Derrick responds to John Frost's article published here last week. Rather than focusing on changing the forms of worship in the General Church to attract a wider, younger audience, Derrick feels our relationship to, and confidence in the values behind the forms we currently have is the crucial place for our attention. Ultimately, he feels the laity has the power to change the church for the better. -Editor
I agree with the major proposition of Mr. Frost's article: the current practices of the New Church (really the General Church) are unsustainable. If we do not create sustainable practices, the current New Church organizations will fade away. I pray that if that happens the Lord will raise up new organizations that will bring His Word to His people.
I would like to take a step back and expand Mr. Frost's call to change practices in response to a change in culture. Practices derive from culture. The General Church culture has developed certain perspectives on truth, values, and priorities. These as a whole make up the church culture, and the current practices are living out of this culture.
I differ with Mr. Frost in the means of renewing our practices. My summary of Mr. Frost's call to action is that we need to change our style of worship and preaching through increasing our engagement in debate and discussion. I agree that we need to renew our forms of worship and preaching, but I believe that focusing on worship style misleads us from the main factors that contribute to sustainability.
Preaching in the General Church
Disclaimer: I speak about the General Church because it is the culture and organization I know best.
Preaching is a sensitive topic for me. I am a preacher, and so criticism of preaching can feel a bit personal. I spend significant time and effort working on my preaching. And I know many other preachers in the General Church who put a significant amount of time and energy into crafting a sermon. So if they stink, what's the problem? It's not like most preachers want to preach awful sermons. I would be willing to bet that every preacher in the General Church wants their sermons to lead people closer to the Lord and offer ideas that will make a difference in life. So why does the laity and some preachers raise a perennial complaint about preaching?
I believe that preaching as a practice grows out of a culture. So what is the General Church culture that leads us to preach the way we do? That is a huge question, and I won't answer it entirely. I will merely point you to one of the major sources of the current preaching culture: the book Science of Exposition by Rev. W. F. Pendleton. (If you want to get at the heart of our preaching culture I suggest reading “Chapter XXII: The Sermon” which lays out both the audience and the ideal style of sermon.)
Until the last fifteen to twenty years, this book was the guide for our preaching. We are in the middle of a culture change in preaching, but without alternative textbooks, a preacher who disagrees with Pendleton's premises must set out to create his own purpose and methodology for preaching.
Preaching is an art, and so calls to renew preaching can be hard to implement. It's like making a movie, writing an essay, or composing a piece of music. To be well done, the artist must have his purpose clear and have insight into his audience. A mere call for change rarely changes an artist's art. What really changes an artist is a new understanding of purpose, a greater insight into his audience, and the influence of other artists. As a preacher, I am working to improve my craft, and I hope that I will positively influence other preachers. If you are not a preacher, you have a powerful source of influence by sharing your insights. If you went to your preacher and said, “Hey preach, I have been thinking about such and such a teaching, and here is what really makes a difference to me,” I would bet nickels to dollars that your preacher will preach that topic somewhat differently next time he talks about it.
Why Worship Style is a Misleading Focus
I don't believe that there is one style of preaching or one style of worship (music, environment, format) that suddenly will cause a church to be attractive.
George Barna is a Christian who leads an organization that statistically studies trends and practices in Protestantism. One study from the late 1990's cited that for people who do not attend church: 30% want contemporary music, 30% want traditional music, and 40% don't have a preference. Although it is likely that this trend has shifted since then, these numbers demonstrate that it doesn't matter what style of worship you choose, there will be plenty of people who are interested or at least willing to participate in whatever style you choose. (I cannot find the original study, but here is an article from the early 2000's which discusses this issue: "Focus On 'Worship Wars' Hides The Real Issues Regarding Connection to God").
As an example of a growing Christian Church that is traditional both in doctrine and in worship style, let me point you toward Redeemer Presbyterian Church which has seen fantastic growth in the last twenty years. Redeemer grew from fifty people in 1989 to over 5000 people in 2008 (see this article on their lead pastor for numbers and references).
And in greater movements, the fastest growing organizations tend to be conservative in terms of doctrine and worship practices. For example, Mormonism is growing at a rate of 20% in the U.S., and Islam at a rate of 25% in North America. These organizations are generally more conservative in worship style than the Protestant Christians whose worship models we currently draw on for contemporary worship.
I do not see this evidence necessarily pointing towards a conservative style. Instead, I interpret this evidence to suggest that style is not the issue. I believe that most of these growing, conservative religious organizations also are doing something else that promotes growth. I merely wish to advocate that style is not the major issue for sustainability.
What I believe plays the biggest part in the success of a worship service is our faith in the values that drive the practices. Mr. Frost proposes an acid test for our worship: “The acid test of an effective liturgy is whether we are enthusiastic enough about the form of our service to invite friends and acquaintances and whether the younger generation are keen to attend.” By this he implies that our forms are broken. I disagree with the idea that it is forms that are broken, instead I propose that the issue is that we no longer see the forms as expressive of deeper values. If values are the issue, we have two roads to renewing our worship: 1) update the relevance of our forms to express the values that the Lord teaches us are part of worship or 2) renew our appreciation of the values that our current forms were designed to express. I do not prefer either because I think the issue is more about our confidence in the forms than the forms themselves. People can be culturalized to whatever type of service we offer, if they have good reasons to do so.
An Alternative Suggestion for Prioritizing Culture Change
So if the issues are not preaching and worship forms, what are the issues? I would suggest it is our culture. Specifically, our cultural expectations about what grows a church's numbers and how that growth takes place. Basically, new people show up to church because those who are in the church invite them. Growing Protestant churches find that between 50% and 80% of people who show up at church for the first time do so because of personal invitation. Whether these new people stick around depends on a number of more intangible, but equally important factors like social warmth and how much they like the pastor.
The idea that the worship service is the barrier to church attendance was behind the movement in the Protestant churches called “attractional ministry.” These churches turn worship into an experience—an event that will attract people. There is nothing wrong with having a well done and powerful worship service. But it takes a lot of resources to produce a worship service that is on the scale of production that we are used to experiencing with movies and television. An example of this kind of church is North Point Church in Atlanta. North Point has a great sense of polish, energy, and professionalism in their worship services. And the church started with over 2000 people. Most of our “big” church societies in the General Church hover around 100. We will never be able to produce worship services at the same level of a church that has more than twenty times the human resources that our local churches have to draw on.
Instead, for the majority of our congregations, an attitude that is termed missional living makes a lot more sense. This means that each member lives his or her life as one sent by the Lord to participate with, help, support, and teach his or her neighbor. This personal responsibility for church growth is much more scalable and actionable. It means you look at the situation and ask the question, "What can I do, with the resources I have, to help people move closer to the Lord?" It doesn't mean converting someone. It means serving them in a way that leads them closer to the Lord. Sometimes that service is through a simple act of kindness. And sometimes to serve another would be to ask challenging questions or offer a different perspective. If we are prayerfully asking the Lord for opportunities to present His truth to others even though it may feel uncomfortable, the Lord will use us to teach His people.
One way the General Church culture has missed this previous point is by tending to prefer the values and practices called internal at the expense of the external. Apocalypse Revealed describes the church with the clergy described as internal and the laity as external (398). And to some extent, we have pinned success and failure on the clergy because we have valued the internal and the role the clergy provides. However, I believe that it is the external that has the power to perform the work needed to create a sustainable culture (see Arcana Coelestia 9836).
Believe it or not, as a priest, I am handicapped in talking about religion. You may think that odd, but look at it this way. A priest is like the marketer or CEO of an organization. If the marketer or CEO tells you he has a great company, you take what he says with a grain of salt. However, if a friend tells you how great that same company is, you hear it differently. It has more power because she is farther removed and less invested. What she says is more meaningful because she could choose any number of other companies to associate with, but she is choosing this one.
Although power rests in the externals, it is only when the internal and external are joined together that things will really begin to sing (see New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrines 47). I think Mr. Frost is right in asking for more cooperation between laity and clergy. This is where the sweet spot is.
All told, the people of the church are the ones with the power. The people have the power to talk about what they like about church, the teachings, their life according to the teachings, or not. The people are the ones with the greatest power of invitation. The people are the ones with influence into areas outside of the church. So if you want a sustainable model for the church, I would suggest it is not going to be discovered through internal dialogue alone. It will be achieved by a change in culture. A change where we as a church get out there and do stuff. Go make online videos like this guy. Or write music like this lady. Or bring the ideas of the Heavenly Doctrines to your profession in business, academics, counselling, or whatever you do. Or start a blog. Or invite people to church and classes. Or start your own discussion groups. Basically, do the hard work it will take to share the teachings you love.
Derrick LumsdenDerrick is: a life-time student; a student of life; a husband; a father; a pastor at New Church Westville in South Africa (a New Church).
Some of Derrick's hobbies: gnu-linux-ubuntu; crossfit; dreaming of planting a church; teaching himself guitar; reading.