The Future of the Churches of Christ: Ancient-Future Assembly, Part 3


What is the message that the assembly should communicate to the members and to visitors? There are, of course, countless good things that one might teach, but what is the over-arching goal?

Sometimes we approach the assembly microscopically, that is, focusing on today’s lesson without thought to the lesson taught over the course of the years.

I’m persuaded that we’ve greatly erred in not communicating the Story as well as we should have. By the “Story” I mean the over-arching narrative of Scripture. It’s a true Story. Indeed, it’s Truth.

You see, if we fail to teach the Story, then all the other lessons become atomistic, separated truths that aren’t seen as part of the total Truth of God’s revelation. And so, we pick and choose the parts that seem relevant and ultimately decontextualize our preaching and our worship.

Hence, we might overly focus on the therapeutic lessons in the gospels. The preacher will be praised by the members who are struggling to cope with insecurity, low self-esteem, and depression, but it won’t be because they truly understand how they fit into God’s Story. They might in fact consider Jesus to have come to earth and died so that they could feel better about themselves — which is not really quite the point.

In Worship by the Book, Timothy J. Keller writes about Calvin’s approach to the assembly —

Calvin’s corporate worship tradition resonates with many of the concerns of postmodern people. They have a hunger for ancient roots and a common history; Calvin emphasizes this through liturgy in a way that neither traditional Free Church worship nor contemporary praise worship does. They have a hunger for transcendence and experience; Calvin provides an awe and wonder better than the cognition-heavy Free Church services in the Zwinglian-Puritan tradition and better than the informal and breezy “seeker services.”

The Churches of Christ inherit their worship style from the Puritans via certain branches of the 19th Century Baptist Churches, which trace back to Puritanism. We tend to be very non-creative, favoring routine and predictability, highly rational, and not very relational. Our services focus on doctrine more than personal experience with a present Savior.

Meanwhile, the “seeker service” is often highly emotional and experiential, but can become very passive — with those in attendance reduced to viewing a spectacle. Indeed, often such congregations compete with each other to have the hottest band and the most exciting service — selling worship experience rather than building a true community.

Calvin favored —

* Simplicity — in form and language, in preference to spectacle or sentimentality. Hence, he abhorred all ostentation. We do not earn God’s favor by the excellence of our performance! It’s about grace.

* Transcendence — Calvin sought to bring the membership face to face with God. Thus, he seeks a balance between objective and subjective knowledge of God. Worship is about both head and heart.

Therefore, he had songs written by the best poets available. However, he insisted on congregational singing — and even had “singing masters” train the congregation in how to sing.

He further urged those leading the worship to demonstrate both delight in God and awe in God’s presence.

That is, the leadership must be manifestly amazed at God’s grace. We aren’t here to earn God’s approval, but neither do we ignore God’s presence. God is here! We don’t deserve his presence, and he doesn’t want us to pretend to be someone other than who we are. (We can’t fool God by putting on a coat and tie, you know.) Therefore, we approach God’s presence with honesty and wonder.

Instead, Calvin saw the entire service, not as a performance by God by the celebrants, but as a rhythm of receiving God’s word of grace and then responding in grateful praise. That is how the gospel operates. We do not perform duties, anxiously and wearily hoping that some day we will deserve to enter his kingdom and family. Rather, we hear the word of our acceptance now; and transformed by that understanding, we respond with a life of thankful joy (Rom 5:1-5).

Thus, Calvin divides the service into two elements: the “Service of the Word” followed by grateful joy in the “Service of the Table.” Rather than treating communion as a chore to be hurried through so that we get to the real worship — the sermon, Calvin used the sermon to point to communion — to celebration of Jesus.

You see, the Church of Christ tradition is about 200 years old and borrowed from the Frontier Revivalism of the Second Great Awakening. We conclude with a sermon and invitation because we’re replicating 19th Century revival preaching, not First Century assemblies.

Indeed, one reason we so struggle to escape legalism is our services are designed to prompt enough guilt in our members so that they “respond” by “going forward” — meaning our preaching is targeted toward feelings of guilt and unworthiness, rather than grace and forgiveness.

Hence, Calvin’s order of worship would be along these lines:

* Scripture sentence

* Confession/pardon

* Singing of psalms

[The first three elements are built on Isaiah 6. God speaks, we confess, we are pardoned, we celebrate in song.]

* Illumination prayer

* Scripture readings

* Sermon

* Psalm sung

* Offerings

* Intercession prayer

[The next elements are the “Mosaic cycle,” that is, the goal is to make us as aware of God’s presence as Moses was before the burning bush.]

* Creed (sung)

* Words of institution

* Exhortation

* Communion (with singing or scripture readings)

* Prayer

* Benediction

[The final elements are the Emmaus cycle, in which Jesus becomes known to us through the communion.]

Now, there is no magic in the particulars. The part of Calvin’s approach I find particularly intriguing is the relocation of the Lord’s Supper to the climax of the assembly, so that the service points to a sacrificed and resurrected Savior rather than the teaching of the word and the use of guilt to create “responses.”

That is not to reject the propriety of responses in the assembly, but to move the service more toward a celebration of Jesus and God’s grace, beautifully symbolized in the bread and cup.

I might add here some thoughts from neo-Anabaptist Stanley Hauerwas.

The Eucharist is usually not considered an essential aspect of Christian worship by those concerned with church growth. Evangelism means getting people to church, because unless we go to church, it is assumed, our lives are without moral compass. Thus the assumption that lack of attendance at church and our society’s “moral decay” go hand in hand. What such people fail to see is that such decay begins with the assumption that worship is about “my” finding meaning for my life rather than glorification of God. Such evangelism is but another name for narcissism. Christian worship requires that our bodies submit to a training otherwise unavailable so that we can become capable of discerning those who use the name of Jesus to tempt us to worship foreign gods. Without the Eucharist we lose the resource to discover how these gods rule our lives.

If we re-center the assembly on God, then rather than assembling for what we can get out of it, we assemble to be in God’s special, intense presence and to celebrate him for what he’s done for us. This will lead to a remarkable turn. By re-centering the worship of God and his grace, we will in fact find meaning in life for ourselves. It’s only in the presence of God that we learn who we really are: God’s chosen, elect people, deeply loved, bought with a great price.

Rather than using the assembly as a platform to preach baptism or how to “get saved,” the assembly will preach the joys and beauties of God and our special, incredible relationship with him. And that will be more evangelistic than a thousand lessons in apologetics.

Visitors don’t come to church to learn your theology of atonement or the Trinity. They come to see whether God is there among you. And God is most truly present when the service focuses on him.

And, remarkably enough, this will also lead to greater encouragement. You see, the best way to encourage me to love and good works is to remind me of the work of Jesus and what he has done for me. When the assembly is focused on the submissive, serving character of God as revealed in Jesus, we can’t help but grow to imitate Jesus.

So, anyway, it seems that we’re long overdue to rethink the purposes and nature of the assembly. We can do better.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to The Future of the Churches of Christ: Ancient-Future Assembly, Part 3

  1. Alan says:

    I think the big-picture goal has to be to teach the whole counsel of God, which to me means teaching the entire Bible. We’ve made point of teaching the whole Bible over a period of years. We’ve done a 3-month Old Testament survey several times, and a similar New Testament survey. We’re getting ready to teach the prophets and the Kings at the same time, so people learn the historical context of the prophets. We’ve done something similar with Acts and the letters. And we’ve done many classes focusing on the individual books.

  2. Bob Brandon says:

    One thing about the Lord’s Supper as the centerpiece of our assemblies is that (1) it, frankly, takes a lot of pressure off the minister to produce engaging but lecture-oriented sermons. There are few things more passive and non-relational than a sermon. It certainly has its place, but it’s not completely adaptable. (2) The Lord’s Supper is capable not only to remind us about the Cross but also about His teachings across the Gospels, something we probably do not engage enough but, when we do, we may do so as a commentary on the rest of the N.T. instead of the reverse. My (that needs to be improved) tendency is to focus on the sacrifice, which tends to emphasize personal salvation (which remains extremely significant), but not the heralding of the Kingdom of God.

  3. Alabama John says:

    We will still have the problem of the conflict of teaching Jesus loves me and you and also that all the world from its beginning will go to hell but a few of US.

    Until we can accept others we are not really preaching love of God for humanity, but the scary God we in the COC have taught.

    You better come forward tonight or burn has been the norm and that must change to come to a loving Jesus and God. Hard for us to do as that has been the message all the denominations have been preaching all our lives and we have made such fun and preached so against it.

    How times are changing. Bout time!

  4. Jerry says:

    Visitors don’t come to church to learn your theology of atonement or the Trinity. They come to see whether God is there among you. And God is most truly present when the service focuses on him. – (Jay Guin, above)

    Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Corinthians 14:22-25, ESV)
    Part of our problem is that we tend to organize our worship for the unbeliever by making it evangelistic instead of promoting those things that edify the assembled church. Note the different purposes Paul states for prophecy and tongues. One is for the church; the other is for unbelievers. When we treat the assembly as if it were for unbelievers, those unbelievers who may be present think we are crazy. When we address the people of God in meaningful, prophetic ways then unbelievers who may be present will discover that God is truly among us – and begin to praise Him.

    By treating the assembly as if it were for unbelievers, we not only fail to edify the assembled church, but we also fail to reach in a meaningful way any unbelievers who are present. When we treat the assembly as it is intended by God, a time to encourage the believer in love and good works, we will both edify the believers and allow the unbeliever to see that God is among us.

  5. laymond says:

    AJ said “Until we can accept others we are not really preaching love of God for humanity, but the scary God we in the COC have taught.”

    Where did that come from John ? did they just pull that from thin air ?

  6. Charles McLean says:

    “, anyway, it seems that we’re long overdue to rethink the purposes and nature of the assembly. We can do better.”
    No doubt. But IMO we must begin by realizing that there is a great difference between “assembly” and “The Assembly”– whatever that is. I don’t think we will be successful in addressing “The Assembly” as long as we see it as a thing apart from the overall life of the Body. That’s like trying to treat arthritis in a patient by massaging his left elbow. We do need a better understanding and expression of corporate body life in various forms. Changing the order of service for a traditional meeting won’t even touch that.

  7. Alabama John says:


    Do the folks posting on here realize that to those of us that are members of the COC they that don’t believe as we do are all going to hell?
    Let each one ask the question, request just a yes or no and see.

    We are debating and trying to convert them before its too late but not really bluntly stating our position and more importantly theirs.
    Should we continue dancing around and take the chance one may die or tell them all about their lost condition and hopefully save them?

    The Church of Christ may be changing, but, not that much or it is not a church of Christ but one in disguise.

  8. hank says:

    Huh?… not really sure of what you were trying to say there, AJ.

  9. Doug says:

    In the Episcopal Church, We adhered to the “Litugy of the Word” and the “Liturgy of Communion” in our worship. Quite Frankly, I like it and found it produced a wonderful worship atmosphere. I met quite a few former restoration movement people in the Episcopal Church and they all mentioned how much they loved the order of service. The Communion part of worship was much longer than in a typical CofC worship service as everyone came to the front of the Church and knelt, if physically possible, for communion. While waiting for communion, you waited kneeling and after being served communion, you went back to your seat and could kneel once again. All in all, it made for a much more meditative communion time than we experience in the CofC. And once communon was finished, it did seem like there was almost a rush to finish the service as fast a possible. I asked the parich priest about this and he told me that was intentional. Once the Church has done what it can do to draw its’ people close to Christ, all that remains is for the people to go forth to those outside the Church. Sometimes I think that we restorationists might have thrown the baby out with th bath water?

  10. Alabama John says:

    As Uncle Isaac sez this month in the Alabama Restoration Journal (An Historical Perspective of Churches of Christ In Alabama), we don’t want to take too much of the medicine Progressivor or its generic brand known as Liberaluce.

  11. Jay Guin says:

    Jerry wrote,

    Part of our problem is that we tend to organize our worship for the unbeliever by making it evangelistic instead of promoting those things that edify the assembled church.

    Exactly. Our services are built on 19th Century revivalism. A Christian from the 1st (or 17th) century would be confused and astonished and how we’ve moved the service away from the Eucharist and Agape to the visitor (who may not even be present!) and the sermon. And yet we pretend to be replicating the First Century pattern.

    What we’ve done is take 19th Century practices from the American frontier, revised those slightly per our understanding of First Century practice (weekly communion) and ignored how the early church actually conducted their assemblies together.

  12. Mark says:

    And if any of you ever went to an Anglican church where the service was unchanged since 1662 you will see the beauty and praise of the ancient liturgy and learn from a good English 10-minute homily. Pardon for sin is pronounced after confession but the congregation is reminded that God still holds the power to judge and will use it. Basically, all are reminded to judge themselves and leave the judging of others to God. It is not a revival, but a worship service. Some parts are comforting and some are downright scary. Sadly, the cofC only focuses on the scary parts and not any words of comfort.

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