"No more church as usual!"
"It's time OUT for playing church!"
These were two prominent phrases that I heard repeatedly in my experiences attending church services throughout the late 80’s and 90’s. Whenever I heard it, it resonated with my spirit and made so much sense. But I was probably too young and inexperienced to understand why.
Church just seemed too ritualistic and pointless to me, many times. Don’t get me wrong, in my older age, I have a great appreciation for ritual, repetition, liturgy and order of service (even though I no longer engage in them). These things have been tools that have no doubt shaped my faith and the faith of millions of others. But after you experience “church as usual” for a number of years, and you witness both the phenomena of it being practiced with passion and joy, and it being practiced just as ritual for ritual’s sake, you start to wonder if there is more.
Back in those days I attended some pentecostal churches. In these sacred spaces, prophetic voices of passionate testifying women would often lead the clarion call- “It’s time to stop playing church! We are not here for form or fashion, we are here to lift up the name of Jesus!”. Declarations like this used to make my spirit leap, only for them to be followed by continued ritual and service order, even within the very same service where these words were spoken. Don't think for a moment that pentecostal churches don't have rituals and "liturgy". Although they are known for being less formal and more Spirit-led, they fall into the same repetitive drudgery as every other denomination I have experienced.
Although my experience with church has been sporadic and tumultuous, I truly believe that prophetic voices have been speaking within church congregations for the duration of my life. Some of these voices were official clergy voices, some were church mother and elders, some were the fiery testifying women who refused to let their faith slip into a downward slope of spiritual laziness (and they did not want the church fall asleep in complacency either). As someone who has experienced a variety of denominations and church expressions, I can attest that prophetic voices are not just limited to pentecostal/charismatic circles. I believe prophets are a part of every spiritual community, whether they are recognized or not (but I digress).
These voices have been calling for decades for the church to wake up, to be revived, to come out of its smug stupor and take hold of the will of God- to live it out more faithfully and passionately. And I do believe many in the church have heard, received and desired to live out this message, but far too often it seemingly has translated into doing more services and programs, shouting harder, singing louder, preaching longer, doing more “evangelism”. Too often what it has produced is people doing even more “church as usual”.
But I believe the prophetic call is a genuine one, especially since I live out my faith almost entirely outside of the church service culture now. I believe that call still stands, and I believe many people are taking it seriously and see news ways of living it out. There are those who have quietly and persistently eked out inroads to a way of life that truly represents Kingdom living.
People of the present generations are starting to understand that following Jesus is not about doing “church”, it’s about practicing the Kingdom. It’s about living by the Spirit in communion with other saints, and ministering (giving godly service) to the world by the grace and power of God. In order to fulfill this call, many people have figured out that church service is not going to do the trick. We have to live the Kingdom daily. We have to stop the meaningless ritual and put into practice the very things that the rituals represent.
Now I will say this. I know many believers are part of highly liturgical communities. My goal is not to tear down ritual and liturgy. But it is my goal to encourage people to deeply internalize the story that is being told through our church rituals; to start seeing the greater reality of those rituals and to live them out in the real world. We can't just rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. At some point we have to take the stage.
I am also not saying to stop engaging in the biblical sacraments of the church-baptism and communion. These are practices that are rich with real world, every day, practical benefits. The elements of these sacraments are literally acts of worship, joy, and fellowship (when done with these outcomes in mind).
But many other rituals and liturgical practices are in place solely because of the culture and preferences of people. And while there is nothing wrong with cultural expressions and preferences, we must learn to grasp the practical implementation of our church encounters. We must learn what we are supposed to learn so that we can live the life that God calls us to live both individually and collectively.
"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." I Corinthians 13:11
So much of what is done in church is like elementary school for children. People are taught the basics, year after year. They never get to middle school, high school, or higher education. The they never get to explore the boundless joy and adventure of a mature spirituality. God wants more for all of us.
Church cannot be meeting, greeting, singing, praying, preaching, testifying, following the liturgical calendar and the like simply for the sake of Sunday morning experiences of piety. When we employ these things simply for our outer senses, we have engaged in church “as usual”. We have, in every sense of the idea, played church.
My hope is that we will heed the call of the wailing women from the past 4 decades…that we will stop playing church and know that we must live and BE the church (the Ekklesia of Jesus)…because it is indeed time to move beyond the status quo of "church as usual".
Love you all
P.S. In my next post I will talk about what it would look like to live out the Kingdom in the real world and break free from church as usual.