The Lord's Day as Sacrament

Broadly understood, a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In a sacrament grace meets us in and through the material world. Grace comes to us in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. Graces comes to us in the water of baptism.

The Protestant tradition generally recognizes two sacraments, the ones I just mentioned, the Lord's Supper and baptism. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions recognize seven sacraments.

In doing some research into the theology of my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, some have argued that our tradition recognizes (in deed if not in word) three sacraments: the Lord's Supper, baptism and the Lord's Day.

The gathering of the saints on the Lord's Day as a sacrament. You don't see this gathering mentioned a lot in discussions about the sacraments. But in my faith tradition going to church--the observance of the Lord's Day--is very much a sacramental practice.

To be sure, more often than not gathering on a Sunday in the Churches of Christ has been experienced more as a duty and an obligation than as a sacrament. But interestingly, the way we've focused on duty and obligation in observing the Lord's Day has informed how I've come to understand the sacrament of our gathering.

Specifically, at least when I was growing up, church services were aggressively non-consumeristic. Church was never supposed to be entertaining. Church wasn't even supposed to be interesting. Church wasn't supposed to be helpful or useful or impactful. Church wasn't there to "meet your needs."

So if you ever expressed a consumeristic sentiment--"I'm just not getting a lot out of church."--you'd be met with a blank stare. Why would you expect to "get anything" from church? Such an assumption betrayed a deep flaw in your theological understanding of what church was about. Church isn't about you. Church is not about your boredom or your needs or your feelings of fulfillment. The fact that your are bored is perfectly irrelevant. Church is a duty. You go regardless. That is all.

That's how I was raised. You go to church. Simply because you are supposed to go. Commanded to go. To expect to "get something" out of church was consumeristic, self-absorbed and ego-centric.   

Consequently, for many decades church services in the Churches of Christ were stubbornly uninventive. To innovate was to betray the fundamental conviction that church wasn't about "reaching" or "speaking to" the audience. If you were trying to please or interest the audience you were focusing on the people and not on God.

Of course all that sounds horrible. A church aggressively committed to being boring doesn't sound like a great way to do church. But this focus on duty had a genius about it. And it was this: a church based upon duty was not anthropocentric. In a church-as-duty model the human agent--our needs, wants, preferences and desires--were marginalized. Church-as-duty just isn't about you.

There is wisdom here. And it points to an irony in a lot of contemporary Christian worship. In striving to be more and more about God contemporary Christian worship has, ironically, become more and more about the preferences and tastes of the audience. True, when church is boring your numbers will be small, but you can be much more confident that the people showing up are showing up for God and not for themselves. Because they would, probably, rather be somewhere else. Yet here they are because they see it as their duty to God. God expects the gathering and they are obliging.

Again, many people will be rightly horrified by this grim vision of going to church out of a sense of duty or obligation. There is something masochistic about dragging yourself and the family out of bed on a Sunday morning to sit through a boring, rote and seemingly pointless religious observance. I myself rebelled against this in my young adulthood. I wanted church to be "meaningful" and "impactful." I saw the "duty" of going to church to be an example of a mindless and spiritually hollow legalism.

Which is to say, I now realize, I wanted church to be less about God and more about me.

So here's the crazy thing. I've found my way back to seeing the wisdom of church as duty. But less as a duty and more as a sacrament.

Here's my confession: I'm increasingly delighted when church is boring or irritating. I only feel the Spirit of God moving in my soul when I'm struggling to stay awake or chaffing at the banality of the praise songs. Spiritually speaking, the worst thing that can happen to me is for me to "like" church.

I don't want church to be like Facebook. I don't want to "like" church. I want to be bored by church. I want the drudgery.

I'm exaggerating of course. I'm simply here trying to gesture toward this notion that, more than anything, church is about showing up. Regardless. Showing up regardless.

I love it when church is stimulating, impactful, meaningful and thought-provoking. But for me, more and more, the showing up part is the most important part. I'd like the other stuff to happen of course, but I'm going to show up regardless.


Because I think the gathering itself--let me make that really clear, the gathering itself--is sacramental. I experience grace in the gathering. And when I look back on my early experiences of church, where we very dutifully gathered every Sunday, I now realize that the grace I experienced was due to the gathering, the simple act of gathering, week in and week out.

Grace came to me, sacramentally, in the material act of congregating. Grace came to me in the bodies and faces of those who greeted me at the door. In the bodies and faces of those who sat beside me in Sunday School class. In the bodies and faces of those who prayed and sang beside me in the pews.

The content of the service varied. Sermons were variously interesting or boring. Songs were variously uplifting or ear-splitting. Prayers were variously inspiring or rote. But week in and week out all that proved to be irrelevant. Grace came to me through the gathering. Church may have been a duty but it taught me that gathering, the simple act of gathering, was an experience of grace.

And so, to this day, the alarm will ring early on Sunday mornings. And the Becks will roust themselves out of bed. We get cleaned up and we drive to church.

And if it's no longer a duty it definitely is a discipline. Who wouldn't rather sleep in on Sunday morning? But we go. Because the sermon will be great? Maybe, I hope so. But that's not why we are going. Because the praise will be uplifting? Maybe, I hope so. But that's not why we are going.

We are going simply to experience the grace that comes with the sacrament of gathering. That is all.

And that, I've discovered, is enough.

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11 thoughts on “The Lord's Day as Sacrament”

  1. I'd never considered gathering as a sacrament before, but it clearly is. ("Whenever two or more gather in my name..." So: "...the grace comes with the sacrament of gathering. That is all.") Thanks for that.

    But I have a bone to tug on with you, and I'm guessing it's not just me.. If simply gathering is enough, why Sunday morning? Why the sermon? Why Sunday school?

    I stopped going to church five years ago, but not because I was increasingly out of sympathy with the teachings, though I was; and not because my (late teen/early twenties) children wanted to go elsewhere, and they did; and not because the church had a theological vision that hindered agape; but because that vision finally reached its logical conclusion in a decision to move to a less needy area to seek the right kind of members--middle- and upper-class families.

    I have not returned to a place with the semblance of church, yet, for several reasons.But the overriding factor--meaning the factor that would outweigh any other reason or reasons--is that societal fractures and fault lines run through churches in ways that prevent true gathering.

    I'll be specific. When I meet my friend with schizophrenia for coffee--who is way to strange for church--that has more to do with Church than what is available at churches in my area.

    It's an institutional thing as much as a doctrinal thing, I'm sure--better said, it's institutionalism perverting doctrine, in my view. In James' essay "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings" he exposes a need to get to know what motivates individuals, if we are to avoid harsh and demeaning judgments about them. Its clearly true. And so it's clearly true that if we are to show agape, we must get to know those around us--we must gather. But we must gather without dragging in societal fractures and fault lines that prevent meaningful gathering.

    Meeting in that way would be real. sacramental Church, not mere church--which I can't stand.

    Sorry, if this was a rant.

  2. My experience growing up in the Church of Christ was similar in that most went out of a sense duty, but this duty was not solely for God. I think a good number of those who were going every time the doors were open did so because they felt it would be a sin not to. You couldn't expect to make it to heaven if your church attendance was low could you? And the reason for this was the command to gather for the Lord's Supper. This was taken so seriously you at least went to take communion. You would sometimes see folks leave right after communion. This wasn't as acceptable as staying for the whole service, but hey, they at least to the Lord's Supper.

    I say all of this to say that in my small town CoC, church attendance was very much anthropomorphic. It was just another ritual we kept to save ourselves from hell.

  3. I also learned the "duty" of gathering via the CofC. However, at this point in life I don't think simply the act of gathering "is enough." I have experienced too much that relates to what Paul wrote in I Cor. 11; "...your meetings tend to do more harm than good."

  4. Enter liturgy.

    As a cradle cofC'er, I find it very ironic that I find formal liturgy as a solution to this duty/sacrament tension. It also addresses the sacrament of prayer in a way that takes the pressure off the poor old guy ad-lib'ing up front.

  5. We have to take a step back and ask "why we gather"? The mere act of gathering has no sacramental value unless there is what the Hebrews writer calls a stirring of others "toward love and good deeds" (10:24). Do you believe there are some church gatherings that should have an entrance sign reading "toxic-- enter at your own risk"? I do not dispute the value of Christians gathering together for mutual edification, celebrating what God is doing, and learning how to be a better people, but attendance for the sake of attendance seems counter productive and spiritually numbing. I'm currently in the ranks of the non-affiliated, not because I don't value Christians gathering, but because I refuse to go through the motions of church as usual. I take seriously what should happen when Christians gather : Sharing of stories from the front lines of the Kingdom's advancement; caring for our wounded by seeking the healing presence of God's Spirit; devoting time and space to forming Kingdom virtues; developing a redemptive strategy for cultural engagement; a time for prayer and contemplative silence; a time for remembering and connecting to God's redemptive story (Lord's Supper); learning to shatter our dualistic tendencies by locating gathering times and praise outside our spacial boundaries of stained glass. Suppose church involved the fluidity and vision of a movement whose primary presence was nor the real estate we own but a lifestyle presence that counters both old world thinking and consumeristic fads. That's what would get me up early on Sunday or any other day of the week. So for me the question is, when an externally focused church gathers how shall we use our sacred time together?

  6. Richard, here is a quote from Fr Thomas Hopko from his book series "The Orthodox Faith" (which can be found online at

    "The practice of counting the sacraments was adopted in the Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholics. It is not an ancient practice of the Church and, in many ways, it tends to be misleading since it appears that there are just seven specific rites which are “sacraments” and that all other aspects of the life of the Church are essentially different from these particular actions. The more ancient and traditional practice of the Orthodox Church is to consider everything which is in and of the Church as sacramental or mystical.

    "The Church may be defined as the new life in Christ. It is man’s life lived by the Holy Spirit in union with God. All aspects of the new life of the Church participate in the mystery of salvation. In Christ and the Holy Spirit everything which is sinful and dead becomes holy and alive by the power of God the Father. And so in Christ and the Holy Spirit everything in the Church becomes a sacrament, an element of the mystery of the Kingdom of God as it is already being experienced in the life of this world."

    In EO, a sacramental understanding has to do not with "an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace" - we don't believe "grace" is anything other than the actual action of the Holy Spirit - it is not something other than or "outside" of God" that God somehow "creates" or "exudes." We do believe the HS is present and at work in the rites. However, the rites themselves are the invisible, intangible realities made visible, tangible expressions and experiences, apprehendable because we are physical creatures living in a material world (that is in and of itself good because God pronounced it so). That's somewhat different than the RC understanding/definition.


  7. Applause
    But then I would say that. To cite myself, brazenly (from "Ten Propositions on Worship" in Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank [2008]:

    Why worship God? Because God is to be worshipped...

    What should we get out of worship? Wrong question. Worship is not a utility but an offering, a sacrifice, an economy of grace that interrupts and critiques the feverish cycles of production and consumption – which is why the collection is not
    fund-raising but cultural critique. If you want relevance, excitement, or profit, go to a rally, a concert, or the stock exchange. To put it most counter-culturally: Blessed are the bored, for they will see God. Indeed you must be bored-again.

  8. The need "not to forsake the assembling of yourselves together" has great spiritual value because we are social beings in need of faith reinforcement, which comes from others (called edification, fellowship, encouragement, etc.). It has rationality! It is really hard to be a free lance Christian or a Christian at large. We need to SEE others' faith, sacrifice, sincerity, and worship. That does wonders for our own faith. And what happens AFTER the final "amen" is about as important as what happens before. This is the rationale for large foyers, where folks can socialize, visit, and engage in friendly discourse. In our time and culture, we live such busy lives, this may be the only opportunity we have during the week to be around others of like faith and thus have our own faith reinforced. This is just the opposite of those who see worship as theater with performance on the stage, supporting actors, and main actors. When over, people depart immediately (which is why some churches prefer a foyer about the size of a closet), the human interaction is weakened or lost.

  9. Richard, I have read your words for awhile now and appreciate your thoughts very much! Here though, I think differently. I question the idea of the "Lords Day" as a Sacrament. Perhaps it stems from my background being raised in a Seventh-day Adventist home (& happily to have left that religion), but my day of worship is irrelevant. Instead, life is really a continual sacramental way of living 24 hours a day. All time is sacred. Any gathering of those in Christ is beneficial! We give joy and strength to others, and receive these gifts back from those we commune with! The very real Presence of Christ, (Christ-in-you), gives us the true Sabbath Rest. And "church" can occur is a gift we receive and a mystery we are included in. Thanks again for your writings!

  10. You make some great points, Richard. But I do personally object to attaching the word "sacramental" to pretty much anything. Because, ultimately, it communicates that it's something we must do, for it's own sake. I don't really think that's what you intend to communicate, but it's comes with the connotation of a sacrament.

    I certainly agree in the value of the gathering. But if we make it a sacrament, then are we "sinning" if we miss the gathering. Of course not.

    It's common, and even appropriate, for each of us to say that, for ourself, I need to do this or that, because of it's value to me. And it's appropriate to encourage others to do things because they may not appreciate the value something brings. But, in the final analysis, doing something is right because it demonstrates that we are loving others, the way Jesus loves us.

    I continue to gather with the same group, because I'm convinced I can bring value, encouragement, edification to the people with whom I gather. If I was gathering for what I get out of it, I'd probably gather elsewhere.

    (Sometimes I wonder if any of the stuff I write makes any sense ... )

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