Three focal points of church services.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 April 2021

Obviously not all churches are alike. Practices vary. Even within the same denomination: Y’might have one church which is known for its Christian education, bible studies, Sunday school program, and teaching pastors… with a sister church known for its musicians.

Talk to any Christian about what they like best in their church, and they’ll usually emphasize a few things they particularly like: The friendliness. The informality. The kids’ program. The decor. The amiability of the head pastor. The many outreach programs. The coffee—for once it’s not Folger’s! (’Cause Folger’s is crap. But when the person in charge of the church’s coffee doesn’t even drink coffee, guess what they always buy? Right—the cheapest stuff on the shelf. Kirkland or Folger’s, or some other awful blend which tastes like Juan Valdez’s burro rolled around in it. Churches, don’t do that to your people. But I digress.)

These things aside, y’might notice churches structure their entire Sunday morning service (or Saturday evening, or whenever they do their services) around one of three things: Sacraments, teaching, or music.

Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans.Kinesthetic learners. They enjoy the physical motions and movements, and the visual cues. They wanna feel not just spiritually, but physically connected to our Lord Jesus and our fellow Christians.
Reformed, Baptists, Methodists, Anabaptists.Intellectuals. They enjoy knowledge about God—theology, bible background and history and study, and wisdom. (Often they enjoy the pursuit of knowledge in general.) They seek to love God with all their mind and will.
Pentecostals, charismatics, non-denominationals.Emotive people. Music appeals to their desire to worship God with all their heart. They pursue a sense of God’s presence.

Yeah, you might think there are other types. Like the snake-handling churches. But in such churches, snake-handling is a sacrament, so… yep, there they are among the three.

How d’you know which one is your church’s main focus? Simple: If you skip it, the people of your church act as though you didn’t really “have church.” Wasn’t a proper service; didn’t count.

Skip the music, or only sing for 10 minutes, in a music-focused church, and people will think something went horribly wrong. They didn’t feel the Spirit that week. They feel unfulfilled. They’d be outraged if they didn’t sing at all. Ever been in a church service during a power failure? If you don’t have a guitar or piano available, sacrament- or sermon-focused churches will figure, “Fine; we’ll sing a song or two acapella, then ‘get on with it’”—meaning the real part of their service, the message or sacrament. But in a music-focused church, people won’t settle for an abbreviated songset. They’ll try their darnedest to make the musical experience as significant as the electrified experience. And blame the devil for the power failure—“Satan tried to stop us from having church!”—and pointedly make even more joyful a noise as their voices and acoustic instruments can produce. And y’know, they’ll succeed.

Now skip the music in a sermon-focused church. No I’m not kidding; tell people, “Sorry, the music pastor’s out sick today, so we’ll have music next week.” Don’t even bother with a simple acapella chorus. And no, you won’t have a revolt: People might think it’s weird, but hey, they heard a sermon, so they’re good. Music-focused Christians would lose their minds, but sermon-focused Christians wouldn’t mind at all. Turn it around and skip the sermon (as I have seen music-focused churches do multiple times) and sermon-focused people would be really, really irritated: They came to church to get spiritual food, and music is baby food at best: They want something to chew on. You can skip communion; many such churches only celebrate it once a month, or only on Easter and Christmas. Music’s optional too… which is why I find it tends to not be very good in such churches. When I was growing up, Mom had no trouble with being as much as 45 minutes late for the service, ’cause “we’ll only miss the music.” But we’d better not miss the sermon.

And in sacrament-focused churches, holy communion (or Eucharist) must happen. Skip the music, skip the homily; don’t you dare skip communion. Otherwise it’s “not church,” and now the people will have to go to another church that week so they can receive communion. No I’m not kidding: They will.

Which focus is most important?

Which of the three areas is most important for a church to focus its services upon?

Wrong question. And you’ll find the Christians of each of these churches always answer with their favorite focus. “Sacraments are absolutely necessary.” “Preaching has to take place.” “We’re commanded to make a joyful noise to the Lord.” Yeah, Christians are too biased to be of any help here.

But really, practices should never be our main focus. Jesus should be.

Good religion is when anything we do encourages a growing relationship with Jesus. Irreligion is when we make no effort at all; bad religion is when it actually drives us and Jesus apart. Obviously we want good religion, and all three of these churches have good religion in ’em.

So why are they so different? Because people are different. The church is people, remember? Some people worship best through sacraments. Others through lessons. Others through music. And some of us are a mixture: I like good teaching, I like good music, and I like my sacraments on a regular basis. (Though admittedly, not as much as sacramental-focused Christians do.)

True, you’ll find hardcases who insist all our churches oughta be exactly the same. There’s only one Jesus; there should be only one church, and the church oughta look a certain way. Conveniently enough for them, this church oughta have the same focus they do. They like sermons, and all Christians oughta like sermons, and if they don’t there’s something wrong with them. They must hate wisdom, or knowledge, or growth, or using their minds; there’s sin underlying their differences.

This is weird, but for some of these hardcases, the type of church they insist every Christian attend? They personally don’t care for the style they’re advocating. I’ve met more than one Roman Catholic who absolutely insists every church oughta be sacramental like theirs… while at the same time they happen to be huge music fans, who attend every charismatic prayer meeting in their parish so they can rock out to Christian music like a Pentecostal. So if they’re personally music-focused, why must every church become sacrament-focused? Because to their minds, regular church services are a cross we have to bear. We gotta suffer, patiently, through such services, because Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. Lk 9.23 We gotta suffer for Jesus.

It’s a seriously sadistic view of God, and says all sorts of things about how they weren’t properly taught how joy works. But I’ve seen this phenomenon in a bunch of different Christians. Put a Christian of one type, in a church of another type, and they’ll struggle to fit in. They’ll try to adapt to it, and often they just can’t. The worship won’t speak to them. Even when they know Jesus personally, and the Holy Spirit is growing ’em in every other area of their lives, the church is always gonna feel cold and dead to them. Worst case, you get dead religion.

Ever been to a sermon-focused church where everybody just sorta sits there, and drifts off to sleep, no matter how good the speaker is? These folks are in the wrong church. It’s not that they don’t appreciate knowledge and learning and wisdom; it’s that they don’t learn this way. It’s what educational psychologists call the theory of multiple intelligences: Humans process information in different ways. Christians included.

Whatever our learning style is, that’s our point of contact with God. Sometimes people know their style. Sometimes they don’t, but they realize they have certain preferences. And humans, being creatures of extremes, sometimes put all our attention on our preference, and insist everybody else do it the same way.

  • VISUAL LEARNERS tend to pick beautiful church buildings because they love that sense of sacred space. Or they pick preachers who love lots of visually interesting slides. Or they go to music-focused churches who like to play with the lights and video imagery and decor.
  • AUDITORY LEARNERS either lean towards a church with fantastic music, or whose preacher has a really good voice, or whose building has the best acoustics.
  • KINESTHETIC LEARNERS go for sacraments, of course. And the standing and kneeling, the eating and drinking, the beads, the crossing oneself, the activity of a sacramental church—they love the tangible reminders Jesus took physical form. Even though God is spirit and we can’t touch him, we can touch the rituals he gave us, and feel him through that.
  • INTELLECTUAL LEARNERS gotta have a lesson. Gotta be taught something. If the sermon sucked, or was too short, or didn’t tell ’em anything new, or they disagreed with it front to back, or they didn’t care to hear about that subject today—they feel shortchanged, even wronged. They need a lesson; they need a church who can give it to them. In some cases they’ve learned to get their fix elsewhere, like books or the internet. But they expect it’ll be their church which primarily teaches them… or they’ll go find a church who will.
  • EMOTIONAL LEARNERS gotta have music. ’Cause music is an emotional experience. They wanna feel, and frequently they mistake feeling the music with feeling God. But if they can’t feel anything in their church either way… yep, they’ll go find another church.

It’s not about comfort; it’s not about catering to people’s desires; it’s about putting Christians where they thrive best. If they love monthly communion services, put ’em in a church with weekly communion and they’ll love it. If they love whenever the worship pastor tries something new, put ’em in a church where the worship pastors run amok and they’ll love that. Won’t be long before they decide, “Y’know, I really think God’s calling me to this church…” and off they go. It’s not actually ’cause God called them anywhere. It’s because people are different. They’re sacrament- or music-focused. They thrive elsewhere.

So don’t selfishly assume everybody’s only gotta follow God your way. Christianity has suffered long enough under that lousy mentality.

So they’re not your cup of tea. Don’t knock them.

Ideally, a church tries to accommodate everybody. With rare exceptions every church does have regular communion, music, and teaching. But as I said, humans are creatures of extremes: When we discover how one of these practices really makes us feel close to God, we overemphasize it to the point of shoving everything else aside, if not dropping it altogether.

I’ve heard many Christians complain about how they used to go to a church who “did everything wrong.” But their current churches are just right. Doesn’t matter whether they’re an ex-Baptist Catholic, or an ex-Catholic Baptist: They think they’re right and the churches are wrong. They never think in terms of “Well, we’re different people”—they are the baseline, and by this unforgiving standard, the other churches are wrong.

Churches are different. Doesn’t make ’em wrong. Heresy makes ’em wrong. Bad fruit makes ’em wrong. Stylistic differences are fine. If you’re not a fan of rituals, don’t go to a church which puts ’em front and center; but don’t mock ritualistic churches for doing so either. Plenty of Christians do appreciate rituals, and grow in Christ like crazy when they get to do ’em regularly. When a church is growing Christians, it’s God’s church. Don’t knock God’s church!

Likewise if you’re not a fan of big long sermons: Don’t trash the churches who are fans of big long sermons. If you’re not into music, stop grumbling about the music-minded Christians down the street. Don’t be jealous that their church is growing faster than yours; don’t blame it on their “superficial pop songs” when your church is honestly just as guilty of preaching feel-good messages. You concentrate on you. Follow Jesus.

Sometimes teaching-focused Christians wonder why on earth I, as a teacher, have been a member of music-focused churches for the past 30 years. Simple: My studies actually don’t inspire me to follow Jesus more closely. Music does. In a sermon-focused church, I turn into yet another brainy hypocrite, and God knows we have more than enough of ’em in Christendom. In a music-focused church, I may nitpick the music (and the sermons); I am a scholar after all. But the music inspires me to seek God, so I do.

If you find church to be a struggle sometimes—if you don’t feel you’re making adequate contact with God, or think he feels too distant, or figure Jesus is too hard to follow—you might need to visit a church with a different focus. See whether that’s the real issue.