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Do we gather to worship or to learn?

71196443One of the slightly odd things about the Christian church is that there is no agreed pattern to what we should do when we meet together. In the Western (and probably the global) church, there seem to me to be three different strands of emphasis:

  1. We meet to experience an affective encounter with God (charismatic/Pentecostal)
  2. We meet to learn about our faith and be equipped (Reformed/evangelical)
  3. We meet to share as a community in life-shaping ritual (liturgical/Orthodox)

These three are not necessarily mutually exclusive—but most traditions focus on one and marginalise the other two, and will support one of these in whatever rationales they have for their meetings. Discussion about the relative importance of these three is not just an internal question, but also has a significant impact on questions of mission and cultural engagement. In my previous posts, reflecting on the work of John Hayward in analysing church decline, I suggested that flexible engagement with culture combined with continuity of doctrine and theology were the two distinctive signs of an effective missional church.


It is not difficult to see that these three different emphases will equip churches in very different ways in relation to these two tasks. Churches which seek affective encounter with God might be sufficiently adaptable to offer cultural engagement, but will they have continuity of doctrine? Those focussing on learning about faith have a better chance of this—but how flexible will they be in form? Those focussing on ritual will not be very interested in adapting to culture—and the relation of that ritual to doctrine could be variable.

The root cause of these different views is that we do not have a definitive account from the NT of exactly what the early Jesus-followers did when they met together. We have some hefty hints, such as Acts 2.42–47 and 1 Cor 11.23–26, and these, combined with the synoptic accounts of the last supper clearly shape much Christian activity when gathered. We have evidence from the patristic period—but this has clearly developed considerably from the NT period, not least in its clericalisation and focus on doctrinal development in polemical debate with its critics. It would have been wonderful if Paul had appended to his Corinthian correspondence an outline order of service for meetings, so we could know exactly what went on! Or perhaps that would simply have trapped us in one form of meeting (very much as the Greek Orthodox church is now) and we would end up firmly in camp 3.


More than 100 years ago, Roland Allen wondered how it was that most Western missionary activity could work for years without producing a mature indigenous congregation—whereas Paul was able to spend 18 months in a city, and move on assuming that the church would not only survive, but grow and plant other congregations in the area. One key aspect was Paul’s focus on teaching, and in 2012 Claire Smith published her PhD looking at the importance of teaching for Paul in 1 Corinthians and the Pastoral Epistles. By studying the language in these letters, she seeks to answer just this question: what was the central focus of the gatherings of Jesus-followers according to Paul’s expectations? There is a short review by Andrew Clarke in Themelios, and a longer one by Steve Walton on the Society of Biblical Literature review site. Steve sets out the goal and approach of the monograph very helpfully:

The central question she addresses is how far the Australian scholar Edwin Judge’s description of the earliest Christian communities as “scholastic” is accurate, and this takes her into a careful and thoughtful engagement with the New Testament’s vocabulary of learning and teaching. Judge was a trailblazer in “social-scientific” work on the early Christian communities in their Greco-Roman setting; by “scholastic” he means that the earliest Christians functioned in a way similar to a group of disciples learning from a rabbi or a group engaged in studying the torah or a “school” formed to study and preserve the teaching of a particular teacher (4). Judge believes that the most characteristic activity of the earliest churches was learning, rather than more typical “religious” activities (as ancients understood them) of sacrifice/cult, worship (however understood), and social welfare. It was these learning activities that informed believers’ faith and lifestyle.

Smith’s approach to assessing Judge’s claim is to focus on the Pauline communities as the best test case. She studies some fifty-five words used for teaching and learning activities in four letters attributed to Paul: 1 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. She is aware that the authorship of the Pastorals is disputed, but she defends this choice on the ground that she is focusing on the communities rather than the author and notes that there are key similarities between the situations of these four letters, for they all address departures from orthodoxy in a polemical manner, and there are strong overlaps of content (see the substantial list on 29). The differences of recipients, geography (Corinth, Ephesus, and Crete), and dating allow Smith to claim that these four letters provide a broad enough sample of Pauline communities to be representative.

Smith is clearly taking the whole notion of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ in a holistic way, and so in the end concludes that Judge’s terminology of ‘scholastic communities’ is too arid to describe what was going on. But she thinks he was right in the essentials, and that we could justifiably call the Pauline churches ‘learning communities’—a term which has re-emerged in initiatives like the Partnership for Missional Church and Mike Breen’s scheme of ‘3D’ church growth. For Smith, even language directed towards God has a didactic function; Steve Walton again:

The discussion of “worshipping” words is about words found “on a divine-human axis” (269) in the context of Christian meetings, almost all found (in her chosen texts) in 1 Corinthians (ch. 8). Smith draws attention to the way that whatever is spoken in the Christian gathering is to edify those present, and this (perhaps surprisingly) includes speech addressed to God. This feature indicates particularly strongly the educational nature of the believing community’s gatherings—a tongue-speaker was to be silent if no interpretation was available because such spiritually inspired speech must contribute to the education of the community by being intelligible (1 Cor 14:28). In consequence, she calls into question the assumption of Dunn and others that early Christian meetings were highly spontaneous and unregulated, particularly if that is contrasted with having “doctrinal instruction” (272).


Here we can see in scholarship the divide between the three groups I proposed at the beginning. Smith studied for her PhD through Moore College, Sydney, which is influential in the Reformed movement, whilst Dunn would be more sympathetic to the charismatic tradition. And there are some serious questions that could be asked of this approach:

  1. Steve Walton is not clear that Smith is consistent in following her stated methodology (shaped by James Barr’s idea of semantic range) and is at times taking too simple a meaning of terms shaped by their derivation.
  2. To what extent would any letter of Paul be descriptive of what was happening in these communities rather than corrective. If, for example, there was plenty of ‘encounter with God’ happening, then Paul might need to encourage teaching, but his language would not be representative of the social context and actions of the community. This is part of wider issue of letters being ‘occasional’ rather than systematic.
  3. What do we do with the other language in Paul, where there is clearly a sense of affective encounter with God, not least in the manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit, so that an outside might exclaim ‘Truly God is here amongst you’ (1 Cor 14.25)?

So I am not clear that Smith’s argument gives us a definitive answer to the initial question. But it does demonstrate that teaching and learning, in a relational and holistic form, were essential to the early Christian communities. On his blog, Steve Walton takes from this the importance of relational learning, particularly in an academic context. But for most churches the challenge is the complementary one: do we see teaching and learning together as a primary reason for our meeting together? And for the Church of England: do we yet see discipleship as of central importance for the church? If not, we are going to struggle to be missional in an increasingly post-Christendom age.


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13 Responses to Do we gather to worship or to learn?

  1. Ross Garner August 24, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    Whilst on placement during my time at theological college I was struck by the resistance in an ordinary congregation to the idea that they were expected to learn more about the bible and christian doctrine or continue growing in faith. In my reflection on this I read a book by John Hull entitled “What prevents Christian adults from learning?” Although written 30 years ago I suspect that many of his conclusions are still valid.

    • Ian Paul August 24, 2015 at 11:17 am #

      Yes, it is something of a classic. What in the book did you think most connected with your experience?

  2. Terry August 24, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    I’d not heard of the Hull book; looks like it’s still in print: http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Prevents-Christian-Adults-Learning/dp/033401784X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1440420189&sr=8-1&keywords=what+prevents+christian+adults+from+learning

    In a few words (if possible!), please would you summarise what Hull says?

    I’m probably cynical, but in my own church, I think lip service is paid to teaching and the need to be taught – but as soon as the going gets tough (i.e., thinking is required), the content of whatever’s taught is reduced to the lowest common denominator, meaning that people don’t get stretched or challenged.

  3. James Blandford-Baker August 24, 2015 at 3:51 pm #

    As a matter of interest John Hull has just died…his funeral was a week or two ago. His book is well worth reading. One issue that I found he highlights helpfully is the issue of cognitive dissonance in the context of Christian learning and discipleship. What happens when our Christian understanding is confronted by experience which it cannot explain? How we respond to that as Christians is crucial to our growth as disciples. Time and again in ministry I’ve found guiding people to deal with this dissonance is vitally important. Some will want to abandon Christian doctrine very quickly in the face of tough situations; others will do the mature Christian thing of seeking through Scripture, prayer, counsel etc a deeper faith and grow as disciples. Both our understanding of doctrine and our reflection on our experience are challenged by such dissonance (and, of course, our culture struggles with the latter because it privileges experience over doctrine with ease). How we have been brought up in the early years of our faith, as well as our age and culture affect how we respond; seeking to understand these tendencies is an important part of Christian leadership and ministry. Hope that helps begin to answer Terry’s question…and encourage him to read the book!

    • Ian Paul August 26, 2015 at 8:20 am #

      Thanks James–this is key.

  4. Terry August 24, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

    Thanks, James. 🙂

  5. Pete J August 24, 2015 at 5:00 pm #

    Hi Ian

    I would add three more reasons to gather (perhaps these are covered within your three)

    1. Fellowship / to be a ‘people’
    2. To support each other and intercede for one another
    3. To witness to each other about God’s work in our lives

    I also strongly believe that Christian services are missional in themselves – at the very least they are a very clear marker of belief to all who are passing by, but I would guess a significant proportion of today’s Christians first believed during a service.

    Absolutely I believe that discipleship and learning together are an important aspect of a service (and Im not aware of any churches that do not attempt this). I think this is pretty crucial in an age where most new Christians will have barely any knowledge of the bible.

    However it seems to me that the standard of teaching is pretty poor in most churches. I cannot tell if this is the case or my standards are high. I think very few congregations are anticipating the sermon as the highlight of their week or expecting it to change them. However many congregants will be going home and downloading better teaching from the internet.

    I can also see a danger that some churches put so much emphasis on teaching that communion/eucharist becomes little more than an annoyance – but youve covered this already!

    I think there is a challenge also for anyone under say 40, they are going to struggle to be fully part of church communities with mainly older folk – actually this makes all service activities harder. Because of this think the “being a people” activities for younger generations are now happening outside of church meetings (i.e. with Christians from other churches in their local area or online)

    What I am basically saying is that I think new media and social change are changing what people use/expect from church services. I dont think this is a good thing, but I think it is perhaps necessary?

    • Julia B August 26, 2015 at 4:07 pm #

      Hi Ian and Pete J
      Just to say that I couldn’t agree more about the additional reasons you have added – I came on line to add just that. The family part of the community experience where we share experience, witness and just come together is what strengthens me for the rest of week. I also think this is what can make us both attractive (positive) and exclusive (negative). We need to be somewhere you feel welcome and we need to have something you would like to have too.
      I love my own congregation but I notice my teenage children doing exactly what Pete mentions – going for their fellowship and teaching to other groups. I am glad they are still seeking but I wish we could help them more.

  6. Paul Vipond August 24, 2015 at 5:32 pm #

    “Do we gather to worship or to learn?” With a background in an evangelical Methodist church, that tends towards strand (2) with a hankering for strand (1), I wonder if the question should actually be “Do we gather to worship or to be taught?”

    Given that even with trained and recognised “worship leaders” the worship leaders liaise with the preacher to see what is being preached, rather than the other way around it is clear that we are predominantly in strand (2).

    But here’s the rub. In a congregation with a high proportion or teachers, (primary school, secondary school, deputy head, retired HMI and a national education advisor), why is it only the national advisor who has the temerity to say, “We don’t teach that way anymore. A 20 (or 40) minute lecture is not an effective way of learning”? (I am distinguishing between preaching and teaching here.) Why do professional educators sit Sunday by Sunday without standing up to voice their concern.

    So on the basis that a smaller group (missional community) is a more effective vehicle for learning I wonder if (1) is actually what the larger gathering is about.

    • Ian Paul August 24, 2015 at 9:48 pm #

      Paul, thanks for your interesting comments! Yes, of course ‘worship leaders’ [in the C of E, technically the clergy are the ‘worship leaders’ and the musicians are the ‘music leaders’…] liaise with the preacher…but the period of sung worship is otherwise autonomous. So I still think that many such churches are still firmly in 1.

      There is a lively debate about learning in church…but I think it only reaches certain parts of the organisation. I think your comment is interesting about learning and encounter possibly happening in different contexts. But I cannot think for the life of me for any theological justification for this. So is our social expectation shaping our theological priorities, instead of the other way around?

      • Pete J August 25, 2015 at 9:18 am #

        Ian – I think learning in a small group is more likely to echo the discourse/debate type way that students of rabbis learnt. Clearly Jesus employed both this method and preaching at crowds of people. I wonder if there is a slight unease about small groups in the CofE due to its history (as I understand it BCP was an attempt to make sure rightness and consistency in the churches).

      • Paul Vipond August 25, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

        “So is our social expectation shaping our theological priorities, instead of the other way around?”

        But is the choice that binary? Isn’t the social situation always in “conversation” with our theological priorities?

        Given the command, “Make disciples of all nations………………teach them to do everything…..etc.” I would suggest that a 20 to 30 minute slot in a Sunday service is a poor vehicle to fulfil that command. I am not sure that it is just “social expectation” that would make a trained teacher tell us that is not the most effective way of learning.

        After all Jesus did not come down off the mountain once a week to continue his six part series in The Beatitudes with Peter manning the tape stall at the back (sorry giving my age away there) in case you missed last week’s message. Better the environment where, like the 12, we can come and ask, “What did you mean by that?”

        Perhaps the most important thing to learn when we gather is how to worship together. A skill most of us, it feels, seem to be expected to pick up by osmosis.

        [Finally just a word of thanks for your blog postings generally.]

  7. Michael F August 25, 2015 at 11:49 am #

    Interesting that the given choice is only ‘to worship or to learn?’ Aside from being an attention-grabber, answering that may depend on how broad those terms are.

    In our congregation, we seek to stoke fires of expectation, of worship, of interest in Bible learning, of relationships and of doing good. We come together to worship, because we delight in the presence of God, and because choosing to sing corporately lifts our gaze off ourselves and brings hope. We come together to pray, to be a support and to see healings – because we expect our Father in Heaven to hear our prayers and respond by His Holy Spirit. We come together to learn as disciples of Jesus, teaching each other to apply what we’ve learned and live well.

    As a body, we’re like a rush of waters coming together with a splash. Sometimes it’s messy, but there is kinetic energy in what we’re trying to do: a momentum that flows back out into our local community, workplaces and social groups.

    It’s not just about coming together for ourselves. Ideally, we go into a new week with a will to make changes and a testimony to change lives for the better – to disciple (vb.) however and whoever we can, to whatever extent we can, for His glory and not ours.

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