Visible Christianity: A Call to Consider the Social Implications of Worship

In December 2008, following the violent attacks on Christians in Orissa, India, there was a threat that Christians would not be allowed to celebrate Christmas. This resulted in a sense of confusion and consternation on the part of Christians.

A Real Look at Christianity in India
In an article in the Organiser, dated 1 February 2009, Dr. J. K. Bajaj wrote, “A couple of months after the visit to Uttarkashi, I took the metro from Chennai Station to Mylapore. Suddenly, I found too many of the houses along the track supporting imposing crosses. Christian symbols were always very visible in southern towns.”1

Recently, a friend from another faith was referring to the altars in some churches as the sanctum sanctorums of the churches. Additionally, in India, we tend to think that we make ourselves visible by conducting large meetings or crusades and making the same available through loud speakers to unwilling and invisible listeners.

The above instances illustrate how people perceive Christianity. Is that how the Lord Jesus wanted his people to be in the world?

A quick glance at the Christian landscape worldwide and church history reveals that it is littered with large Gothic structures, ornate ecclesiastical orders, and elaborate worship patterns. The story is the same with the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and even Protestant churches. For most Christians and non-Christians, “church” is something that is visible as a structure or on a Sunday morning.

“Church” is synonymous with the church service and is practically non-existent the rest of the week. What else explains the emphasis most churches give to the planning, preparation, and conducting of excellent Sunday services with military precision? Many mega-churches use the Sunday services to reach the unchurched through polished music, multimedia, and sermons taken from popular culture and other familiar themes.

Do we actually need physical structures in order to worship God? Do we need a Christmas to celebrate the birth of the Lord, so that the detractors of Christianity can use it as a handle to harm us? Why are we so disturbed when our church buildings are demolished? Is the building a sacred place where the sanctum sanctorum is?

The Right Kind of Worship
First, let me address the issue of right kind of worship. In response to the statement by the Samaritan woman, the Lord Jesus clearly stated that true worship does not depend upon its physical location or its geography, but is in “spirit and truth.” There are two words used in scripture to refer to worship:

  1. Proskuneo means “bowing down” in Greek and is used in the context of temple worship in the Old Testament, the Gospels, and in the Book of Revelation, thus suggesting that it is worship given to God in the context of his “real, physical” presence.

  2. Latreia means “service” in Greek and is used in the rest of the New Testament. This suggests the kind of worship that is given to God in the “church age.” Hence, Paul’s plea in Romans 12:1: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship [latreia].”

Our worship of God is seen in our service to the world. This is not to suggest (according to the popular aphorism) that “service unto others is service unto God.”

The kind of worship the Bible talks about is service to others because of love for God. This is also implied in the words of the Lord: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” This is in agreement with other verses in scripture:

  • Isaiah 58:6-10: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
  • Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
  • James 1:28: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

If this is what constitutes true worship, I wonder why we have started building sanctuaries and having elaborate ecclesiastical systems to enable us to worship God. I then wonder why these structures are empty on Sunday mornings (as is the case in many European churches). I wonder if Mother Teresa was right in starting a service centre called Nirmal Hriday in Kolkata rather than building a cathedral. Quite often, the sanctuary mentality to worship has also given rise to what could be called Babel Syndrome—our itch for perpetuity and recognition like the Babelites.

We have created the impression that worship has to do with sanctuaries, chapels, prayer houses, ecclesiastical orders, and liturgical formats. True worship of God calls not for functional church buildings, music of FM radio quality, or slick church services. Of course we have gotten our aesthetics right; image or visibility seems to be everything in a consumer-oriented culture. Does this not reduce Christian spirituality to the status of folk religion? Does this not enslave the people rather than liberate them, which is what the Bible teaches?

When the Church…
True worship of God calls for greater involvement in issues of poverty and hunger, of righteousness and justice, of love and compassion, of oppression and enslavement. It is then that the world will begin to see who (and what) the Church is.

When the Church is about loving and caring not only for one another in order to build each other up in the Lord but also about reaching out to the hurting, the bruised, the battered, the broken, and the enslaved, then the world will begin to see the Church (John 13:34-35).

When the Church learns to handle its own differences of doctrine and practise with love and understanding, and begins to practise what it means to be one in Christ without any differences of caste, colour, creed, nationality, or culture, then the world will see what the Church is (John 17:21).

N. T. Wright has said,

When the Church is seen to move straight from worship of God to effecting much-needed change in the world; when it becomes clear that the people who feast at Jesus' table are the ones at the forefront of work to eliminate hunger and famine; when people realize that those who pray for the Spirit to work in and through them are the people who seem to have extra resources of love and patience in caring for those whose lives are damaged, bruised, and shamed—then it is natural for people to recognize that something is going on that they want to be part of.2

May the Lord help us to shine in right ways and in right places.

Endnotes

1. “Growing Symbolism and Assertiveness of Christianity in India.” 

2. 2008. Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection, and The Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne.


Enoch Era is an itinerant preacher and writer based in Hyderabad, India. He mentors two fellowship groups called Aradhana and Ashirvad. He also leads Rupanthar, a group working toward transformation; one of their current projects is for the improvement of traffic safety in Hyderabad. His email is enochera@yahoo.com.