“Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More.”
That’s the motto of Sunday Assembly Austin, a congregation located about forty minutes from my house. The church hopes to “help everyone live life as fully as possible.”
They have a compelling weekly gathering that’s part of a global network of congregations. Together they sing songs, listen to readings and teachings, encourage giving and service, and strive to live in community.
But there’s one important detail I left out: they’re godless.
THE SECULAR CHURCH
The “Sunday Assembly” congregations seem like their own church, but not the kind we see laid out in Acts 2. The Acts 2 church studies the Word together, breaks bread together, and prays together, all to God’s praise (Acts 2:42, 46-47).
But this assembly is different. No prayer opens or closes the services. The songs are not worshipful, but inspirational. The talks they give are not about the God of Scripture. There is total disenchantment.
The first fragment of their motto—“Live Better”—is the thumbnail of secularism.
Sunday Assembly deals out weekly injections of positivity and motivation that suggest attendees live by their own core values: relaxing, eating, drinking, and being merry. The goal in view is to make this life the best it can be, because for a secularist, this is all there is. The “present” is King.
A Sunday Assembly could never imitate a church, but a church could imitate a Sunday Assembly. And sadly, they often do.
Christians are prone to associating the threat of secularism with those outside the church walls who cuss and watch bad TV shows and have abhorrent political stances. But the threat of secularism is closer than we realize. Indeed, it’s often in our pews and behind our pulpits.
BOASTING IN HOPE
The fundamental difference that should distinguish the Christian church from a Sunday Assembly is eschatological, a characteristic of the Church that Gregg Allison defines as “clear destiny while [we] live the strangeness of ecclesial existence in the here-and-now.”
In other words, we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13). The author of Hebrews urges us to “have the full assurance of hope until the end” (Heb. 6:11), even exhorting us to boast in such a hope (Heb. 3:6).
Our hope is bound up in the coming King Jesus, who came for more than forgiving our past and redeeming our present. He came to offer us a glorious future with Him. He will establish His reign over all things and welcome us into eternal fellowship with Him.
“The blessed hope” is everything in the Christian life. And yet, our corporate worship is often theologically nearsighted. Too many songs in our worship rotations may have the veneer of religion, but aren’t eschatological at all. And how many sermon series could have easily been transplanted and taught to a secular audience?
The Church must offer a message and a comfort that is more compelling than the gospel of our secular age. The body of Christ must worship in hope if it ever expects to look any different than a bunch of atheists.
How can we conduct our Sunday services in a manner that sends the body of Christ further than the upcoming week? How do we worship in a way that points us toward eternity? What can we do in our gatherings to offer people more than present comfort, but living hope?
Some preachers treat the Bible like there are only sixty-five books in it, save a few verses. Revelation is confusing, open to a host of different interpretations, and honestly, downright scary at times. Do we really want to open that Pandora’s box with our people? I know one pastor who told me he would never preach on that book in his church.
What drives this decision to avoid Revelation is not so much the content of the book itself, but an impulse to preach sermons that are deemed “relevant” and “practical.” It’s good to want our sermons to connect with our audience; otherwise we would waste their time. But this mindset can drift into an unhelpful emphasis on the present, as if every sermon needs to conclude with three steps to better Christian living for the week ahead.
It’s important that preachers remember we are nothing more than “elect exiles” in this world (1 Pet. 1:1). This earth is not our final destination. While it’s our duty to help people grow in their sanctification, we’re also responsible for preparing them for their glorification.
We are not pastoring in a gospel way if we spend so much time preoccupied with telling our people how to live well and forget to tell them how to die well. We must remember that the men and women to whom we preach are more than flesh and blood; they are souls intended to pass from one degree of glory to another for eternity.
Teaching from Revelation isn’t the only way we can “preach eternity” to the flock, of course. Guide your church to see eschatology in the Psalms, the prophets, and the teachings of Jesus. Help the suffering among you cling to and rejoice in a day that is coming in which their tears will dry up completely and their ailments will be no more. Go further than exhorting them to be more patient with their boss or to treat their spouse better this week; point them to their better Master and Husband who is coming to make all things new and beautiful. In love, never let them forget that they will one day stand before God.
Some of the most stirring and beautiful songs that belong to the church were penned by African-American slaves. What makes these songs so compelling is their unwavering eternal perspective. Proclamations of hope were sung from the lips of men and women who had every earthly reason to lose heart. They were some of the most authentic worshipers this world has ever known.
The church is more than a coping mechanism meant to sprinkle a little Jesus into an effort to feel better about our lives. The church is a hoping mechanism. It’s meant to proclaim what Christ will do, once and for all. Singing is one of the most powerful ways we proclaim the gospel.
We should be thoughtful to introduce songs to our churches that not only aid the saints in engaging their present emotions with God, but also heightens their confidence and hope in his promises. We must sing the “already” of Christ’s work, but also the “not yet.” And we should be careful not to sing songs that pass with ease in a secular, earthly-focused context. I appreciate how Kevin DeYoung once phrased this: "Are we teaching songs that can be sung acapella around a hospital bed in 50 years?"
Before Jesus departed from his disciples and left the earth, He promised to send help in the form of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has a very present-day purpose of guiding us, convicting us, and strengthening us. But one reason for the sending of the Spirit was to “renew the face of the ground” (Ps. 104:30).
Even the Spirit’s work is forward looking. Theologian N.T. Wright puts it this way: “the point of the coming of the Spirit . . . isn’t that the Spirit will comfort us in our loss of Jesus and take us to be with him. The point is that the Spirit is given so that through the work of the church the kingdom may indeed come on earth as in heaven.”
This means as Christians, we have been commissioned to “replicate eternity.” I’m not suggesting we can fully redeem and restore everything about this world; it’s going to take a new heaven and new earth in the end (Rev. 21:1). What I do mean is, akin to the ministry of John the Baptist, we are tasked with preparing the way of the coming Christ (Luke 1:76), and we do this by having an eternal perspective.
Pastors need to ask a simple question: Do our people live with eternity in mind? You can flesh this question out in a myriad of ways. Is repentance something we practice and value? Are we living in fellowship with other believers? Do we feel the urgency of evangelism, because eternity awaits every soul? Are our treasures in heaven? Living with eternity in mind stabilizes our hope and reinforces the truth of God’s future promises.
LIVE WELL, DIE WELL
We are responsible for much more than checking our wristwatches and biding our time here on earth, waiting on Christ to get on with it and finish what He started. We can usher in eternity today by encouraging one another with the words of what Christ is coming to do (1 Thess. 4:18).
Living better, helping often, and wondering more sound like solid action steps for a church. But they only work when shaped by and motivated by this announcement: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). We need strength for today, but it’s all for nothing if we do not also have bright hope for tomorrow.
Let’s do more than live well. Let’s die well.
Zach Barnhart lives in the greater Austin, TX area with his wife, Hannah, and their daughter, Nora. Zach serves as Pastor of Students and Spiritual Formation of Northlake Church. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is in pursuit of a Master of Theological Studies degree from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow Zach on Twitter or check out blog.