What is a church? I think about this a lot as I travel from church to church each week and worship with God’s people in a variety of ways. We do have a rich variety of expression across our denomination, from highly ordered and traditional forms to less ordered forms. One of the key roles of a pastor is to think carefully about the purpose and meaning of the gathered community enacting its faith. What should the people of God do when they gather for worship? Which components are essential?
The Board of General Superintendents recently gave us the following definition of a church: “Any group that meets regularly for spiritual nurture, worship, or instruction with an identified leader and aligned with the message and mission of the Church of the Nazarene may be recognized as a church.” This definition is fine from a functional standpoint, which is how it was intended—as a description of what constitutes a recognized congregation in the Church of the Nazarene. However, to be a truly Christian gathering, to enact truly Christian worship, there are some essential components that have marked the gathering of Christians from the beginning.
The key components of Christian gathering are evident in Scripture and made explicit in the life of the church, including some of the earliest writings of the church fathers. Justin Martyr outlined the movements of worship in chapter 67 of his Apology to include these elements:
• Intentional gathering of proximate people on Sunday
• Reading and hearing of Scripture in the assembly
• Exhortation from the presider, based on the readings
• Corporate prayer, especially thanksgiving for the gifts of the Table
• Celebration of the Eucharist
• An offering received for the poor, especially orphans and widows
• Carrying the gifts of the Table to those unable to gather
These movements were rooted in synagogue practices in which our Lord participated (see Luke 4:16). Jesus worked from the life of his worshiping community in instituting the table of the Last Supper, where, in the sharing of blessed bread and wine, disciples are constituted together as the church by the power of the Spirit. While not specifically about Sunday worship, Acts 2:42-47 is often noted as descriptive of the life of the community of faith, including several of the acts included in Justin Martyr’s description.
While the acts of Christian worship may be carried out in creative and engaging ways that are contextualized to communicate to the people to whom we are called, the core components of Christian worship are not subject to revision. It is the responsibility of the pastor to ensure that the gathering of the people of God for worship is truly Christian.
How do the weekly rhythms of your community reflect these essential components? How are you doing at offering prayerful intentionality to the execution of these movements? Obviously, these things are necessarily contextualized and can enjoy a rich variety of expression. But let us not become careless about the structuring of Christian worship as it forms our people to live the Christ life everywhere they go.