Soon and Very Soon (RJS)

I am mourning this week as a fellow faculty member and long time (5+ year) attender of our church died last week, not in the fullness of age as we read in Isaiah 65:20, but at my age. He wasn’t a close friend, but he and his family had been to our house for dinner and we had been to theirs. We’ll miss him.

His department mourned his passing on the front page of their website. There are student testimonials and an on-line article in the student newspaper and in the faculty-staff daily newsletter. An e-mail was sent to students and faculty in his units.

At our church the only mention was a small print acknowledgment under prayer requests on a hand-out. Nothing was said publicly at all.  I contacted the pastor and was told this was an oversight.  But nonetheless the difference in response struck me. As member of a secular institution his death was mourned publicly, as long time attender of a church of ca. 500±100 his death was essentially unacknowledged.

I don’t want to come off as too critical. Our church does many outstanding things. In addition, the church has come alongside the family in many important ways. Here I am concentrating on a more public display of oneness with those who mourn. And I realize as well that our church falls in the center of current mainstream evangelical practice – where “dream big” and “too personal” are seen to run in counter propagating directions. Scot mentioned in a post last year (How the Church Has Changed) that in the last 10 years of speaking in churches he can count on one hand the times he’s heard a genuine pastoral prayer. Our church is no different. Without the pastoral prayer it is not clear where acknowledgment of death  fits into a worship service.

On the other hand … We acknowledged and mourned in our worship service several weeks ago the public, but largely impersonal and distant, tragedy at Sandy Hook. We prayed for the families. And rightly so. But we did not mourn publicly in our worship service the death of one of our own, or pray for his family.

Scot linked an article by Roger Olson in Weekly Meanderings a couple of weeks ago where he reflected on what he feels the church has lost  Have American Evangelicals Become Secularized? :

But my point isn’t just to express my nostalgic feelings. It seems to me our evangelical Christian communities in America have lost something precious—not just by abandoning Watchnight Services. That’s just a symptom of a larger abandonment. When I was growing up, at least in evangelicalism, your church was one of your extended families. You looked forward to being with your church family, eating together, having fellowship together, sharing triumphs and tragedies and prayer requests together, praying together. Now, for the most part, anyway, even in evangelicalism, “church” is Sunday morning worship only. For some it also includes Sunday School, although that’s gradually dying out, too. Many churches have attempted to fill the “fellowship gap” with a small group ministry, but in most such churches only a minority of the members are involved and these groups tend to fall into an affinity pattern (“birds of a feather…”). Children are usually not part of the small groups. I have doubts about whether the contemporary manifestation of small group ministry in churches really fills the gap left by the demise of events such as Watchnight Service.

So what am I suggesting?  A return to the 1950s? Well, not exactly. Yes—in the sense of recovering in new ways the sense of community American evangelical churches had then. Real spiritual community necessarily includes availability, transparency, and accountability. No–we don’t have to return to Watchnight Services to recover those. But we do need to create new ways of filling the “fellowship gap” left behind by the demise of such intense events.

The church as extended family Roger Olsen wrestles with in his post is sometimes today branded “Country Club Christianity” – an insider club that limits the size of a church and prevents the spread of the gospel because it engages in insider activities. At times it could exclude outsiders, so there are valid reasons to revisit some aspects. We need not and should not return to the 1950’s or 1960’s or 1970’s or even the 1980’s. There was no golden age to which we should return – we must move forward. On the other hand when we fail to publicly mourn with and pray for those among us who mourn perhaps we have gone too far. I may be in the minority, but I miss the pastoral prayer.

This leads me to questions I wrestle with these days – Why Church? Why do we need the church in our Christian life? What value does it bring?

In 21st century America church is not, it seems quite clear, an extended family. It is less clear, to me at least, what church is or should be, what place it actually has in our spiritual life.

Is church a place for teaching? Our preacher is very good. But he is, of necessity, aiming at a broad audience and wants to be seeker sensitive. I can find preaching and teaching online, both free and for a fee, that does a better job of hitting me where I am. As a Christian, in the church for five decades, who reads and studies and writes, a general audience sermon doesn’t add much value in and of itself. I can’t say I’ve ever gone to a church specifically for the preaching.

Is church a place for worship? I may be odd here – but a spectator experience listening to a young adult worship band doesn’t do much for me. I can get the spectator experience in a way that better matches my taste in a variety of other forms and places. Church is, I think, a place for corporate participatory worship of our God. But this is not the current trend. We used to have participation – in the churches of my youth up through a few years ago – with people from 7 to 70 involved through choirs and Bible reading and special music and more. But participatory worship is going the way of Watchnight services and Sunday School.

Is church a focal point for small groups? Small group relationships are valuable. Very important in fact. But need these be centered in a church? I know a number of small groups begun in some format, hanging together as the individuals move in and out of different churches. And house church can do just fine for many. We don’t need much of the church for small group fellowship.

Is church a place for social action? Many churches are involved in social action – a very good thing. But I can give to World Vision, local women’s ministries, Samaritan’s Purse, and more without going through a local church.

Is church an evangelistic mission? Perhaps the primary purpose of a church is to provide a focal point for evangelism, to precipitate decisions. But does this mean we should seek out a church that will reach our peers? Church is a utilitarian tool we use for facilitating our personal evangelistic missions? The growth of Christians themselves should come through self-feeding outside the walls or community of the local church?

Is church a tool we use to provide religious education for our children? Some who chart the behavior of 20 and 30 somethings claim that people return to the church once they have children of their own. Many feel that church brings something of importance to the family. But if church is a utilitarian tool to provide religious education for our children, is there any reason then to remain once the children have grown?

Is church an outreach mission? We are in a University town. Many of the churches around, including ours, have an intentional outreach to University students. We provide lunch, fellowship, discipleship and extra worship opportunities (my husband has suggested a laundry service to make us truly popular). Our church does a fantastic job with undergraduates. Are we to search out churches that either fill our need or provide opportunities for the mission to which we feel called?

This has become something of an existential question. And death brings another light on the question. Is church a place where we live, grow, fellowship, and worship together in sickness and health, sorrow and celebration? Or is the role of the church in the times of trial limited to pastoral care and a facility for the funeral? Again, the church as a utilitarian institution.

I would like to finish with two reflections. First, I am a Christian professor today because of Church as extended family. When I struggled with the kind of deep questions and doubts common to so many, especially within secular academia, it was church as extended family that kept me connected. Sometimes the connection was a bit like an invisible fishing line with lots of room to run (and at times I took it pretty far). At other times it was a lifeline with a ring at the end and I held tight with both hands to keep my head above water. (Of course, many of my secular colleagues would claim I have simply been unable to throw off the brainwashing of my upbringing.) I remember to this day many of the adults from the church of my youth, as well as friends throughout the years. We are poorer when we lose the church as the extended family of the people of God.

Second, I remember as if it were yesterday one worship service from back in the dark ages, the mid 1990’s. We were a young family, relatively new at the church we still attend. An older woman in the church was dying of cancer (probably not significantly older than I am today, however). She was not expected to live out the morning. I never really knew her – but I could tell you her name (or make a good guess) even today. As part of the service (the pastoral prayer I am sure) we prayed for her and her family. Then the choir sang the song I link below.  In my heart and memory our choir was better, although smaller – but the same mix of ages from graduate students and medical students in their early 20’s to gray heads. This was the kind of place, an extended family of sorts, where we wanted to make our home and raise our kids.

Rest in Peace. We’ll miss you.

What is the church?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

"I did a bit of research on this a while ago. A few comments.Other than ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"And then you ask, 'So what did the early church believe was the gospel?' and ..."

Which Century Changed The Story?
""Christ Himself is the Incarnate Word of God.." is true, and a disingenuous counterclaim to ..."

The Word of God is Not ..."
"Finding introverts on the internet is like finding the characters who aren't Waldo."

Five Signs Of Being An Introvert

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rick

    Wonderful post, and I am sorry for your loss.

    One element you left out (unless I missed it), is the sacraments. I don’t think the impact of those should be overlooked in regards to their importance and impact.

    I do think small groups are important, but need to be guided by the church. Real fellowship and discipleship can take place in such settings- if done right.

  • RJS


    I did leave out sacraments, and I thought about this as I was writing the post. Is church a utilitarian deliverer of sacraments (esp. the bread and wine (alcoholic or not) )? Or is the the Eucharist connected with community the true sacrament of communion?

  • Jerry S

    May our Lord grant comfort to you and this family in this loss. As to your question–the church is all the things you mentioned and more. One thing I’ve noticed in 25 years of pastoral ministry is that we have a tendency to try to reduce our church “experience” to 1-2 hours on Sunday morning. The service (whenever it takes place) is asked to bear the burden of worship, education, evangelism, fellowship, etc and it can not bear the weight of all those things. Olsen’s article struck a chord with me because that’s how I remember church from my youth.

    Interesting that you highlight the loss of pastoral prayers. I’ve noticed this as well, particularly in contemporary services. It’s all praise and worship/teaching without the the priesthood of believers holding up one another and the world in prayer. For all its faults, at least the Anglican/Episcopal tradition still makes space for intercessory prayers.

  • RJS, I appreciate your initial lament, and I think you are right to ask those questions of your own congregation. However, I think the general questions you pose later are too mainstream evangelical, which is to say, in a word, functionalist. The church *is* the gathered disciples of Jesus Christ around the world and throughout time. The church *does* many of the things you mention here, as appropriate for the context and calling of each congregation. Making these tasks into central features of identity, I think, is part of the problem with evangelicalism today.

    You did leave out sacraments, as you mention in your comment, but they are much more central to Christian identity than almost anything you have listed here. So perhaps there’s a reorientation of understanding that’s needed in evangelicalism today. Okay, not “perhaps.”

  • I should have said “gathered and scattered” disciples of Jesus…

  • RJS


    I agree that the church is the gathered and scattered disciples of Jesus around the world and throughout time. But this is a rather impersonal concept. What makes it personal is the local gathering of the disciples of Jesus. So I guess “the church” in my comments in the OP is that local gathering of the disciples.

    The broad concept isn’t enough.


    Wonderful questions about the church. IMO, until those questions are asked by every “member,” not much will change.
    By making the church an organization, we have reduced it to programs managed by professionals. (That is not to say that the programs or the professionals are inherently bad. It does say that the majority of the people would be at a loss about how to be the church without either or both.)
    To me one of the keys of change is to come to grips with the ownership of being a disciple, meaning that each of us is to be focused on our calling to live out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission in our daily lives. Unfortunately, it is more difficult to do that in any significant way as an individual. The synergy of the group makes participation in that calling a more visible witness. And that group will engage in prayer, worship, education, sacraments, etc. as the natural expression of its life together. But most followers of Jesus can only think of church as program and professional, and are content to make that their church experience, resulting IMO in the capture of their time and energy in a less-faithful form of discipleship.
    Until we start thinking seriously about your questions, I’m afraid not much will change.

  • Is church a place where long-term members have a voice and an identity? Not in my thirty-four years attending the same church. A local gathering of disciples of Jesus is not personal if members have no voice in the leadership of their church.

  • T.S.Gay

    We are mourning the passing of my wife’s mom this month. She stayed with us for a year while the daughter she lived with battled cancer in her family. Staying with us was a blessing because our children and our grandchildren could be with her.
    Family, church family, co-workers, community imteraction, the need for community in the 21st century is all relevant to this conversation about church and its value. May I add just one small point of agreement with you. We haven’t thought about how we have left behind the participatory aspect of worship. In this regard I have found the contributions of the Anabaptist Eleanor Kreider helpful. Through her I have used “Take Our Moments and Our Days” as a personal devotional( it is essentially an impetus to prayer- a kickstarter, if you will, that I believe has implications for why we gather).

  • RJS, I recognize that and said as much in my post. My point isn’t a dichotomy between local and universal (and I think the universal does matter very much, especially when it comes to nationalism and globalization and the issues of justice attendant to those concerns). My point was to draw a distinction between what the church *is* and what it *does,* which in our technical, managerial culture gets too often conflated.

  • RJS

    Thanks Brad.

  • As a pastor, I really appreciate your comments. There is always the tension between ministering to the individual and to the whole. Your comments highlight at least one way that the two of these should come together in the church: our ministry of prayer and support to one (a family) also becomes a ministry to the whole community.

    There is tendency to functionalize the church in our day, particularly in evangelicalism. We gather so that we can do such and such another thing, whether that is mission or community or spiritual growth. Still, the church does have ‘functions’ going all the way back to our roots in the Old Testament exodus and tabernacle.

    I’m commenting with the comfort that our church (a megachurch) still prays for people by name every week. Yet, we wrestle with it. There are many who do not know the names we are praying for. There are times when we pray for the needs but do not celebrate the answers to prayer. There are times when the prayers feel like announcements. At least once we prayed for someone without their permission and they were offended. It is a delicate work to pray, and to stand as a congregation holding up real people with real names to the living God.

  • RJS

    Matt (#12),

    I appreciate the note of caution about praying for someone without permission. There are certainly situations (illness etc.) where this very important. I think death crosses the line to become a public event, where this may not be as big a concern.

  • T


    I think this is a very interesting post, and timely for me. My wife and some friends of mine and I are talking and praying about planting a church, or maybe just a “ministry,” but that’s another conversation. But your thoughts here resonate with me as we’ve been thinking and praying. Also, allow me to join you in the idea that the sacraments, by themselves, don’t solve this problem, IMO, unless we both broaden and deepen the prevalent thinking and practice there, too.

    I think there is a tendency for “church” to be a collection of ministries/programs, rather than a family that ministers, to itself and others. Which particular mix of ministries or structures or sacraments that are “the” necessary marks of a church generally depend on which branch of the Church is asked, but the lack of real family is often the same.

    I can’t help but think of the statistics that show correlations b/n children’s emotional and physical health and the number of family meals per week. Perhaps no one sees much of a connection b/n these statistics and the problem that RJS is trying to identify here, but I think there is a connection. Even the Church’s famous shared “meal” often seems hollowed of any family meal dynamic, reduced to its so-called essence for consumption by the masses. What if communion is fundamentally changed if we shrink the cup, shrink the bread, and turn it more into a ceremony than a family meal? What if our transformation of the Eucharist is symptomatic of what we’ve done with all of church, which is to say, we’ve taken it from the personal and familial to the ceremonial or programmatic and professional? What, if anything, have we lost in the translation? Does the centrality of Love in our faith have any bearing on our answer?

  • RJS


    Interesting – Roger Olson talks about communion as part of the Watchnight services he remembers, and this was part of ours growing up as well. Most of the year we would pass little cups and cubes of bread (but hold to partake together in a show of oneness). People have mocked this practice on this site, but I think it comes closer to “meal” than many of the alternatives practiced in churches. In contrast though we did break bread together around small tables (10-12 at a table) as part of the Watchnight service, right at midnight. I remember vividly many of these services.

  • Norman


    Perhaps we gravitate to large congregations today at the expense of intimacy. I grew up in a small country church and look back fondly on those days but I also led my family into a much larger urban church because it provided a diversity of contacts and enthusiasm. It seems the more people the more opportunities but alas it also backfires as we simply can’t be as intimate as we were in the smaller congregation.

    Lots of pros for the big such as better pulpit preaching and better bible school teachers by and large and the list can go on. Perhaps this is simply a modern development of transportation enabling that has allowed this mass convergence to larger central churches where before we simply kept to smaller community establishments naturally. It is simply impossible to be intimate with 500 to 2000 members in a congregation as that is a world beyond the 75 to 100 member local congregation I grew up with. I think we are trying to fit square pegs into round holes and it likely isn’t going to work the same way as it used to. All this boils down to personal decisions we all have to make in moving forward to make it work for our families and ourselves.

  • Here’s what I think about “the church”…

  • RJS


    The church I grew up in was ca. 500 members, the church I’ve attended for the last 20 years is ca. 500 members. I’ve been to 2000 member churches that still managed to have a pretty good sense of extended family (It is a specific value of that church and the facilities make it possible).

    I doubt if a 25000 member church can, but perhaps I’m wrong.

    Size isn’t the whole story … it is more complicated than that

  • RJS

    By members in the previous comment I don’t mean official members, I mean regular attenders of all ages.

  • RJS

    By the way Norman – I don’t mean to suggest that the past was perfect. No place I’ve known has ever been perfect. But not all changes are equally good and some are really bad.

  • Rick

    Isn’t the current church situation partly a reflection of culture: mobile, avoiding accountability, uncommitted, etc…

  • Norman


    Don’t disagree with you and in fact I also bemoan many of the points you bring up in your post.

    As part of a larger congregation’s leadership we are constantly trying to massage these issues but it seems like we attempt to plug one hole and another develops somewhere else. It’s a problem for me personally and it is for our congregation at large as well.

    It seems the spirit is willing but the body is weak, or something like that 🙂

  • metanoia

    A very provocative post. It raised so many excellent questions that I could relate to.

  • Great questions. The thing is, our New Testament presents the church as an extended family, the household of God, and seems to think that’s true of the Jerusalem megachurch and the Philippian house church. So we gotta admit that no easy answers appear in current American culture, but we certainly can’t just shrug our shoulders and dismiss church-as-extended-family and adopt some other cultural concept. Or I should say, we “can” do that, but betray our “Bible believing” proclamations when we do.

  • RJS

    Dru (#24),

    We need to adapt into our current culture, no question about that.

    I’ve heard the Jerusalem megachurch point before – but I think that we might also be wise to remember that persecution scattered this megachurch before it had time to get too established I believe. And I think you are on to something that the NT presents church as the household of God even when it represents a very large gathering.

    I am not saying big = bad, small = good. I am saying that impersonal = bad. I’ve seen “personal” churches of a few thousand.

  • Yep. A lot of the discussion is around size of congregation, but I agree that this is secondary consideration. I suppose my main thought is that the “extended family” or “household of God” conception is not optional nor is it relegated to past culture(s). It’s the controlling metaphor which our canon teaches us and is therefore normative. Really appreciate the post.

  • Jon G

    Just saw this, RJS. My condolences for your loss. I hope your grief departs quickly but your fond memories never fade.

    Much love,


  • Michael Teston

    Spent the afternoon reading from Christopher Heuertz’s book “Unpected Gifts.” Ran across this quote in the chapter entitled, “Betraying Community.” It hit me between the eyes after years of talking the talk about “community.”

    ‘In community, friendship is sometimes missed entirely. It’s ironic that people will come together to form community for the sake of community. It’s a curiosity when I observe groups of people struggling to form community, when they first and foremost aren’t even friends. Fundamentally, friendship is the basis of community. If we don’t have the gift of friendship in weaving our lives together, our communities are simply experimental spaces set up to fail or to lead to deep resentments.”

    I wonder, if too often, the main thing is forgotten. Relationships themselves, like ministries, are purely utilitarian. Good post worthy of much pondering and reflection and action.

  • Jeff Y

    I am late to the game here. But, think congregations do fail to bring about family quite often. That failed announcement is tragic.

    Yet, Christ came to form a family; a family community; not just individual Christians. American individualism has been a drag on forming church community. Emerging adults in particular are so individualized in their thinking they miss this. I like this quote I came across some time ago from N.T. Wright:

    “Individualism, rightly prized by many Christians as a guard against the dangerous idea that membership in the church makes individual belief and conduct a matter of secondary importance, can easily be twisted into the equally dangerous notion that membership in the congregation itself is of comparative insignificance. God intends Christian behavior to be reinforced and upheld by the friendship, company, teaching, counseling and loving criticism of other Christians. Not to appreciate this is to lapse into that arrogant independence of one’s fellow human beings – worse, one’s fellow Christians – which is a sign not of the new life but of the old.”