So a church cancels its worship services to go serve, and then calls it worship. Confused yet?

work worshipA lot of organizations, from scouting troops to sororities, help their communities with service projects.

Congregations do so as well, but there’s a difference. Virtually every act carries some kind of theological meaning. It goes with the territory. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and religious bodies gotta make religious statements.

So last Sunday, when Grace Fellowship Church canceled its worship services so members could spend the morning painting, mowing, cooking, repairing and otherwise serving at 32 local nonprofit organizations and homes, it wasn’t just a work day. It was also a theological declaration.

“Most people think that Sunday mornings are about ‘going to a service,’” Lead Pastor Tom Oyler wrote to the congregation earlier this year. “But on this day, we remind ourselves that we exist to serve others as well.… For many people, seeing a sermon in action is more effective than hearing one.”

The community service, he wrote, would be “a sort of good demonstration of how the body of Christ is designed to work.” The results would extend beyond Sunday: “Bridges will be built. Seeds will be planted.…. Grace will happen. God will be pleased. That’s about as good as it gets!”

By all accounts, the day was a success and, as Sue Guinn Legg reported in the Johnson City Press on Monday, a real benefit to the organizations. When the event’s main organizer, Connections Coordinator Malia Grant, reviewed the sign-up sheets this week, she found 1,065 people had participated. The church typically draws about 1,200 people during the summer. The day went so well that church leaders are already thinking of turning it into an annual event.

 “Though it was different from a typical Sunday, we got great response,” Grant said. “We wanted to make sure as many people could participate as possible, of every age. It was just as important as any worship service they would attend.”

Even preschool children got involved at “Echo Village,” a display area at the church building where they could help with some task, such as filling small bags with laundry detergent for families at Interfaith Hospitality Network, a ministry for homeless people.

The idea for Echo Sunday came up early this year, when church leaders realized the construction on their new building might leave the congregation without a meeting place for one Sunday. Someone suggested going into the community to serve that Sunday, and the idea stuck, even when it later became clear the construction wouldn’t interfere with the schedule.

So if every action of a church makes some kind of theological statement, what did “Echo Sunday” say?

Christian teaching has always emphasized the need for believers to gather to praise and pray to God, to observe communion and other sacraments, and to hear from Scripture in some fashion. In short, “ministry of word and sacrament” has always been central to Christian worship.

That didn’t exactly happen at Grace Fellowship last Sunday.

 “I’d have a problem if we did this consistently,” Oyler said in a phone interview this week. “Gathering for worship is important, a priority of the church. But by doing this on Sunday, people could focus on service. Reaching into the community is not a side thing. We take this seriously.”

Their service was another form of worship, according to Oyler, saying it squared with Jesus’ words to strict Jewish teachers who criticized him for healing people on the Sabbath.

“In our theology, we would feel free to do this again,” Oyler said.

Besides, he noted, the church did gather on Sunday when members returned to the church building to share pizza, pray and talk about their experiences.

“Gathering was an important part of the day,” Oyler said. “For example, a group of 15 teenagers went to the Children’s Hospital. They took donuts to the nurses and talked with the children. (The teens) were blown away by the experience. The nurses called on Monday, to say how much the visit meant to them.”

Oyler and Grant were quick to point out other churches serve the community too. Grace isn’t unique, they said. Just this day was different.

“We’re trying to imbed this idea of servanthood and being engaged in the community,” Oyler said. “A lot of people expect Christians to gather away from them, but they’re encouraged by Christians going to them. And our people felt the impact of going into the community. Our church will remember this for a long time.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 1 August 2009.