Church and Changes
I recently blogged about the conclusions from some Christian observers that membership and attendance in Christian churches is in serious decline. I offered my own “top five” list of attitudes in congregations that can help growth. The 5th was this:
“You aren’t really ready to welcome new people unless you are willing to let them change your style and congregational culture.”
That comment drew some questions and pushback, and so I would like to expand on what I meant by that.
The message of Scripture is non-negotiable. It is true and timeless, transcending all human history, and will be as relevant on the day before Judgment Day as it was the day after the Fall. But the way in which we deliver those truths, the way in which we organize our congregations, the way in which we set up our congregational worship life, the way in which we design leadership structures—all these are infinitely negotiable. Scriptural doctrine does not change. Cultural patterns can. This does not mean throwing out everything of the past. It does mean preserving the best of the church’s traditional forms but being open to new things, too.
This principle is of special importance to congregations that were founded as ethnic, racial, or linguistic monocultures—all Italians, for instance, or Germans, or Poles. That initial monoculture eventually evaporates, and the congregation needs to flex as it seeks to attract people outside that original founding group. Waiting for more ethnics to move in to replace the first and second generation is a forlorn hope. As a leader in the Armenian Orthodox church here in my town once ruefully remarked in the local paper, “It’s hard to have an ethnic church without any ethnics.”
New people may want to learn from the culture of the congregation, but they will want to contribute their flavor as well. I would like to think that my European-rooted congregation has much to offer people in my city, but I am also grateful to our many African American members for the energy that they have brought, for the evangelism passion, openness, and emotional intensity. My tribe has historically venerated the pipe organ as the chief worship musical instrument, but our congregation has benefited greatly from gospel music played on piano and Hammond organ and from the guitar sounds of Hispanic cultures. The church of my childhood never had a drum in worship. We do now.
The church also needs to draw flavor from its youth. Younger generations need to contribute to the culture and style—their songs and their poems and their instruments are important to them and should be important to the congregation as well. They love their digital world and the gospel can thrive there too. This does not diminish the message. It only helps bring the one message to more people by letting it ride on a vehicle agreeable to the hearer.
St. Paul articulated a powerful maxim for church leaders of all times in I Corinthians 9: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”