Returning Worship to the Center of the Church and the Christian Life
The Dissolution of the Christain Parish
The ability to travel to places quickly and comfortably has allowed us to live at greater and greater distances from one another. This has provided both some civil and ecclesiastical advantages. In civil society we’ve seen our ability to find better paying work improved through our ability to travel. In the Church, (ecclesiastical society) an advantage has been the ability to locate more faithful churches through the same means. But it has also provided some disadvantages as well. In civil society, our increased drive time has diminished the time we spend together as families and neighbors. It has severely undermined our kith and kin, our neighborhood and our family relationships. In the Church, one of the disadvantages has been the dissolution of the parish life of the local church. A parish is a defined district that a church is located in, its congregants live in, and its ministries are focused within. The current buzzword used in the American evangelical church today, “community,” is an attempt to describe and recover some sense of the older “parish life.” However, like almost everything else in the modern church, the word “community” is usually loosely defined, and when it is defined it often has multiple and sometimes even conflicting definitions from church to church. So what we have seen all throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is that each technological advancement that increased our reach and travel ability generally undermined the church as a “parish.”
What Replaced Life In The Parish?
In the past I’ve talked about a companion phenomenon called “fragmentation.” Until recently human beings lived a generally unified life. Meaning we lived, worked, and worshiped in the same city. Now it is common for people to live in one city, work in another, and even possibly worship in yet another. This is called “fragmentation.” Again, the creation of comfortable and quick travel spawned an unintended consequence, the loss of a sense of place and a practical love of neighbor. For context, what is referred to now as Metro Nashville was originally a conglomeration of many small cities. The greater Nashville area now includes even Murfreesboro, Smyrna, and LaVergne. At one time Murfreesboro competed with Nashville to become the capital, and even succeeded for a season from 1818 – 1826. Now it is seen as a bedroom community of Nashville. This fragmentation is what has replaced the parish, with its attendant loss of city distinction and the distinct love that the parish life of the church demonstrated to her city or district through various ministries.
Rebuilding Parish Life
Daily prayer, service of the poor, days of fasting, and seasons with a special call to heightened spiritual intensity were all part of the parish life of the Church in the past. Yet, as we have been discussing, they have become increasingly burdensome as distance and drive times increased and the daily stress of traffic entered into all our urban and suburban realities. Getting home and then leaving again to drive back to the church’s building to pray together has become something most families find difficult to do. Usually, because of fragmentation, they live at some distance from the church. Throw into this mix the extra-curricular activities common to the American family and the schedule swells to a frenetic pace. Thus prayer and frequent worship together in the Church has fallen on hard times in the modern era. Where multiple in-person meetings were the rule of the past, the current Church exists in such fragmentation that faithful church attendance itself has plummeted. Weekly public worship is taught as optional and the self-justifying “personal relationship with God” is seen as the most important thing. This turns discipleship and thus Christianity itself into a disembodied and lonely venture.
The good news is that recently digital technologies have improved their user experience to the point that more people have become comfortable using them. This was partially forced into existence by COVID-19 pandemic policies that locked down the entire populace for multiple years. That aside, the fact is that for the first time since the internet age began, the tools exist and are in such common use that we can begin to rebuild some of the parish life that was lost to the Church, and even possibly expand her reach digitally. While a digital parish is not optimal, and I am not suggesting anyone replace all their meetings with digital versions by any means, yet certain types of meetings and organization can now occur effectively in a digital format that alleviates driving to and from a meeting. Public worship on the Lord’s Day and other gatherings should of course continue to be in person. But in order to increase our corporate prayers to God and build the church on a foundation made up of the Word of God and prayer, the church can organize to this purpose easily now using digital tools.
Most of my ministry has been spent in concern for how to recover and maintain what has been lost due to the technological changes in the world we inhabit. Combating the disembodiment and the displacement of the church both in the life of the disciple and in the world takes up a lot of my mental energy. Asking questions like, “What does it mean to walk together?” and “How can we recover it?” are front and center in my mind. This was the reason I gave the two sermons on the prayer practices of the church in Acts. I was answering a question inspired by Acts 2:42. When it says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” the question arises, “Why is “prayers” plural and preceded by the preposition “the” in the passage? The answer became clear as we surveyed how often the “hour” was given as people were headed to prayer or to worship. We saw the church continuing the prayer practices that had existed in Israel going back to their captivity in Babylon, where they established regular hours where one prayed either together or privately as a people.
There’s an old saying that says, “History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.” That is a great way of summarizing my thoughts on the Church’s organization. We are not first century Jews living in an ancient society. There is no Temple and our synagogues (churches) are not often near enough for one to walk or even drive to quickly. The organization of our society is drastically different even from our own grandparents’ time. So, we cannot duplicate previous practices exactly, but we can make them rhyme. We can follow the same principles under different applications. This is why I began the spiritual experiment of the “40 Days of Prayer,” and moved to continue daily prayer under the name “The “Opus Dei” (which means “Work of God.”). It was an attempt to recapture a piece of the older parish life and place the worship of God at the center of the Church’s work beyond the Lord’s Day. So far I’d grade the experiment as a success. Let me say a few words about why it has been a success in my book.
Worship IS the Building Block of Parish Life
First, the prayer times include Scripture readings. A psalm reading and a Gospel reading in the morning and an Old Testament reading at night. That the church reads the Scripture together is important. We read a chapter at the Lord’s Table each week and of course we read the sermon text. But beyond that the reading of the Scripture is a purely a private affair. This is true of evangelicalism broadly. But with our twice daily prayer practice the whole Bible can be read through each year as a body. Second, it ensures that the day begins and ends with the worship of God. Again, in evangelicalism the worship of God daily is a private affair, but should it be? Has the effect of the privatization of the Christian faith brought about renewal and revival or disembodiment and fragmentation? The answer is obvious. Without mechanisms of accountability people tend to drift. The church until very recently was always a place filled with mechanisms of accountability. Because, as the Lord Jesus knew and taught, so we know and teach. And what is it that we teach about the nature of man? We teach that the nature of man is depraved, one that tends to lapse into sin and deformation, not the other way around.
The Benefits of Parish Life
As I began to assess whether or not we should continue to pray twice a day together I asked the people who regularly attended the prayer time two questions. (1) Have you enjoyed the prayer time as it is designed? And, (2) would you continue the practice if the opportunity arose? One happy comment I’ve gotten from several fronts is how regularly attending prayer at 7 AM and 7 PM has changed their households schedule. They woke up earlier in order to be at the morning prayer, and went to bed earlier for the same reason. Another answer I received was that the repetition of our prayers was so encouraging. This is something I have personally experienced. Recognizing every morning and night the answer to our prayers for protection, life, provision, wisdom, etc. has helped to build up faith and endurance. It has given us a place to pray for the salvation of others daily and has encouraged us all to do it more frequently. Adding the Wednesday Noon prayer meeting gave a place for prayer that is congregationally focused and provided content for our 9:30 AM prayer meeting on Sunday mornings too. The prayer requests that people send in for Wednesday often include praying for the salvation of family members and friends, which has had an accumulating benefit. Now, when we intercede for the lost each morning, there are more names for all our prayer lists.
The twice daily prayer together via Zoom has been a wonderful mechanism of accountability with a side benefit of content creation too. Now instead of 80-100 American individuals gutting out their faith on the strength of their own will power and personal focus alone, we have a committed group walking together as they memorize and meditate, read Scripture (Psalm) and praise, read Scripture (NT) and intercede for the lost, read Scripture (OT) and confess our sins, and also share requests and pray for the congregation together. It truly makes the worship of God the center of the Church and thus begins to knit back together the “parish life” of the Church.