By Bob Hiller –
A number of years ago, I was having coffee with some of my Reformed friends in the town where I was serving. One of the pastors at the table (a man for whom I have a great deal of respect) began to discuss a book he’d been reading called “Not a Fan,” which compared church members to sports fans sitting the stands watching a game. Simply put, the premise of the book was that we don’t want “fans” who show up in the church on Sunday morning to admire Jesus and cheer for him; we want “followers” who want to get their skin in the game. The book, I assume (not having read it), then challenges believers to greater levels of commitment and sacrifice. The aim is to transform Christians from “fans” into “followers.”
Now, I am not a fan (zing!) of such pietistic distinctions being made among Christians. Jesus doesn’t have varying categories of “Christian.” You are either a disciple of Jesus by the gracious work of Baptism and the Word alone or you are not. The New Testament doesn’t speak of “fans” vs. “followers” or “carnal” vs. “spiritual” Christians. There are simply sinners forgiven through the blood and declared to be children of God.
However, that is not my real concern with this way of thinking, at least not for this blog. My concern is that this language that seems to equate “just going to church” with “sitting on the sidelines.” Church attendance is equated with the minimum activity in which any Christian participates. What is more, those who “just” go to church are disparaged as not being “in the game.” The life of the Christian, it is suggested, needs to be more than “just” Sunday morning sideline cheering.
With every other pastor on the planet, I agree that we want people to recognize that God has placed us in this world to be salt and light and that we have a responsibility in our vocations to love His good creation. Of course, I want to see the members of my church living out their faith beyond Sunday morning. I personally need to be doing a better job of that as well (Lord, have mercy!).
But what I cannot seem to wrap my mind around is why the worship service has been reduced to and disparaged as “the sidelines.” See, the worship service is not the bare minimum of what we need to do to show we are Christians. Not only does this sort of thinking seem to understand the Christian life as a legalized checklist of “to-dos,” it misunderstands the point of the worship service altogether. Sitting in church is not the minimum; it is the main thing! The Divine Service (as we Lutherans like to call it) is the center, the fulcrum, and the source from which the entire Christian life is lived. And that is because we are not the main players in worship. God is! You could say that God is there “playing” for you!
Perhaps the problem is that Christianity in our day has forgotten the virtue (maybe “grace” is a better word) of passivity before God. That is, no matter how active we are called to be in the Christian life, passivity comes first. Before the armies and opponents of Israel come to battle, God says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) “Faith,” Paul says, “comes from hearing,” (Romans 10:17) and certainly not by doing. Before Jesus sends us out to do all kinds of “salt and light” work in the world, He sits us down, opens our mouths and says, “Take and eat…take and drink…”
Christianity and faith are busy and active things, as Luther once said. But that is because they come from a God who is busy and active, before whom we can only sit and receive. In fact, when He is at play on the field of the Divine Service, He wants nothing more from us than to just sit and receive, sing and give thanks. Now, don’t get me wrong, we are not “just” fans. We are His beloved, blood-bought children whom He is delivering gifts to. We aren’t “just” observing. We are being worked on by the Word, repented, forgiven. Like fans at a stadium, we participate, but only with the words He gives us to say. And if we try to get up out of our seats and get on the field, we might ruin the game!
The Christian life is one that is acted upon before it is one that is acted out. The Holy Spirit sits you down in your seat on Sunday morning before His Word so that you stop your ever holy activity, and maybe for the first time all week, hear some good news. In that hearing, in that eating and drinking of bread and wine, God is at work on you and for you. There it is time for you to be still before the Holy One who condescends to you in grace and mercy. It is time for you to just be a fan, thank God! It is the most blessed thing you won’t do all week!