One of the qualities of the western evangelical church I admire is its pragmatic consumeristic philosophy. Churches are willing to do whatever it takes, assuming it is not unbiblical, to reach the lost. A fervor for evangelism combined with religious freedom are two reasons why the western church has been successful.
Churches incorporate new forms of worship music, building designs, multi-site congregations, and a host of innovative programs to be more effective in accomplishing their mission. This is good. There is nothing wrong with identifying what people are looking for in a church and meeting those felt needs, such as helping couples develop healthy marriages and families, providing sound biblical teaching, or offering safe children’s ministries that teach Christian values.
However, (you knew there was a “but” coming), in our efforts to be successful, pastors and Christian leaders often succumb to doing what the church down the street (or across the country) is doing because that church is successful. Church growth strategies become the flavor of the month. Nearly every week my inbox contains an advertisement for the newest and greatest book on church growth: the healthy church, the sticky church, church for the unchurched, the unlearning church, and the lite church (everything you wanted in a church, but less). Leaders can be easily seduced by what’s hip and trendy, rather than what’s right for their congregations.
Elders are in, deacons are out. Sunday School is out, small groups are in. Teaching is in, preaching is out. Calvinism is in, Free Will is out. “Lost” is out, seekers are in. Smart watches are in, wearing no watch is out. I hear young ministers say they are leading a different church, with better preaching and better music, yet they are but another version of the church down the street: a music set and a 30-minute sermon with a closing song. The strategies are defended as biblical–God is up to something new.
Culture and our love affair with success seem to dictate our choices. So, we go through seasons. Young ministers shave their heads, grow beards, take up drinking beer to be like Luther, imbibe wine to compete with the Catholics, wear suits, dress casually, take the denomination’s name off their signage–all in the name of being relevant so we can reach more people. In my early years, it was leisure suits. Wish I still had mine. More importantly, I wish the suit still would fit. It was cool, the bomb, or whatever word is hot today for being cool. News flash – the lost are not impressed with our superficial attempts to be relevant. They are not enthralled with smoke machines, colored lights, the quality of the music, or the untucked shirt of the preacher.
Before you dismiss this as the ravings of an old man, hear my disclaimers. I’m not against change, or strategic decisions about how to meet the needs in our communities, or new means to proclaim the good news of Jesus. I’m glad God is always up to something new. I like new. I have several untucked shirts. Nor am I saying we shouldn’t learn from other churches on better ways to park cars and assimilate members into our congregations.
I like variety in preaching styles. I like new music. I’d like the music better if it weren’t 110 decibels. I have an app on my smart phone that measures decibel levels (I’m so OCD I alphabetize the acronym as CDO). Why is it city ordinances regulate decibel levels in public meetings, but many churches ignore the damage inflicted on their worshippers? “We care about people.” Evidently, we don’t care about people’s hearing loss. Maybe we’ll swing back to acoustics and unplugged worship and bell bottom slacks. Probably not on the latter.
To my point, Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant when he was asked to turn stones into bread. Think of all the people he could have fed. His antidote to the temptation to be relevant was being with the Father in prayer. There is nothing wrong with new when the newness is from a sacred nudge, the result of a season of prayer, soul searching, and time with God. Are we doing this because our ego wants this? Are we doing this because it worked at another church or because this is what God wants of us? Surely, with all of the diversity in the world and his diverse creation, God doesn’t want cookie cutter churches that all look alike.
We should incorporate new music, new programs, and new strategies. We should jettison programs that are no longer effective in accomplishing our mission. However, “Every word spoken, every advice given, and every strategy developed (bold mine) can come from a heart that knows God intimately.” (Nouwen) Strategies should be God-breathed. I conclude with these wise words of Henri Nouwen:
. . . I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish (bold mine), but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the source of all human life. (In the Name of Jesus, page 17.)
Some churches cannot compete with the glamour and the extensive variety of programs of the large church across town, but they can be an authentic community of believers who offer nothing but broken, vulnerable lives that are being radically changed by Jesus Christ. And leaders may discover that this type of church, regardless of its size and form of worship experience, is what people are truly looking for.