Over & Over Again: Church as "Priming" Community

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In the first post on this topic, I described what priming is. In the second post on this topic, I described how we get access to the heart by priming. Now, in this third (and last) post on this topic, I will describe how the church functions as a priming community.

Justin Martyr described a "church gathering" in 155 A.D. like this:
"And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and ... when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution of each, and a participation of that over which thanks has been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons"[1].

He names at least 6 things that take place:
1) Reading of Old and New Testament portions of Scripture;
2) Sermon;
3) Standing for intercessory prayers;
4) Bringing/Blessing of communion elements (collective "Amen");
5) Distribution and sharing of communion elements;
6) Reaching out to those aren't there.

Certainly other things could be added: singing, baptizing, and sharing resources are among the most obvious [2]. But this simple list underscores the fact that Christians have understood for two millenia, and Jews before them, that action creates passion, and passion shapes people. Or, as I said in the last post: the heart is affected from the outside-in. And then, what is in your heart emerges from the inside-out.

That's why the Jews had a calendar full of feasts and celebrations that brought them together at various times to celebrate, weep,  pray, and offer sacrifices. It's also why Christians have always had some kind of liturgy (literally: "the work of the people") in their gatherings. People must be involved to be engaged.

The action we're involved in primes us to see, act, and react in the world in certain ways. My suggestion is that being present and active in the church at worship, we are being primed - through collective practices like the ones highlighted by Justin Martyr - to be the kind of people who see, act, and react in the world after the manner of Jesus Christ.

After all, a Christian is one who follows the way of Christ. And we learn to describe situations, people, and the world after the manner of Jesus Christ through our ongoing participation in the life of a community that seeks to redescribe the world according to God's victory over sin and death in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Here's what I mean:
  • Through the reading and hearing of Scripture, we are caught up in a story that is larger than ourselves. It brings together the seemingly random threads of our lives and weaves them into a coherent whole.
  • Through the sermon, we are challenged and energized to live in ways that aren't yet second-nature to us.
  • Through intercessory prayer, we make known our dependence and reliance upon God and his power to act in the world.
  • Through the bringing and blessing of the communion elements, we are reminded of the sacrifice Jesus made to usher in the New Covenant. Our "amen," mixed with the "amen" of others gives voice to our common affirmation that these things are good and true.
  • Through the distribution and sharing of the elements, we learn to stand on equal footing with our neighbor - rich and poor, black and white, each freely giving to and receiving from one another.
  • Through reaching out to those who aren't there, we say to them, "you matter and we missed you."

A person who has participated in these kinds of practices for an extended period of time will be a different kind of person than someone who hasn't. As James K. A. Smith has pointed out, "the motions and rhythms of embodied routines train our minds and hearts so that we develop habits - sort of attitudinal reflexes - that make us tend to act in certain ways toward certain ends"[3].

Simon Chan issues a helpful reminder for us that keeps all of this from being dismissed as psychobabble that has no place in the church. He says, "ultimately, it is grace that forms us and not practices per se, and yet it forms us not apart from practice" [4].

So the church is a priming community that seeks to shape people, according to the purposes of God and by the power of the Spirit, to follow the way of Jesus, "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death - even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:6-8 NLT).

[1] Justin Martyr, Apology 1.67.
[2] John Howard Yoder has outlined five such practices (binding and loosing, baptism, Eucharist, spiritual gifts, and open meetings) in his book Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World.
[3] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, 59. He also provides an excellent exposition of the formational power of the Sunday worship service, pp. 155-214).
[4] Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community, 94).

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