Monday, October 30, 2017

A Church's Two Choices

This is a pivotal moment for many churches. Maybe I win an award for Understatement of the Year for that sentence.

A lot of congregations are in similar situations: budgets and attendance numbers are shrinking, there are less people to run the programs that people treasure, the culture as a whole doesn't seem to be very interested in making the same sorts of provisions and exceptions for the church's schedule the way it used to.

All the Churchy Experts point to the same causes: demographic shifts, the rise of categories of non-religious people, younger generations not wanting to gather the way their parents and grandparents do, there are many more Sunday morning alternatives to worship than there used to be.

How do churches respond? How do they cope with these shifts around them? Plenty of these same Experts offer a variety of answers, ranging from changing your worship style to greater outreach to adhering to certain theological positions to more emphases on mission, service, and justice.

But if I had to boil things way, way down to the barest and most basic choices that a church can make, I think it has one of two options. Neither of these are as simple as they sound, but I think that this is the decision every church needs to make.

1. Make the changes to be who you want to be. So maybe you want to start a new "contemporary" worship service, or you want to make your current worship "contemporary." Okay, that sounds great. And what's even better is that you have a high schooler who plays drums and a few older folks who can find their way around guitar and bass. Again, fantastic.

So the question is whether you're going all in on this or not. Are these people going to have regular rehearsal? Are you going to work intentionally with them to craft a list of songs each week? Are you going to try to insist on including a few token "traditional" things to try to make a small minority happy even though they won't really fit with the overall spirit of your new worship style?

Many churches say that they want to change. There come times when that change needs to be more incremental, with explanations given every step of the way and maybe a few small meetings with key people to get them on board. But if you really want to make the changes that you say you do, you have to go all in. You have to commit, and deal with the fallout as it comes.

2. Be who you already are with a high bar of quality. Maybe it's been made clear that only a handful of people are really enthused about your "contemporary" worship idea. Nobody else is stepping up, you don't have the musicians, the personnel, the general interest. Maybe people are okay with the few more modern elements that you have as part of your existing worship.

Well, then, step it up. Make it the best it can be, the most energized it can be, the best quality it can be. Believe it or not, "traditional" worship can be spirited, too. But to do that, you still need to set a high standard for the music, the bulletin format, the rubrics of who moves where and when, and so on. Just because people prefer the way it's always been done doesn't mean anyone should get away with that way being poorly done. If you can't change the logistics, change the quality.

What this all really amounts to is that you can't do church half-heartedly any more.

Churches could get away with that when they were the only game in town. Hymns could drag, sermons could be long and tedious, choirs could be off-key, bulletins could have poor formatting, the entirety of worship could be choppy and lifeless.

But that's not our reality any more. As mentioned, people have options. They have grocery shopping and brunch and soccer and a hundred other things they could be doing instead. And if a church doesn't seem to care about its presentation, they won't care either. The omelette bar or the hiking trail will be that much easier for them to choose.

Don't just add a guitar and think you've done what you need to do to be more "contemporary."

Don't just add a box for used clothing and think you're 150% more missional.

Don't insist on keeping Sunday School if nobody is coming.

Don't keep everything the same and think the way you're doing it is good enough.

So maybe a church only really has one choice: level up what you offer or want to offer, or keep getting present results.

(Image via Pixelbay)