What do Sunday mornings, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, and Christmas all have in common? In our corner of the world, the answer is: a church service.
Sometimes called “The City of a Thousand Churches,” our town is home to multiple denominations and churches of all shapes and sizes. A rigorously-observed aspect of the local church culture is holding services to mark any significant day or event, from children’s birthdays to government holidays.
Little Timmy is turning five? Before the children can party, they sit through a Sunday School lesson. Big Johnny is turning 53? He holds a less-engaging service at his home, minus the children’s games. It’s Ascension Day? We go to the beach with our fellow church members…but before we can frolic in the waves, we sit under a pavilion and observe all the steps of a Sunday morning service. Funerals are three successive days of services, followed up by memorial services to mark one week, 40 days, and one year from the death of the loved one. Weddings are observed by a “marriage blessing” service, complete with the collection of an offering. And because Sunday morning church services are a good thing, we also add monthly family services, men’s services, women’s services, and youth services.
Of course, no event is complete without food. Almost every service begins with a sermon and ends with a spread. Sometimes it’s a potluck, but if the service is held at a person’s home, they are responsible for furnishing the meal.
Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge how many to cook for. At a men’s service recently held at our house, I planned for around 12 people but ended up with 22. Thankfully, I had also planned on having lots of leftovers. Ha!
To be honest, church services are an aspect of the culture with which we haven’t fully assimilated. We get hot, sweaty, grumpy, and tired of sitting, and we’ve often wondered where to draw the proper line between guarding our stress levels and demonstrating love and care for our friends and the culture that has so warmly welcomed us. And just like in western churches, rote spiritual practices can become empty shells of external behavior that have no effect on our hearts. How do we participate without encouraging others to “go through the motions” simply because it’s culturally appropriate?
We don’t have a perfect answer yet, but we do know that God is less concerned with the fact that we managed to attend birthday services three days in a row than He is with the attitudes we brought with us. Having genuine love and concern for others is much more important than showing up for every event.
To paraphrase the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13,
1If I speak a foreign language fluently, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I attend three services a week and memorize all the worship songs and work in the Sunday school, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I bring a gift to every birthday party and always keep small change in my pocket for the collection bag, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8Love never fails. But where there are memorial services, they will cease; where there are sermons, they will be stilled; where there are collection bags, they will pass away. 13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.Original text (bold) quoted from the NIV