Christians are not called to fill their time with church activities

Bruce Reed’s The Dynamics of Religion is a fascinating psycho-social study of the role of religion in enabling people to live in and face the realities of the world and contribute in meaningful ways to society. Reed draws heavily on a psychological model of oscillation, a theory positing that humans regularly cycle between stages of extra-dependence and intra-dependence, and argues that the liturgy and collective worship of the Church function as a stage of extra-dependence for Christians who are out living and working in the world each week. Their ability to contribute to the flourishing of the worlds they inhabit depends on whether corporate worship meets the needs of the extra-dependence stage.

Proper worship – and Reed rather unapologetically considers the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Communion service to meet the criteria for ‘proper’ worship – is essential if Christians are to face the world of their experience and live faithfully within it. For Reed, whether or not an act of worship meets the needs of the worshipper in extra-dependence is

manifested in its results – in the welfare of the social system in which it is practised, and in the development of that social system in response to the challenge of new conditions, its enrichment, its enlightenment and its enjoyment… Our conclusions must always submit to the test of what happens outside the church… Members of the local church…had better concentrate on worshipping God in church and on the priestly and pastoral work which promotes this, so that outside they will be prepared to become wholly absorbed in being occupied with the affairs of humanity (112-113).

If the purpose of worship, then, is to meet the needs of believers in extra-dependence and equip them for the stage of intra-dependence, why is so much of the Church’s life taken up with extra activities, Reed asks? From social events to Bible studies to institutional boards and programmes, ‘we need to ask why the churches in our time sprouted these multifarious activities when compared with churches from past centuries’ (114). Reed theorises that in a post-Christendom age, the Church demands more of its members as it becomes one institution among many others competing for people’s loyalties. Thus this proliferation of groups and activities serves both a manifest and a latent function:

The manifest function of the activities of the local church apart from those devoted to worship, the preaching of the Word and the ministry of the sacraments, and pastoral care in times of transition or crisis, is to edify and maintain the members of the church, but their latent function may be to preserve it against assaults and erosions caused by forces originating from the environment (115).

But this attempt to protect the members of the Church, Reed notes, prevents a church from fulfilling its proper function, ‘to facilitate the oscillation process in order that the social environment might exhibit the marks of well-being and development’ (115). He concludes that

the function of the local church which facilitates interaction with the environment is of more importance than the function which turns the church members in on themselves, however spiritual and worthy those activities may be. In this light, the present day activist church programmes are more like reactions to contemporary pluralistic sub-cultures than the growth of new insights into the mission of the people of God (115).

I have been in – and, I must not fail to add, benefited in many ways from – contexts where the activities of a particular parish or local church can easily absorb a person’s non-working life. Even in those times free from organised activities, parishioners are often encouraged to be in each other’s homes, continuing to deepen their fellowship. On the one hand, I understand the concern many churches have that life spent outside the body of believers, with the exception of that given over to evangelism, can have a corrosive effect. But at the same time, I think what Reed says has much to commend; to borrow from Alexander Schmemann, the Church exists for the life of the world, not for itself.

The key then, for Reed, is the liturgy. His argument is not that we abandon all the activities of church life, only that we reassess the demands our churches place on parishioners’ lives and whether those are detrimental to their calling to make known the presence of the kingdom of God in all their spheres of life. What is most important is that the content of our worship be carefully examined. If we are going to pray at the end of each service, ‘Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory’, then the Church needs to work to ensure its worship adequately equips believers to do just that. In this way, we can be confident that what we receive in the stage of extra-dependence will form us and sustain us for the stage of intra-dependence.

There is much more to say here; I would be particularly interested, for example, to know what Reed would think of what Rod Dreher has termed the ‘Benedict Option‘. But the point is simply that churches must release Christians to fulfil their calling to make known the kingdom. And if we truly believe that God is at work through the means of grace, we should be willing to let them go, confident that the Spirit that has worked in them will also work through them.

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