Do I really have to go to church? (Light from the Dark Ages, part 2)

Sunday morning again. Great. I’m tired, I have a headache from staying up too late the night before, and my wife’s stupid cat won’t stop meowing. Not for the first time, I wish that I kept a BB gun or a large hammer next to the bed.

I really don’t want to get up. I work hard all week, and Saturdays are always full of chores, errands, and other responsibilities. Can’t I have just one morning to relax?

I’m pretty sure my wife didn’t sleep well either. She was up with the kids at least twice, and I’m sure she’s as exhausted as I am. She’s awake; I can tell. But she hasn’t moved yet. I can almost feel her thinking the same question that is running through my mind.

Do we have to go to church this morning?

Which leads to the question: What happens when God’s people start thinking of church as an optional activity in the midst of a busy life?

That’s exactly the issue that the church had to confront during its transition into the early middle ages. I’m sure this wasn’t a new problem, but it certainly took on a new level of seriousness as church attendance declined precipitously during this period.

At least five things seem to have contributed to this growing problem.

  • The professionalization of worship. By the middle ages, the professionalization of the clergy was well-established. A clear divide had developed between the average Christian and the priests, bishops, and monks who were the real focal point of Christian worship. Thus, as long as the professionals were there to take care of the business of the church, all was well.
  • The mediation of worship. Along with the professionalization of the clergy came the idea that the worship of God’s people was essentially mediated through the clergy. We saw in our last post that the language of the church contributed to this development as only the professional clergy really understood what was going on. It was a short step from here to the idea that the clergy really do the work of worship for the people. Once that becomes the mindset, is it any wonder that people began to think if their attendance was all that important? The real work of worship will happen just fine without them.
  • A “What’s in it for me?” Mentality. And, once people begin to view their participation in worship as optional, the only other reason for attending regularly would be the idea that they’ll get something out of it.  But, such an individualistic ethos only served to decrease attendance. Certainly my salvation doesn’t depend on regular attendance at church. So, although there may be some other cursory benefits, the bottom line is that my fundamental relationship with God remains unchanged even if I decide to skip church. Why, then, should I take time out of my life to do something with limited apparent benefit to me?
  • The Guilt Factor. The only real recourse that the medieval church had was to play up the people’s experience of personal guilt and to emphasize the eucharist as the only effective means for dealing with that guilt. But, the more they played that card, the more they made people feel unworthy to stand in the presence of a holy God. Thus, contrary to expectations, the guilt card actually made people less likely to attend church regularly. Instead, many came just once a year – the least they thought they could get away with and still be in good standing with God.
  • The Chaos of Life. We should also recognize that in many ways this was just a difficult time to be alive. The decline of centralized authority and the rise of regionalized powers (the barbarian “warlords”), along with other factors like the rise of feudalism, economic decline, famine, and the Viking and Magyar invasions, all contributed to a laity distracted by the complexity and chaos of everyday life. Such were the “excuses” of the early medieval period.

I think we wrestle with many of the same things today.

  • The professionalization and mediation of worship. Although Protestants have long emphasized the priesthood of all believers, we continue to struggle with the dynamics of a professionalized clergy. As long as worship is really what happens on the stage, is my presence all that necessary? Surely I can miss a few Sundays without impacting anyone. The worship team will still be there.
  • The “What’s in it for me?” mentality. Why not sleep in today? Am I really going to get anything out of the service? Who’s preaching anyway? I bet it’s that one associate pastor who doesn’t do a very good job. I never learn anything from him anyway. Or (maybe just as likely) I think I’ll go visit another church today; I hear they have better worship. Clearly this mentality did not die with the middle ages.
  • The Chaos of Life. This is really what I was alluding to at the very beginning of this post. Life is hectic and complicated today. And for many people, the background noise of everyday life easily overwhelms the unconvincing reasons they have for attending weekly worship. They’ll still attend on occasion, but only as it fits in their otherwise busy schedule.

So, many of the factors that contributed to a declining emphasis on corporate worship in the early middle ages are still with us today. And, just like in the medieval period, The Guilt Factor really doesn’t work. The more people feel guilty for missing church, the less likely they are to go. Hiding from your guilt is often easier than facing it.

The problem today, and in the medieval church, is a failure to cast a compelling vision of what corporate worship is all about. Ultimately, corporate worship is about the people of God manifesting the glory of God in the midst of the creation of God so that all people everywhere can see how amazing God is.

And, if God’s people don’t show up, it can’t happen. It’s not something that anyone can do for us – it can’t be mediated or professionalized. We can pay people so that they have more time to prepare to lead us effectively in this process, but they can’t do it for us. And we shouldn’t want them to. Why would we want to miss out on the opportunity to be involved in something this special, this amazing – the very reason for our existence?

But, when we fail to cast this vision for God’s people, a vision of what corporate worship is all about, it’s easy for it to become a burden – something to be avoided when we’re tired and distracted. That’s when attendance turns into attrition, and the pews sit empty.

[This is the second post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on February 26, 2011, in Historical Theology, The Church, Worship and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I can’t help but wonder why this is the 4th site today posting on this subject. Great subject. Just freaking me out a little.

  1. Pingback: No Blog is an Island – 3.11.11 « Nate Navigates the Bible

  2. Pingback: 6 things we can learn about worship from the Dark Ages « scientia et sapientia

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