Last weekend I was at my in-laws, where I paged through the Saturday New York Times (we only get the Sunday Times at home). I noticed a half-page of advertisements for church services in and around Manhattan. Most of the ads highlighted the title and degrees of the preacher, the music to be performed, and the choir(s) or soloists performing. It came across to me as big names being flashed on a marquee – not unlike the theaters that line Broadway.
Which got me to wondering – if I had limited space to describe a church, would I spill ink over such things? Probably not. Such advertising reinforces a performance approach to worship. "Hey dear, let’s go to St Peter’s today because they have that choir from Podunk performing," or, "Oh my, so-and-so is preaching. Let’s go there!" At what point does church attendance become more about the preacher or the music than it does the act of Christian assembly itself? A sermon, anthem or cantata can be downloaded from the internet. A gathering at the foot of the cross and an encounter with Christ in the sacrament cannot.
I do not mean to discount good music or good preaching – they are extremely important to nourish the faith of the community. Yet, when we worship we gather around Word and Sacrament in a communal practice of praise and prayer, we form a body that is promised to be that of Christ, and we witness and participate in the mysteries of God and faith. Preaching and music contribute to such worship, but constitute only part of that worship. An advertisement that focuses solely on preaching and music fails to capture the communal, corporeal nature of Christian worship.
So, what would I put in my ad in the New York Times? I’m not sure. Perhaps worship times, address and phone number, website address, perhaps a listing of the readings or day in the church year, and a simple, "Come and See," a refrain found in John’s gospel a few times. But then again, I’m probably not inclined to put an ad in the newspaper’s "church" or "religion" section anyway . . .