Does Sunday morning really matter?

There are many today who feel like the Sunday morning service has been overemphasized to the degree that the “show” each week has become what “church” means, as opposed to an actual vision of a transformed life of worship, fellowship and service together. There are many in my generation who have given up the whole Sunday thing completely in favor of smaller gatherings of groups who study and pray and serve together throughout the week. There are many in my generation who are seeking to move away from the church-shopping, consumer mindset that has fed the competition for who can have the biggest “show” in town and embrace smaller, less produced, more local expressions of being a faith community together.

As a worship pastor, my husband has very strong feelings about how we talk about Sunday morning. For someone who invests so much time and thought and prayer into the service, he is the least “production” or “show” minded minister I think I have ever met! One of the many reasons I have to love him 🙂

Sometimes the issue comes up in our church regarding people’s attendance on Sunday morning. There are of course those of us who make up the very committed core, but there are a number of folks who, while participating in a number of other aspects of church life, fail to show up on Sunday for a host of reasons. This really bothers some people. Others, like my husband, hold more loosely to the Sunday priority (in contrast to those in our church who feel that, if you are not there on Sunday, then you are not a part of our church).

One of our membership covenants, however, is regular participation in our weekly worship service, and as the person who teaches those classes and counsels people regarding our covenant, I have my reasons for why it is important. My biggest reason is that I believe God delights in the offering of corporate worship through singing and prayer and silence and giving and testimony, etc. But there are other reasons as well: if “doing church” happens primarily in my day-to-day relational context of sharing life with others (hanging out, eating meals, talking and praying), my “church” will most likely be those people I enjoy and feel the closest affinity toward. My “church” will not likely include the people in our body who annoy me, who disagree with me, who don’t speak my language, etc.

But when I come on Sunday to gather with the people of God, I don’t get the privilege of choosing who my brothers and sisters will be. When I come on Sunday I am required to participate in things that are not about my preference and my choice, and I am asked to join with all who are gathered in what becomes our shared experience of life with God. And it is in that place where the body so powerfully witnesses to the new life we receive from the Spirit. These are some of the same reasons why I am such an advocate for parish ministry: when geography not affinity dictates who sits in the chair next to you.

So when my friends defend their right to not show up on Sunday mornings, and tell me that their “church” is this or that group of people within our community, I will gently disagree and invite them to consider what God might want to do in them and through them for the sake of the whole body.


  1. great post Erika. We are wrestling through some of these themes as a body as well. In particular, I like your challenge to selective affinity and your comment about geographical structures.

    These two issues are huge. Why? because in a market driven culture the target is a group of people that share the same consumer make-up (affinity). Churches have gone too far by offering church options along this same stream of the cultural tide. A critical component of the gospel is local, reconciled community (all people)….that there is no jew, greek, etc…and if churches are bent on stripping away this crucial element of reconciliation in the gospel for the sake of numerical growth, then that amounts to classic reductionism.

    Your other comment leaning toward geography is key as well. There is something about walking to church, friends place, the store, covenant group, that is appealing . at the same time it helps relieve one of the compulsion to travel across great distances to the church with the best programs. It also speaks loudly to a local theology of neighbourhood transformation.

    In a culture where the meaning of community and presence has been drastically altered because of our technological ability to avoid each other, the geo expression of the local church has something strong to say about what it means to be truly human and in community. As I write from thousands of miles away, I realize how ubiquitous the structures of avoidance are…

    So…sundays are important…and there is much God wants to teach us through the people we least expect or desire to be around. I just wanted to touch on a couple of your thoughts that resonate with me.

  2. Wonderful thread. I have nothing much profound to add, but I appreciated the remarks from both of you.

  3. Erika, great insight. It seems that what you are saying is that churches serve as a disciplinary guide for us. We must muzzle our egos to sit in worship with those whom we dislike or fear. What I think has been happening is that we have systematically been domesticating the church so that we no longer confront our real selves in worship. Instead it is either tradition reminder or entertainment. It is why I love the first Sunday of the month because we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Usually, we all go down front and celebrate by intinction. Our family sits close to the front, and I spend most of my time praying for each person that receives the feast. It is sort of a discipline that I’ve forced on myself. Many of the people I don’t know, so I just pray what comes to mind. What happens to me is that I am united to them in caring for them as people. They aren’t simply other people sitting in the pews. When I miss a Sunday, that interaction is something I truly miss. It hasn’t always been that way, but as I have grown, I’m more satisfied by what I find in worship.
    People who practice selective or serial affinity miss out on the benefits that commitment brings to a relationship. The journey isn’t looking for the right group or church, but being the kind of person who can make that commitment when it is time.

  4. Great post, even if I gently and lovingly disagree. I guess my point is that in my church at least, it seems that everyone that shows up (broad generalization) is there because that is where they all feel comfortable together. They are all (99.95%) white, middle class, raised-in-this-denomination, multi-generational church goers. Any thought of “church” meaning ministry outside of the boundaries of those who immediately and intuitively grasp the presuppositions is not shunned, per se, but simply ignored and hoped it will go away. “Mission” in my church mostly seems to mean giving extra money in a special envelope on certain times of the year for “those people” somewhere else. Meanwhile our church’s programs mostly are a club for insiders. And as an outsider-married-to-an-insider, let’s just say I’m struggling, saying “That’s it? That’s all you have to offer the world? Middle class comfort and exclusion?”

    I am not arguing with you – I think community is important. I think liturgy and ritual are important (even if they aren’t THE liturgy and THE ritual). I just think that Christ wants more from us than having our large, middle-classed butts (I’m describing mine 🙂 warming pews every Sunday for 1.00 hours.

    God’s peace and blessings – you made me think, and I thank you for it.


  5. Jim,

    I really appreciate your comments and your willingness to share your own personal experience. I am in total agreement with you that what you describe (the big, middle class butts warming pews!) is not Christ’s definition of “come, follow me.”

    It is a sad day that our sense of “mission” has been reduced to special offerings or the work of some committee.

    I guess where I am coming from is, in the context of a very missional congregation, as much as many of us want to react against the very kinds of things you are describing, I am not convinced that abandoning the corporate gathering solves everything. And again, this is in my context (multi-ethnic, multi-class, the USC professional sitting next to the homeless guy from the park, etc.) where our willingness to come together in the larger gathering is an expression of our willingness to identify with whoever we would not naturally identify ourselves with,

    Thanks so much for contributing to the discussion! It is much appreciated.

  6. Ed,

    Your last lines beautifully speak to what I think my generation may be missing out on as I see so many of my peers go nuts in the quest for “the
    right church”, “the right pastor”, etc.

    And what I see happen too is that so many end up drawn to churches of people that look so much like themselves (generationally, culturally, socio-economically, whatever..), even though they say they despise all the “targeting” and “marketing” and “consumerism” in the church. I get wanting to be around like-minded folk, I do. I just wonder how much of the gospel we fail to know/experience when we are only ever family with people who are like us.

  7. I believe our generation is constantly seeking perfection… perfect church, perfect ballet class, perfect orthodontist, perfect birthday party, perfect school, perfect marriage and, of course, perfect children. We expect/ demand that these “services” satisfy us completely so we don’t have to work or get uncomfortable. Being committed to a church is like a marriage in that there are ups and downs, but if you’re not present it isn’t going to work.

    As you well know, my solution to all this perfectionism is to present myself to the world as the most flawed, least “put-together” person I possibly can.

  8. Julie,

    Hmm…sounds a bit like our conversation earlier this week 🙂

    I love your marriage analogy. What I see so much of is people “divorcing” their church rather than staying in a committed relationship through the sickness and the health. We are told when we marry that we are becoming one flesh; the scriptures use that same language to describe our new life together as the church.

  9. Being a PK, I never liked the idea of church shopping. It puts too much pressure on the (wo)man not the mission. We an no longer a society that fixes things(think how many TV repairmen are out of business). We just buy a new one… or find a new church. Problem is, Jesus never told us to “Go therefore and get comfy.”

  10. Hi Erika,

    I linked here from Bill Kinnon’s site. Interesting discussion, though (like Jim) I gently and lovingly disagree. I really do appreciate your tone, however – it is graceful and thoughtful in a way I have not much experienced from those who defend Sunday gatherings.

    I think in a lot of ways you’re right, about not neglecting corporate worship, and ALSO not simply hanging out with the demographic that’s “just like us.” In my own experience however, most of the churches I’ve been a part of (and there have been many, across a wide range of doctrinal and geographical locations) are very much “one demographic” – white, middle class, certain level of education, and pretty much in total agreement about the doctrinal positions of whatever church they’re a part of. Now, I’ve never been a part of a parish-mindset church, and perhaps that makes all the difference as far as demographic goes…

    On the other hand, I am NOT a part of a Sunday gathering, yet I don’t feel that I am neglecting corporate worship (it just looks different), nor do I feel that my demographic is “just like me” – in fact, it has broadened quite a bit since I left Sunday expressions of church. God keeps bringing these people into my life to love that I have found annoyingly different from me. I have even tried avoiding them. But slowly God has made them some of my closest friends, despite the fact that we hold many, many differences. Now that I am outside one limited expression of church, I have friends of many races, many doctrinal persuasions, many income levels – our relationships, our “churching” together, isn’t based on our similarities or likemindedness but rather on Christ.

    It may be rare, but it can happen.

    Blessings to you!

  11. Erika, I’m struggling with the worship aspect with my congregation. The music is so loud, you can’t hear yourself sing, let alone the person next to you. And scripture is not used liturgically–only to make a point in the sermon. It’s really hard to experience corporate worship with nothing to connect us with each other.

    Can you tell me a little about the service at your church?

  12. Erika –

    I appreciate the idea of this post, but I have to disagree with one of your fundamental points.

    I think (if I understood you correctly) that you are saying the Sunday “large group” assembly is, at least in part and perhaps especially, important because, “I am required to participate in things that are not about my preference and my choice, and I am asked to join with all who are gathered in what becomes our shared experience of life with God”.

    But if I unpack that statement a bit, I think what you are suggesting is that by being compelled to be in community with people different from me – and perhaps people I would not otherwise be in community with, I am furthered in my walk of discipleship and transformation.

    If that is what you are saying, let me say this: I completely agree with that statement and position.

    But let me disagree with you on the application of that statement as applied in the context of the typical Sunday “large assembly”.

    I would argue that the same kind of segregation, selective fellowship and cliques exist unadulterated in Sunday worship as they do anywhere else. In fact, perhaps moreso.

    I would argue that while the idea of being a part of a diverse community – and learning to live in community with people I wouldn’t “choose”, is central to the idea of kingdom living, it has almost nothing to do with our large church assemblies.

    In most cases and as borne out by the behavioral and empirical evidence, large church assemblies by an overwhelming majority do not compel people to be in community and often work against such relationship-building. When I assemble with a group of hundreds of people, I do not and am not compelled to live in community – even for an hour on Sunday morning – with folks I don’t “prefer”. Quite the opposite, I sit with, attend class with, and worship with my selected friends.

    So while I agree with the principle – whole-heartedely and enthusiastically – I believe you are stretching the application to apply it to the typical church assembly. Folks just aren’t compelled to enter community during those times – because community exists in those mundane times of eating, working and living together and cannot be compelled or prescribed on folks during a 45 minute worship service – no matter how enthusiastic or uplifting it might be.

    In other words, Sunday services don’t create community, they reflect it. If we enter our services as fragmented, segregated, mutually-judgmental “micro-communities”, there is nothing that happens in the service to change that. In fact, nothing can. Such a change must happen within the context of community – and outside our public assemblies.

  13. Let me follow up by saying that I believe the future ecclesiology will lie in one of two paths.

    One is the idea that “church” is about human relationship and that therefore “church” forms must follow the structures of those relationship. This will follow the trend of small groups and “non-institutional” churches to the logical end of the disintegration of large assemblies and the emergence of micro-churches.

    The other is a return to the sacramental/liturgical model of the church assembly where we are compelled to gather – not to offer something or to “join in community”, but to receive something – a blessing, the eucharist, confession, etc. – that only the assembly can bestow. Thus, we come to church to get something we can’t get anywhere else.

  14. Great comments, here, and I appreciate the challenges to what I am suggesting. I can tell that there is great sincerity and thoughtfulness behind all of the things being set forth here. Thanks for weighing in, Jeff, Heidi and Jim, and for giving greater breadth to the discussion.

    As I think about the things I am hearing, it seems like context is a biggie. The beauty of Christ’s church is it’s great diversity in the midst of the unity of Jesus’ presence and mission which we are all called to share. I completely believe in micro-churches, house-churches, and the like, and am drawn to the ways they both likely mirror how the earlier followers of Jesus shared life together as well as the ways they provide a critique to the Sunday-driven, big show worship that so many have become disillusioned with.

    When I participated in a house church in Chicago, it never occurred to me that there was any need of a larger group gathering, because when we gathered, all of us who constituted our church were present. I think where I am seeing and feeling the difference in my context today is that, for those individuals who have committed themselves to being a part of our body, there seems to me to be something good and needful in coming to the weekly “family dinner” so to speak. And while they may be praying and confessing and serving throughout the week in smaller groups (and they should be!), there is something necessary about all of us coming together to testify, to listen, to offer praise and petition as the body that we say we are.

    Also, we are not a large church, so participating in what happens on Sunday is not really something that can be done very anonymously. I think Jeff makes such an excellent point when he describes the ways that worshipers in a larger gathering fail to do exactly what I claim here is so important. I have certainly seen that to be true. Again, context here makes a difference.

  15. Beyond Words,

    I am not a fan of worship where there is little sense of it being something that you are doing with your neighbor. I used to get annoyed at Fuller after they moved our weekly chapel services to an auditorium because we would all be gathered, talking, etc. and when it was time to start they would bring down all the lights so you literally no longer saw who was around you and all the focus was on the lit stage. It felt like we were called to move into something very individual, something very stage-driven, rather than embrace that we were engaging what is to be “the work of the people” (liturgy).

    I have been in loud congregations before as well, so loud that mothers worried about having their infants present! However, I have to say that worship there always felt quite corporate, for other reasons.

    Doug and I both share a pet peeve in how scripture is used in worship services today. People seem to not tolerate very long readings (at least in non-liturgical churches), and it is so common that the only scripture people hear is the text that is being preached. The public reading of the Word should be so much more central, I feel. I can remember Miroslav Volf (a former prof. at Fuller) once telling us that he often found himself sitting through some “relevant” sermon wishing that the preacher would just put down their notes and simply read from the Word of God. He felt like that would actually have a greater impact.

    Our services include a variation of the following each week: invocation (Doug will give a reflection, share scripture, give some teaching on worship, etc.), corporate singing (and dancing sometimes), giving of tithes and offerings, testimonies, prayer, the reading of scripture (in English and Spanish), a time to talk and fellowship with those around you, communion, special songs and dances, announcements/discussion about community issues (community development/community organizing), welcoming visitors and friends, benediction, etc. Oh, and meals together following worship.

  16. The question is do we really know the person we sit next to, that particular Sunday. Do we have fellowship, care for one another, know each other’s needs? Looking at the back of someones head, is that church? On Monday morning do we even care? What is the minimum requirements for us to call church. I believe it is where two or more are gathered in My name there I am. Acts 2 gives us a glimpse of the early church. They met daily, eating together, ……. Different that our Sunday meeting. I believe church is much more then a Sunday morning. Church as much as worship is a lifestyle and yes I can have church at a local Starbucks. Let’s look also where the church is growing the fastest today and what it looks like. Do we really want to take our model of church to Africa, India, China etc…. People are tired of church as we know it, but they still love Jesus.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *