04.22.2022 – In Praise of the Old Way

Langhorne Presbyterian Church, Langhorne, Pennsylvania

A new church has opened in our area.  Or maybe it is just a rebranded church. In any event, they held their launch event on Easter, and I wish them well.  I wish them well, but their promotional material causes concern.  They say they have found a new way to do ministry.  They may be a little late to the game.  They sound very “emergent.”  The emergent church was a phenomenon of the early 2000s and seems mostly to have spent its moment. The emergent church was high on immediate experience and low on the things that last. Here is a not too friendly but I think mostly accurate account of the emergent church.

In any event, our friends at the new church up the road think the new way to be a church is by not being very church-like.  Oh, they are going to have a Sunday worship service, but attendance at worship is not very important.  Watching the service on Facebook Live is just as good, and the really important thing is to join a small group, several of which meet at homes around the community.  They tell us to become a part of a small group before we ever come to worship.

I should be clear about something: I like small groups.  Becky and I are a part of a small group connected to our church and it has been one of the best things about being in Auburn.  Thank God for small groups!

But a church is not just a network of small groups whose members share a Facebook Live feed and sometimes show up at the same place on a Sunday morning.

The Reformers classically defined the church as being that place where the Word is purely preached, the Sacraments rightly administered, and discipline properly practiced.  Preaching and the Sacraments are public events, acts of worship for the church gathered.  Preaching the Word and the administration of the Sacraments are the work of those called, trained, and ordained for such work. Leadership of the church’s worship is always serious business, though right worship is often marked by great joy.  Discipline – holding the faithful to account for the faithful living of their lives – is the work of the elders of the church “called by God through the voice of the congregation,” as we used to say in the PCUSA.

I know, the church is not a building, and the church is not a steeple.  Indeed, the church is a people, but we are a people called by the grace of God and our life is to be ordered by the Word of God.  Pastors, teachers, and elders are not an invention of the institutional church; they are a gift of God to the living church. They have a job to do. We don’t worship at a screen, we worship through the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of the people gathered and the Word proclaimed from the literal or figurative pulpit.  We gather at a real table and are baptized at a real font.

It may be that we don’t so much need to find a new way to be the church as we need to renew the old ways of being the church – yes, looking first to the model of the New Testament church, but also looking to our rich heritage from the history of the church including the great wisdom of the Reformers.  Churches still need buildings and pastors, the Word preached and the Sacraments administered as the people gather together – together, not in front of a livestream screen.  We still need wise elders, people who know us and love us, to hold us to account for the living of our lives in faithful witness to the good news of the Gospel. I’d rather be a part of a renewed church than simply a new-way-to-do-things church.

I wish the new church up the road well, but I think they may have some things out of order as they go about their work.