There is a recent trend in churches to conduct church-wide service project days. Every church member is encouraged to participate in some kind of service project. To facilitate getting as many people involved in these events as possible, the Sunday worship service is cancelled. Instead of meeting together for corporate worship, the church is closed. I’ve included a few Facebook screenshots with the identifiable information left out.
I contend: this is not what church is about. Church-wide service projects are an unbiblical substitute for corporate worship.
Biblical pattern of what is right
In the set example of the early church, we see devotion to the apostles’ teaching (preaching), to the fellowship (gathering together), to the breaking of bread (communion/Lord’s Supper), and to prayer (Acts 2:42). Along with corporate singing (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), these practices comprise the core elements of the Sunday act of worship. To use the categories of “Word-ministry” and “deed-ministry,” the Sunday gathering focused on Word-ministry.
This, of course, is not to suggest that deed-ministry was unimportant. On the contrary, the physical needs of the congregation were so important to the apostles that they commissioned the church to appoint the first deacons (Acts 6:3). As the apostles handled Word-ministry (Acts 6:4; see also 1 Timothy 3:2 “able to teach”), so the deacons committed themselves to deed-ministry.
So, church leaders had defined roles, but what of the church as a whole? The Bible does mention acts of charity toward fellow church members. They shared what they had with one another to support each other (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35). Even the special offerings that were taken up by Paul (2 Corinthians 9) were for believers in need. Those with whom those Christians shared spiritual blessings, they saw fit to likewise share physical blessings.
Modern pattern of what is wrong
By contrast, church-wide service projects in place of the corporate worship gathering invert the priorities of the early church. Rather than gathering for Word-ministry (Hebrews 10:25), the church is given no choice other than to scatter for deed-ministry. Rather than attending to the needs of fellow believers (Matthew 25:40 “least of these brothers of mine“), more often than not these projects concentrate on those outside the church. Rather than proclaiming a message that is distinctively Christian (i.e., the Gospel of Jesus Christ), believers are tasked with the type of community service projects that do not even require one to be a believer to participate.
Churches like the ones screenshotted above no doubt do what they do out of a professed heart for the lost and a love of neighbor. They may even cite the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) as the exemplar par excellence, the greatest example possible. What these churches fail to recall is the context in which Jesus gave the parable in the first place: He was answering a teacher of the Law who probed Him on how to inherit eternal life by what he himself did. By telling this parable in response, and finishing with the command, “Go and do likewise,” Jesus placed an impossible hurdle in the teacher’s path, a morality that transcended morality. As the following story of Martha and Mary demonstrates (Luke 10:38-42), there is no amount of service on one’s own that can equal a heart of devotion to the One Lord and Savior.
Maybe the leaders of such churches believe they do these projects to build relationships so that they can show what Christianity is all about. This seems inherently misguided. The Word of God is powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). We Christians have our marching orders: preach the Word, in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul did not say, “Woe to me if I do not dig water wells, or paint the local school, or participate in this Dumpster day.” What he said was, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
A good example
I have one more Facebook screenshot to share, this one from a church in Port Charlotte, FL, a city which was heavily damaged in the recent Hurricane Ian.
This church is commendably serving its community in a time of need…
But first comes worship.