What is a Sunday morning church service for? As Christians, we meet together on the first day of every week, the day of Christ’s resurrection. We sing songs, hear preaching, and (hopefully) take Communion. But why? What is the purpose and goal of this meeting?
To many people, our gathering together as the Church on Sunday is about evangelism, about reaching the lost. Contemporary, upbeat songs attract them, relevant preaching helps them see the usefulness of Christianity to their lives, and finally we invite them to make their professions of faith and perhaps join our church.
Let me be entirely clear from the outset: trying to reach the lost, or doing the things I just mentioned, is not at all bad. I could never say they are. Nonetheless, I believe that the outreach focus is not the right focus for our weekly meetings. As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time and a place for everything, and, Biblically, our weekly gatherings as the Church are not, I am convinced, for evangelistic purposes, but for, well, the Church itself.
Scripturally, church (the weekly service) is for the Church (the people). It is not about reaching unbelievers, but about building up the Body of Christ. Honestly, it would be difficult to point to a particular proof text for this point, but that’s not because it’s unbiblical, but because it is the basic assumption of all the New Testament letters to the churches. Reading any of the letters makes this clear enough if you’re paying attention, but some passages that draw it into sharper focus might be 1 Corinthians 14, large portions of Ephesians, or the latter chapters of Hebrews.
Acts also shows this pattern. There are two parallel ministries in Acts: the evangelistic ministries which occurred out and about in society, and the gatherings of believers by themselves. There was public preaching to the crowds, and after and apart from that the believers gathered together devoting themselves “to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
In fact, this verse I believe sums up how Church is meant to work. In order to become the people we need to be to reach the world for Christ from Monday to Saturday, we must participate in the right Body-building, sanctifying activities together on Sunday. We learn from the apostles’ teaching how to live the Christian life rightly, so that we please God and win people to the beauty of the Gospel life. In fellowship we encourage and assist one another as fellow believers to spur each other on to good works, to reassure doubts, to share burdens and joys, and to share insights and experiences with our common Savior. By the breaking of bread in Communion, we recall the sacrifice of Christ in the past, enjoy His sustaining power for us in the present, and train ourselves to live in anticipation of the resurrection life which we will share with Him in the future. Finally, our collective prayers invite God’s supernatural power and presence into our life together as the Body of Christ.
These means of sanctification—preaching, fellowship, sacraments, and prayer—are the essential elements of our weekly gatherings as the Church, in addition to worship, and yet are explicitly believer-oriented. Only believers can “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching” in a productive and transformative way. Only believers can encourage one another with the Gospel, share burdens in Christ, and build each other up with their spiritual gifts. Only believers are permitted to take Communion and so feed on the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood given for us. Only believers have unfettered access to God’s throne of grace for prayer. And only believers know to worship God in spirit and in truth.
The point is fairly simple, then. Our meetings as the Church are meant to be by the Church for the Church. Unbelievers are, of course, welcome. They can come to hear the Gospel, which is always a good thing. We can love them and show them the life of Christ in its beauty. Yet the presence of unbelievers in our meetings is assumed in the New Testament to be occasional and potential rather than normal and intentional (see 1 Cor. 14:23). The basic and important pattern is the gathering of Christians to be Christians.
I again emphasize, though, that this is not at all to say anything against evangelistic outreach towards unbelievers. In fact, I would instead say that the church-for-Church model is an essential part of reaching unbelievers. By concentrating on the strengthening and renewing of our life in Christ together when we meet on Sundays, we can become more and more able to reach the world around us the rest of the week. This is, in fact, exactly what the earliest Christians historically did. They met together early Sunday morning before going to work (as Sunday was a workday for them) for the benefits I mentioned above, and then they set out on their weeks to be the best followers of Christ they could be in the sight of unbelievers. The Lord’s Day was a time to recharge together in the presence of the one Lord, so that by His Spirit they would be empowered to fulfill the Great Commission when they went their separate ways.
I believe we could do well to relearn this approach in modern times. It seems to be more Biblical, and have been more historically effective at producing active Christians, than seeker-sensitive or evangelistic approaches. And in fact, it stands as a challenge to us all specifically in evangelism. It’s harder to be a witness for Christ in our actual, daily lives and reach unbelievers there than to round them up for a Sunday preacher, after all. Maybe if we try we’ll find that the hard way is, as usual, the better.