Evolution of the Church Service

We are witnessing another fundamental shift in church culture with the decline of teaching-centric churches and the rise of service-centric churches. As I said in the last post, there have been three important components to church – a COMMON faith/experience that holds us together, COMMUNITY (relationships, meal sharing, sacred ritual), and TEACHING (including biblical exposition and moral exhortation).

More Than A Metaphor

During the recent emerging church movement, evangelicals in particular have used a more figurative paradigm than ever before. You could see it in the names of the churches: ROCKharbor, Jacob’s Well, Adullam (King David’s cave of refuge), Scum of the Earth – these names created a story that attracted people based on the experience and community they were looking for. Their meeting places also embraced the new metaphor – eschewing the junior college architecture of megachurches and instead taking over strip malls and old buildings of nearly dead mainline churches. But even those churches are experiencing the same survival rate as the “traditional” mega-churches.

Fundamental Questions

So, it seems that church function, even its survival, needs more than just a change in metaphors. We are beginning to ask some very fundamental questions.

Do we need to own a building that is used 10% of the week for a 90-minute attractional or teaching service? Does it make sense in this environmental, carbon-footprint world to drive to the suburbs to sit and listen to a non-interactional presentation, especially when people can capture that teaching while they’re out exercising or driving to work? Does the teacher even need to be present?

Really, these questions aren’t anything new. Paul himself was the first “video venue” preacher – he only visited his churches occasionally, if at all, and in different venues. So, the relationship of the teacher to the congregation has never been central to the Christian faith. And in today’s American evangelical culture, being teaching-centric is once again losing its value.

Shifting from the Teacher to the Cause

It’s clear that people still want commonality and community. Those two aspects of church are staying strong, but what happens in the middle is what holds it all together. What is happening, then, is a shift from a Common TEACHING Community to a Common CAUSE Community.

What does the idea of CAUSE look like in reality? Simply, it answers the question, “How can we love our neighbor?” One beautiful thing the church has (indeed, has always had) is people who are committed to finding ways to love each other and others around them. In this way, we are resource-rich. If church shifted its purpose to utilizing these resources, a church might look like a mobile barbershop or a community garden, a tutoring program or serving in a senior Alzheimer’s center. In fact, over the last ten years, we’ve seen these models emerge with great success.

The Natural Rhythm of Service

In a service-centric church, the weekly focus shifts from the attractional, teaching-based Sunday morning to a multiple-day throughout the week involvement with the community around a cause. Just as Jesus says “come follow me,” rather than “stay and hear me out,” that’s where the majority of the church will reside – serving with each other.

Evangelism then becomes “Let’s love our neighbor together.” And as the community does this, discipleship naturally happens. The lines between these two pillars of the Christian faith blurs, just as the lines between leadership and congregants also blurs.

Of course, service is most powerful when it is organized and intentional, so there remains a need for good leaders. They need to be retrained in the humanit(ies) – why we do what we do (covering philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology); facilitation – how to inspire, manage, and develop people (without having to run everything themselves); and entrepreneurship – how to create innovative and sustainable models of ministry in the future. With these skills, we can step boldly into a new way of being the church that answers Jesus’ call and reflects what the early church looked like. It’s a new form of being the church that isn’t all that new after all.

PHOTO CREDIT: Moses Chiong – Laundry Love Santa Ana


  1. Mike Trautman on February 26, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    I appreciate your thoughts and ideas. My wondering is though why we get caught up in expressing the same old dichotomies like mainline, evangelical when describing the landscape of today. I understand that they have descriptive value but in doing so create an artificial divide that I believe is counterproductive to work that you are about. My work for myself is to begin to lose these terms and to try see the working out of God’s grace wherever it may be manifesting itself in our daily lives, individually and collectively. Thanks for your insight and wisdom.

  2. Crisbaj on February 26, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    I really support this new direction, especially as the natural next growth-spurt from the revealed truths many of us were rattled with during the ‘Emerging ‘movement’ years. My ONLY adjustment would be to go under the banner of SERVICE COMMUNITY rather than Common Cause Community….
    Why? Three main reasons….
    () title does attract people around expected narrative, and i thnk ’cause-chasing’ is the current kryptonite of most churches… Lots of yelling and energy (conferences, short-term outreaches, give-to-our-cause fundraising)…to me, ’cause’ is a damaged-goods word
    ()COMMON and COMMUNITY are a bit redundant together
    ()CAUSE is a word that allows a great deal of swinging the stick uselessly at the moon up in the sky… SO many ’causes’ being sold that result in a great deal of expended energy and money but the drill-down shows a poor target choice to begin with… Words like ‘trafficking’ or ‘slavery’ or ‘abortion’ or ‘poverty’… Impersonal words that ,, at the end of the day can’t lead to tangible outcomes from actions.
    We are stumbling towards forming SERVICE COMMUNITY in a Latino-Mexican context… Stay tuned…

  3. vilbert vallance on February 27, 2015 at 6:21 am

    the article is insightful i appreciate, pastors must think about it with their church committees


    • Spencer Burke on February 28, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      Vilbert, let me know if you use this article any context with a small group or committee. I’d love to hear how it goes. Thanks for your comment.

  4. […] Evolution of the Church Service […]

  5. Milton Marks on March 6, 2015 at 2:29 am

    I appreciate the perspective here but I believe Mike makes an important point in his post. I will admit that mainline churches have tended to focus on COMMON faith/experience, COMMUNITY, and TEACHING to the detriment of CAUSE. Unless the faith community responds to the calling of the Holy Spirit and addresses a CAUSE that is in concert with Christ’s mission for his Church, it becomes nothing more than a holy ghost country club. In the case of my denomination, the United Methodist Church, that mission is described as “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Discipleship is connected to a CAUSE.
    Yet all of the elements defined here must be help in dynamic balance. CAUSE must flow out of principles and values defined by our understanding of who we are as disciples following in the footsteps of Jesus. This seems obvious but many groups defining themselves as “Christian” have been inspired to engage in causes alien to the “cause of Christ.” How we know what cause to pursue without biblical exposition and moral exhortation? How to we know what cause to pursue without deep sharing and reflection within the sacred communion of holy relationships? How do we know our cause is consistent with the sacred wisdom of the saints handed down through the ages if we fail to share that wisdom with new disciples? I am preaching to the choir here I know but “movements” come and go. Many pop movements have nothing to do with God’s ultimate will and purpose for creation. Some have good intentions but in fact, cause great harm. Every proposed new “movement” must be judged in the light of the will of the Prime Mover.

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