A colleague sent me a link to a blog article by Carey Nieuwhof reckoning with the reality that even faithful churchgoers are coming to worship less frequently. Nieuwhof’s diagnosis? People come to worship to hear a great message and listen to great music, and both of these are available online. This diminishes the felt need to come to church.
What are the metaphors through which people understand their identity as members of a church? Nieuwhof’s post highlights what I think is the primary but largely unrecognized metaphor for most Americans who “go to church.” We Americans understand our world through the lens of consumerism. We use the language of buying and selling, of efficiency, of getting the best product for the best price, even as we think about our relationships, our work, our leisure, our church. We are consumers.
I don’t have space in this post to offer evidence for these big claims. Check out Hugh Halter and Matt Smay’s book And: The Gathered and Scattered Church for an evaluation of how this metaphor seeps into churches. The consumer metaphor invites us to seek church experiences that fit our interests and time. We go to church to get our spiritual needs met. If I were to modify the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (see below for the actual answer), the consumer might say, “Man’s chief end is to connect with God by listening to a great message and hearing great music.”
Halter and Smay, in the aforementioned book, offer a different metaphor – that of missionary. As Christians, we aren’t called to consume a Christian experience. No, God sends us out on mission to bless our world and build for God’s Kingdom. If you’ve ever read a book with “missional” in the title, you’ve likely encountered this metaphor.
It’s a helpful corrective; Jesus did commission his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). Christians gather as a church, then, not to get our needs met, but to be equipped and empowered for our missionary work. So, we might modify the Westminster Shorter Catechism to say, “Man’s chief end is to partner with God to redeem and restore our hurting world.”
The missionary metaphor compels me. But, what I find lacking in both of these metaphors is the primacy of worship. Is the gathering of a church only functional? To give people a feel good experience or to shape them as missionaries? Or, are the people of God called first to worship God and then be sent? The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism actually reads, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
Worship ought to get us outside ourselves, reflecting the glory of God back to God. We do this when we give God praise, when we thank God. Could it be that we also offer God glory when we create things of beauty – sacred spaces, works of art, compelling music? What if we valued artistic expression not for its functionality (either to attract consumers to our churches or to shape missionaries) but for its capacity to express our enjoyment of God and manifest the weight of God’s beauty?
I don’t think we have to choose one of these metaphors and discard the rest (although I would love for the consumer metaphor to eventually disappear). Yet, I also think the worship metaphor has been shoved aside. It leaves me wondering, how do we help the average church person understand their identity as worshiper?
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Pres. as the Director of Contemporary Worship and Media. She blogs weekly at reverendrachel.wordpress.com.