Thursday, November 17, 2005

Church Life Support

What do you do when your congregation is dying? You are told by "experts" to change: change the music, the worship, and the outreach. Stop catering to the old, and go after the young. Be hip, be cool, be casual, be entertaining, be happy, be whatever you have to be to get those people into your pews. It is easy to mock the church growth mantras, but when the prospect of closing the church's doors forever becomes a real possibility, you begin to think maybe it's worth a try.

So after New Year's, our church is going to try and simplify its worship service, modernize its music, and advertise to the local unchurched that we are now "user friendly, so come as you are." This means the organ will be replaced by piano and guitars. The liturgy which I have known since I was a child will be pared back to a few key elements: Praise, Prayer, Offering, Scripture, Sermon, Praise. I recognize that what comforts me and most of the older members is a form of worship which crystallized in the late 19th century. I realize that it is no more spiritual or biblical than the new. In this postmodern, post-Christian megalopolis, our visitors don't care about responsive Psalter readings, assurances of pardon, doxologies and votums. If they come to worship at all, they surely don't want to feel lost or confused, or out of place in a room with 50 retirees singing music which reminds them of Lawrence Welk.

We are recognizing that the congregation is on life-support, its days numbered unless some intervention is made. My prayer is that our efforts will foster a simplicity combined with joy, in the presence of the Spirit, who is "the Lord, the giver of life" (Nicene Creed). My hope is that a visitor will find a community exalting God, preaching Christ, and yet one free of obstacles or time-bound idolatries.

Why then do I feel so conflicted about this? I have no intention of changing the style or substance of my sermons, nor am I about to change the content of our communal prayers. I suppose what I fear is a descent into an arid mediocrity. So much evangelical worship seems repetitive, vapid, and shallow. Perhaps my discomfort comes from remembering the methodology of the early church. In the midst of a hostile, even persecuting pagan environment, the early Christian leaders made it difficult to join the church. The catechumenate was a three year long process, involving much prayer, fasting, instruction, memorization, and mortification of desire. The disorientation Protestants feel upon worshipping in a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church is a reflection of just how out of sync we are with the idea of the Church as a body of believers set apart and called out of the world. We are taught to grow the church by blurring the boundary between it and the world. The first Christians grew their churches by doing the exact opposite: by highlighting the differences between the new life and the old.

In St. John Lateran in Rome, there is an ancient octogonal baptistry attached to the church. At Easter, catechumens were stripped of their old clothes, descended three steps (for the Trinity), immersed in holy water, walked up three steps on the opposite side, and were given white robes and led into the sanctuary, where they were allowed, for the first time, to receive communion. In the midst of this baptistry is a bronze sculpture of a deer, from Psalm 42, "As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God." And so I ask myself, is our church dying because we have become trapped in the past, or rather because we have divorced ourselves from a longing for God which overcomes the love of the world and all "obstacles" the church places in front of newcomers? If we seek life-support by allowing the Spirit to create an ekklesia, a called-out body of believers, then it will have been worth the risk. If all we do is substitute one idolatry for another, we might as well not have tried. No matter what, however, God's will be done.


Blogger RogueMonk said...

Amen, Amen, and Amen.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...


The trouble as I see it is at least in part that, in order to return to three-year-long catechumenates and the resultant different (read: better) understanding of Christianity that would entail, the church would have to give up a number of things that have become part and parcel of its identity--power as a large-scale political/social/cultural institution; any understanding of success based on quantifiables like money and number of members; and probably as a result such things as paid clergy and denominational structures. All of which I suspect would be a not-unfair trade--but then, I do not think my view is the majority one!

I empathize wholeheartedly with your qualms about mainstream contemporary modes of worship. I hope that as you explore new ways of being the church you're able, personally and collectively (as the case may be--I've never visited your church!) to remain centered around the deep longing for God that I perceive in so much of your writing here. "Simplicity combined with joy"--yes, that would be a very good thing to embody.


10:00 AM  
Blogger James Brumm said...

Is it just me, or does it seem odd that, for a bunch that believes in Resurrection, we Christians spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to avoid death?

If your "traditional" liturgy has not become a 19th-century mediocrity, and if the Spirit is alive-and-well among your people, and if they are truly welcoming of others (as sisters and brothers to whom they can minister, not just "fresh meet" or income sources), then you can reach new folks. AND there's a lot you can do to be user-friendly without abandoning or dumbing-down the tradition. And good publicity never hurt. And if you die while doing your best to carry out a ministry that you are truly called to carry out, just imagine the glorious resurrection God has in store for you.

11:25 PM  
Blogger Scribe said...

It is my hope and prayer not to dumb down our worship, but the choice is not mine. In fact, this decision is really about my allowing others to take a greater role in worship. I feel pleased about the lay participation, but fret about loss of control. If things begin to go south, I can always shout, "Hey! This is devolving into sentimental tripe!" Or some other career-ending statement.

I appreciate the comments very much.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Wow, I really resonate with this one, Scott. Thanks for writing it.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Miss Eagle said...

Ars, you might be interested in this week's Encounter program on the ABC (that's Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
Andrew McGowan is an Anglican (Episcopalian)theologian and Dorothy Lee is from the Uniting Churh(Presbyterian+Methodist +Congregational Churches). Some of the things they say resonate with what you have said. In addition, The Boyer Lectures, a distinguished lecture program on the ABC giving by leading Australian figures, are being given by Peter Jensen, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney who talks about Jesus being missing from our culture.

6:17 AM  

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