Editorial: Summer 2013
I sometimes wonder why people sit where they do in church. Some sit in the same place, Sunday after Sunday, as though they have assigned seats. Others like to move around. Latecomers sometimes don't have a choice; they just have to sit wherever there's space.
Suzanne and I are of the first type. We have our preferred place: second row, left section, inside aisle—unless someone beats us to it. I often wonder who sits in "our place" the Sundays we aren't there.
What I've noticed is that after church you just don't get to see some people, depending on where you sit. You have to go out of your way to encounter people who sit on the opposite side of the sanctuary.
More profoundly, sometimes I wonder why people come to church at all. Why do they bother when, instead, they could either sleep in or have a nice, relaxed brunch and read the Sunday paper or go shopping. This is not to question church going at all, but rather to recognize that people have alternatives and yet many choose to go to church. Why choose church over a long cup of coffee over the New York Times?
In worship our faith is formed so that we become the disciples that Christ calls us to be, every day in all situations of life.
Church attendance isn't what it once was. Some researchers have decided that attendance only twice a month makes people a regular churchgoer. That's certainly not what my parents understood as regular attendance. For them it meant not only being in church every Sunday morning, but Sunday and Wednesday evenings too. When they traveled, they would find a church away from home, a Mennonite one, if there was one around.
Regardless of how often people attend church, I seriously doubt many people go to church merely out of habit. There are too many other ways people can use that time and society has sanctioned other options. So-called blue laws, which kept stores closed on Sundays, are long dead in most areas. When they were in force, shopping on Sunday wasn't even an option.
I know what I'm looking for in church: an encounter with God, fellowship with other believers and direction for my life. In other words, what I want in church is worship, community, and formation for discipleship in my daily living—three pillars in Mennonite theology. If I don't get all of these in some degree each Sunday I feel cheated.
This issue focuses on the first of these pillars: worship. Worship, at its best, is an encounter with God. In worship we join voices with other believers to praise God. We hear the Word read and proclaimed. In worship our faith is formed so that we become the disciples that Christ calls us to be, every day in all situations of life.
Recently I had a challenging conversation with a friend. He observed that over the last 20–30 years Mennonite congregations have been losing members. This was the same period, he said, when worship received more attention in our corporate life. The word liturgy was once not typically on the tongues of Mennonites; now we focus more than ever on liturgy. Is it coincidence, he asked, that during the same period Mennonites have not only lost members, but there's been a decline of an emphasis on service? Is it not harder to recruit Mennonites for service than it once was, he asked?
I pointed out to him that correlation is not the same thing as causation. Just because both happened at the same time—an increased emphasis on worship and loss in membership and decreased interest in service—doesn't mean that the former caused the latter. There are other factors involved: smaller families, some migrating to other denominations or joining the ranks of the "nones," that is, people who identify with no denomination or religion.
Worship, I argued with my friend, is the cybernetic center of our faith. Worship anchors us to the source of our faith; worship also energizes us to live out our faith in service to God and others. Service without worship soon becomes joyless duty, and loses its divine purpose; worship that does not lead to service is hollow, fruitless.
When I reported this conversation to another Mennonite friend, he adamantly disagreed about Mennonites losing an interest in service. He's in a position to observe many congregations in both the United States and Canada. He affirmed that service is still part of our spiritual DNA. Congregations and youth groups, he said, are frequently engaging in service projects. Maybe it's so much a part of who we are as a people that we don't need to talk about it much. We just do it.
There isn't an absolute distinction to be made between worship and service. The Greek word in the New Testament, leitourgio, can be translated as either worship or service. Our worship is service to the Lord, and our service is worship of God directed outward toward others, engaging God's mission in the world.
So why do you go to church? Why bother? What are you looking for at church? Do you know when you've experienced it? These are questions to ponder as you read the articles and departments in this issue.
—Richard A. Kauffman