If you know me, you know that when it comes to cancelling church on Sunday mornings, I do not do so lightly or quickly. This last Sunday, I found it necessary because at the time the decision was made to cancel, I could not even make it down the street.
The reason I am so reluctant to cancel a Sunday morning service is because of the importance of hearing God’s Word and receiving His gifts of forgiveness, eternal life, and the Holy Spirit through this Word, through Absolution, and through the Lord’s Supper. Believe it or not, but as a pastor, even though I am speaking the words, I am on the receiving end along with the rest of the congregation. I hear God’s Word and receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of my sins. Yesterday, I missed that. Of course I also did miss the fellowship that is a result of the forgiveness we receive and the mutual encouragement that occurs in the congregation.
This is why I am often baffled when I hear of other congregations that willingly cancel church, often to do some kind of community service. The explanation that is given is often the cliche’ “Instead of going to church we are going to BE the church”. Yet this betrays a false understanding of what the Church is. Properly understood the Church is the people of God gathered together. In fact the Greek word “ecclesia” means the gathered. We learn this in the Small Catechism, that the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, englightens, and sanctifies” the whole church. You see, the point of “going” to church is to actually do what the Church does as it gathers… to receive from God the gifts He gives. The action is passive. To BE the Church is a passive thing first and foremost. It is to be a receiver of divine gifts. This is why when we speak about the marks of the Church we use the shorthand phrase “Word and Sacrament”, because it is in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments as Christ instituted them that the Church is identified.
Lastly, as a point of clarification, let me be clear, I think works of mercy toward our neighbor are extremely important. I fully agree with Johann Gerhardt that it is the duty of the pastor to ensure that the needy are taken care of (and this then extends to the “diaconal” care of the congregation). However, when one cancels church to “BE” church and then engages in some kind of charitable work, they are actually doing the opposite. They are actually ceasing to BE the Church. God’s Service to us must remain the primary thing. Our service to neighbor, necessary as it is, must be secondary. My encouragement, then for congregations considering such action is to say the following: Why not have the Divine Service 30 minutes earlier or have a combined “early service”? Send the message that God’s service to us comes first, and then our service to neighbor flows out of this.