There was recently a case in the news about a man in Arizona being arrested. At issue was his alleged failure to follow zoning laws for the church on his property. His counter-argument was that it was not a public space but part of private property and that anyone who attend the bible studies he held was an invited guest. What struck me the most about all of this was the claim that his worship was a private event. As someone who wants to welcome anyone and everyone to worship and create as large and inclusive a group as possible, the idea of a church and worship being private rather than open to the public seemed antithetical to my understanding of church.
Then this last week I had a different revelation. For the last six weeks I have been preaching on the Seven Deadly Sins. My final sermon on the topic is coming up on Sunday with Gluttony. In the midst of it I have been struggling with the question of how hard to push how sinful we are/can be. One criticism of Christianity is how judgmental it can be and calling people out for sinful behavior seems to possibly fit into that area.
When I was in college we would get visit maybe once or twice a year by a street preacher who would stand on the sidewalk and preach to us sinful college students. Now, I am not saying that Beloit students were without sin. In fact I think it is safe to say that we were/are as sinful as any other college student, or really any other person. The judgmental nature of the sermons did little to endear anyone, Christian or otherwise, towards Christianity. Here was an outsider coming into our midst to tell us what we did wrong.
Here was an example of someone being far more public about their worship service than I was comfortable and bringing their full message to the people. So if it was wrong to have a private service in your house and only invite friends, why did it also feel wrong to hold a worship service ... or at least the sermon portion of it ... in public and let anyone and everyone hear your message? On reflection I think it is because worship, especially the sermon portion is NOT a public act, but a private act. The private act can be open to the public, but when done properly it is not really meant for the general public, it is meant for the specific public. A good sermon speaks to people where they are, it is a conversation among friends. In the safety of such a context suddenly talking about sin does not become a soap-box lecture from some holier-than-thou individual, but the constructive advice (though perhaps hard to hear) from a trust friend and spiritual leader.
It feels awkward to talk about sin during a sermon because it does feel like scolding or shaming the congregation. At the same time, think of a coach who never told you when you were doing something wrong, would that be helpful? In fencing I want to know when I am making a mistake ... shouldn't it be the same with my spiritual life? Now, I am not saying I want anyone to criticize my fencing ... even if they know better, I prefer to leave that to my coach. In the same way I am not sure I want anyone to be critical of how I am living my life spiritually, I would prefer that be reserved for those I trust with spiritual authority in my life.
Worship is both a public and private act. It is something open to the public but it involves a certain amount of trust and willingness to address that which is private (our personal struggles with faith). I think the hardest part is to hold that tension. Anyone can walk in to a worship service and participate and there needs to be a trust created for them to feel safe to engage in what is ultimately a most private act ... growing in an understanding of God.