Do we meet as church 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.

(First published July 2015)

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9 thoughts on “Do we meet as church to worship or to learn?”

  1. Surely all three: which is why the set Liturgy starts with teaching (Ministry of the Word) and moves through prayer (managed or free-form) to the ministry of the Sacrament and thanksgiving.
    The experiential, emotional, Holy Spirit side is, hopefully, a golden thread twinkling in and out of, and binding together, all three.

  2. Thanks Ian, this is helpful for me to read as we think in our parish church about our purpose and vision. I suspect we have a broad range of opinions and expectation as to the main purpose of our gathered worship, and it may be interesting for us to explicitly name that together. Also, as I followed some of your links, I came to a piece you wrote a few years ago about discipleship, and notice that the three key elements that you identify as Biblical discipleship – namely, ‘decision, learning and community’ map fairly well on to the three strands of emphasis that you identify here for our gathered worship. I don’t know where I’m going with that yet, but I see it.

  3. Thanks for the links, Ian. I am reminded of the late F.F.Bruce’s gentle warning that “we shouldn’t put all our eggs in One Corinthian basket”!! Perhaps contrast and balance with N.T.Wright’s consistent refrain to consider what would happen if we’d make Ephesians our foundation epistle, rather than Romans. Much food for thought about our own biblical preferences, and a fresh challenge to compare and contrast contexts.

  4. “We assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul” – we were told each week – praise, prayer and learning from scripture.

  5. As a member of the Reformed / Evangelical strand I would prefer to have edification as the main Bible-based goal of a church meeting rather than education –
    “We meet to learn about our faith and be equipped (Reformed/evangelical)”

    The appropriate metaphor for what we are doing at a church meeting is a body strengthening itself by feeding on God’s word, rather than a mind increasing its knowledge by learning.

    The edification metaphor also gives due place to the benefit and necessity of meeting together, as opposed to the learning metaphor, which describes something we could do on our own listening to downloaded sermons without meeting as church at all.

    • I would also prefer edification, but my experience of evangelical churches (most of my life) is that the emphasis is largely doctrinal, and that “education” accurately describes the focus.
      That said, when people come out of a service and say “That was good teaching”, I often think (or fear) that that can be translated into “I agreed with that sermon, so I was taught nothing”.

  6. I’m rereading Eugene Peterson’s A long obedience in the same direction, and happened to read his chapter on worship this morning. The three reasons he gives for attending weekly worship map well into yours:
    1. To give a structure that makes sense of our lives
    2. To relate to God together – an encounter with God that “does not satisfy our hunger for God but whets it”
    3. To “centre our attention on the decisions of God”, which as I see it is a way of saying “make us listen to the bible in a way that makes obedience more probable”.

  7. I imagine most of us thought about what happens on a Sunday when reading this article. Of course, ‘church’ should be more than just what happens on a Sunday so we should widen our thoughts over a whole week (or fortnight) to make better conclusions. In Acts they met together every day in some form. In Ephesus, Paul hired a school to use every day.
    Is anyone else concerned that modern worship music style is stifling the church under the guise of ‘worship’. Where is the ‘prophetic’ which 1 Corinthians 14 emphasises so much? One of the best churches I know combines liturgy, modern music and rich exposition all in 1 hour. Certainly it keeps the music under control and doesn’t have a big central emphasis on a ‘worship leader’.

  8. I think it is all of these
    We meet to experience an effective encounter with God (charismatic/Pentecostal)
    We meet to learn about our faith and be equipped (Reformed/evangelical)
    We meet to share as a community in life-shaping ritual (liturgical/Orthodox)

    More intentional teaching and disciple building. I think that Methodism as instituted by Charles and John Wesley as a means of disciple making is something we have much to learn from. As many others have commented in many places our failure to make effective disciples is one of our biggest challenges.

    Our youngest son’s fiancee is Jewish and she was shocked by how light weight and short the teaching was in the Christmas day service was in one of the local churches.

    Maybe our biggest challenge is not ‘How well we do Sunday worship’ but how badly we do discipleship and how we struggle to provide the discipleship and habits required to carry through discipleship beyond Sundays.

    I cant remember who compared Sunday worship with a play, where traditional Sunday worship is that the congregation is the audience, the Vicar and others are the actors and God is the prompter on the side; but what really it needed to be was that the congregation were the actors, the Vicar was the prompter on the side and God was the audience.


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