Where Two or Three Are Gathered: The definition of what constitutes a worshiping community is changing

Words are strange. Sometimes the longer you rthink about the use of a familiar word—or its spelling—the stranger it seems. Last summer at COIAM 99, the worship conference cosponsored by Reformed Worship, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and Dordt College, Marva Dawn challenged us not to talk about "going to church." Wlien we gather on Sunday morning as congregations, we are "going to worship." But for Reformed Christians who have learned that all of life is worship, "going to worship" doesn't sound quite right either.

"Worship is a verb," as Robert Webber teaches in his book by that title. In order to describe the worship event rather than the worship activity, we sometimes speak of "worship services." Tiy thinking about the word service for awhile. It's a great word: like waiters offering up our best dishes, we serve God.

The Many Ways of "Going to Church"

Many Christians worship together without "going to Church" in the traditional sense. I am not talking here about worshiping in private (as in "having devotions," or "havingyour worship time"), I am referring instead to the number of worship times planned in congregations apart from gathering together on Sunday morning.

The growing practice of having separate worship times for different groups, even within congregations, has brought both new spiritual growth to believers and new pressure on the traditional Sunday morning worship service. We have always recognized times for worship beyond Sunday morning. Wednesday night prayer meetings are still standard in some traditions. Many churches schedule youth services and offer separate times of worship for young children. And in the last ten years countless "small groups" that meet for study and fellowsliip but also for worship together have sprouted up. In these groups the anonymity that's possible in the larger congregation is balanced by intimacy and accountability. The generic name "small groups" has even developed a particular identity; in addition to Bible study and fellowsliip, both evangelism and worship are an important components. Here at CRC Publications we just published Beyond the Agenda, a resource to help church committees also spend time in worship together.

The proliferation of worship opportunities within local congregations speaks of the wonderful freedom we have, in contrast to many places around the world. It also speaks to our desire to worship God in more and different ways than Sunday morning has to offer.

Going to Chapel

Many people are also involved in worship beyond opportunities provided by their congregations.

Scheduled worship times beyond the established church goes back a long time. Royal courts and universities had chapels with regular times of worship. Many Christian day schools and colleges still hold regular times of worship. Here in the denominational office building where the WW staff works, we also have "chapels" (as in, "Are you going to chapel this morning?"). But I have never liked that word. It has the same problems as "going to church" has, with the added difficulty that there is no pattern for what constitutes "chapel." The content and structure can vary considerably, depending on the institution or whoever is in charge.

Blurring Distinctions

In preparing for tills issue, we invited two Christian colleges to tell us about worship on their campuses. For many Christian college students, the increasingly popular large campus worship services or, conversely, the small dorm fellowship groups, are "church," Many students are not connected to a local congregation. Campus chapels on secular university campuses, like the one in Ann Arbor (see p. 22), are more explicitly a worshiping community in the tradition of scheduled Sunday morning services. I remember well attending the Ann Arbor Campus Chapel during my student days, 1 was able to serve in a leadership role and be a full participant of that worshiping community in every sense of the term.

Except one. Whenever we wanted to celebrate the Lord's Supper, we closed our doors and went to an established congregation, a regularly organized "church." We were only a "chapel." To me that was the clearest symbol of the distinction between an officially constituted body of believers—a real "church"—and gatherings at other times and places. Today the Lord's Supper is increasingly becoming a part of worship in college and seminary gatherings, in denominational meetings and assemblies.

I am convinced we need to give each other a lot of room and encouragement. For young people who worship on campuses, small groups that include new believers, and young children, Sunday morning may not (yet) be a place they can meet God very easily.

But we also need to reflect deeply on what distinguishes Sunday morning worship from all those other times. We need to make sure that those same young people, new believers, young children, and all those who may not be involved in other worshiping groups have a full and rich opportunity to meet God in Word and sacrament.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.