Lord.

2. That said, we must admit that God also has called us to do good works; we cannot be "so heavenly minded that we do no earthly good." Yes, good works are good. As of late, churches have started to see this as one of our callings. Social justice, once only the tool of liberal Christians, has been reclaimed by evangelical Christianity. Jewish mystics refer to this as "tikkun olam," or "repairing the world." We are finally doing good works in our communities and throughout our world.

3. But we must admit that we've become rather proud of ourselves. This is not good. I know this is low, but I'm going to unleash some wisdom of Jesus to confirm my point.

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." Matthew 6:1**

Yikes. You see how this is difficult? While we are called to do good works, we should be careful of letting people know about them. Yet I continually hear of churches around the country cancelling worship gatherings to go out and serve. This is fascinating because I don't attend any of these churches. So, somehow, the word of these acts of righteousness is getting out; we're not as subtle as we think.

And here I will insert a quick sidebar: why are many churches motivated to do service outreach/projects in the first place? We'll usually explain that we're just trying to do some good in the world for Jesus. People tend to enjoy service because it makes us feel good (I'm reminded of the episode of Friends where Phoebe tells Joey that there's no such thing as a truly unselfish good deed). But, more than this, I believe that there are many churches who see outreach as an opportunity to add to the flock; I'm not talking about the traditional "win-lost souls-to-Jesus" addition, but rather the "I-wish-our-church-was-as-outward-focused-as-this" addition. Listen, I'm a minister and I've been there. We already go to extreme lengths to make our congregations look attractive. Church service projects can be used in the same way—as a way to steal sheep. There, I said it.

4. Good works aren't performed by Christians only. I think this is something we must readily admit: Christians aren't the only people doing good things in the world. There are Muslims and atheists and Buddhists who do as many good things as we do. Heck, even corporations allow employees to take off work to do service projects, so our pride is usually misplaced. Still, I would offer that just as all truth is God's truth, all good works belong to Him as well. But let us not deceive ourselves that only we are the only ones who do good.

5. Ultimately, these churches hold to a theological misunderstanding. Churches cancel worship services to do service projects because they equate manual-labor worship with corporate worship. "Worship is worship," they claim, whether it's painting a house or singing hymns together. But this is neither biblical nor consistent. It's not biblical in that, while our service can be worship (observe Romans 12), it isn't the same thing as corporate worship; there's a textual difference between working a soup kitchen (good works) and the Eucharist (communal/corporate worship). And it's not consistent because we don't encourage abandoning corporate worship for other forms of worship. If I use this logic (that service projects and corporate worship are equal) then a walk in the park on a beautiful Sunday is the same thing as worshipping with the church. Eventually, if I adhere to this thinking, the church itself is irrelevant and I can do just as well living the Christian life on my own.***

And that's what lies behind this false dichotomy: a confused view of worship. We Christians worship through service, we worship through fellowship and friendship, and we can even worship alone. But our communal worship, when the church gathers specifically to give praise to God, is something all-together different. And it was never intended to be abandoned or replaced by whatever we prefer.

I'm not only offering critique here. Here are a couple of thoughts that can work towards solutions.

1. First, we shouldn't be afraid of being criticized for worshipping together. The world mocks Christians continually, especially for taking time out of their week to gather to worship God. "Isn't there a better way they could spend their time," people ask. I find this fascinating: are you telling me that these critics waste no time during their week? I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that a couple of hours with the church isn't any sillier than watching a Desperate Housewives marathon. Christians need not be apologetic for the time we spend worshipping together.

2. And perhaps the most simple solution: why not do service projects on a Saturday or on a Monday night or any other time of the week. And if it must be done on Sunday, there's nothing wrong with worshipping corporately in the morning and serving later that afternoon.  But why completely cancel the service? At the very least, if there is no other time, couldn't you gather first as a church and have a shortened worship gathering? We shouldn't be forced to choose. You can both "go to church" AND "be the church." Cultivating pride in the fact that our church isn't afraid to cancel worship in order to do service projects exposes traces of a shallow Christianity; it makes as much sense as fasting from God to make Him happy. Even if we are doing this with the proper motivation, it's self-defeating.

In the end, I'm just asking church leaders to ask ourselves "why?" Why are we doing this? Are we doing it because it's what God wants or because it's what we'd prefer that God want?

Dichotomy is rough, eh?


*As I read the Church Marketing Sucks article I was sure that, somewhere on the webpage, the phrase, "be the church" would be found. Sure enough, someone used it in the comments section.

**Contextually, I might be using this verse broadly. Some will say that the "acts of righteousness" referred to religious disciplines and not to serving in general. Maybe someone should write an article about it.

***Frank Viola wrote a book entitled Pagan Christianity that would take an entirely different perspective of this issue. He believes that the majority of what churches do today (such as owning buildings) is unbiblical and should be abandoned. He would likely endorse the idea of calling off corporate worship to do service projects. While I disagree with many of his assertions that serve as the basis of his thinking, at least his thinking toward the conclusion would be logical.