I wrote this two years ago in response to the views of an influential minister who I respect greatly. I haven’t kept up with the minister’s views on this subject and he might be saying different things now so I’ve removed reference to him specifically. But I think the issue is still very much out there in the evangelical ether, so I’ll address the issue more generally…
I long for church communities that are Christ-centred, grace-filled, all-of-life and intentionally missional. I love ministers and ministries that emphasize these things. But let me raise one caution. It’s common in such circles to affirm church as an on-going family life and to deny that church is an event.
I can understand, to some extent, why language of “event” grates on people. It can seem like an ungodly waste of resources to turn Sunday morning into a grand performance. So true. I’ve heard people speak in hushed tones about some gold standard of sermon preparation – an hour in the study for every minute in the pulpit. Yowsers! If that’s the cost of gathering around word and sacrament then I can well understand the desire to re-balance the expenditure of resources.
But there’s something deeper to discuss than the re-allocation of resources or the degree of formality to our meetings. What I want to establish is the absolute necessity of the event for the life of church. Church is not just family, it is also an event and irreducibly so. I’ll say it that starkly because I know how popular it is to speak of church as ongoing-missional-community in opposition to chuch as event.
Church has its being in becoming. It ever becomes what it is as it hears God’s word. In this way church is the community called out (ekklesia) to listen to its risen Lord in the proclamation of word and sacrament. This is the centre of the life of the community.
Let me just take one Scriptural example from Paul. We are one body because we all share in the one bread (1 Cor 10:17). That is pretty stunning language – and it’s very ‘eventist’. Here is a consummation of one-body-ness in which we become what we are. The event and the on-going life of the body are inter-dependent.
Think of marriage. The covenant reality is that husband and wife are one flesh. But there is an event in which they become one flesh (if you were Presbyterian you might even call it covenant renewal!).
It’s commanded in Scripture (cf 1 Cor 7) and it takes time and effort and a measure of ritual and it’s irreducibly an event. Of course the degree of ritual and cost and time-expenditure will vary according to many factors. But to imagine I can think of an ongoing covenant life without also thinking about the one-flesh event is a big danger in marriage.
And, by parallel, church life needs to be maintained by consciously enjoyed, anticipated and ritualised “events” in our church life together. We can’t do without them. And however much it’s necessary to speak of day-in, day-out community life we dare not lose language of event either. The old reformed ecclesiologies speak of gathering around word and sacrament. They didn’t forget that we were family, but they did highlight that there were foundational “events” at the centre of church life.
So we say Yes to shared life, Yes to Christ-centred community. But the way in which our community is “centred” around Christ takes a certain form. The centre is an actual, concrete centre around which we orient ourselves. As Christ’s community therefore we order ourselves around the place where Christ is given to us. And He is given to us supremely in word and sacrament.
Therefore we must maintain language of “event”. As we do so we are upholding two related concerns:
1) We are communities of grace.
Christians keen to ditch “event” language are usually big on “grace.” They commonly reject rituals in the name of gospel grace. But I would urge caution here. If we want to be communities of grace we need to orient ourselves around where Christ is given to us, not primarily around what Christ would have us do. To be a community of grace requires us to centre on events.
2) We are communities of proclamation.
Where we honour the “event” of Church, we honour “proclamation”. While our community life preaches to the world (John 13:35; 17:21) I’d want to co-ordinate this to a centre of verbal proclamation that constitutes and re-constitutes the community.
I’m well aware that many who reject the word “event” bang a big and important drum for “grace” and “proclamation”. But I want to say, “grace” and “proclamation” requires “events.” We must never lose our centre.