OnFire Encouragement Letter
OnFire #216 Church Changes
I’ve just returned from a pastor’s prayer retreat which was wonderful. I got to see some old friends, and our leader was wonderful. We spent the better part of two days in prayer together. The formula was simple. He guided us along some topics and gave us some scripture assignments. As the time went along he challenged us to go deeper in surrendering ourselves to God.
At times I found myself "lost" in peace and God’s presence. The feeling was like being in a peaceful rest, without sleeping. At other times we got to support each other in prayer as people unloaded concerns. I came away feeling more centered on God.
Jan and Mark are recovering from cold and flu and are mainly back to normal. The boys are looking forward to March break which begins at the end of the week. Ian will volunteer at a children’s camp. Mark and I continue to work on our sport stacking. I will take him to the world championships in Denver in April.
That’s our news. Blessings for your week.
A few weeks ago I asked you to respond to two questions. What are the biggest changes you have seen in church in the last fifteen years? And what are the biggest changes the church needs to make in the future? I want to thank everyone who responded. Here are the results. Agree? Disagree? Have more to add? I’d love to hear what you think.
What Has Changed In the Last 15 Years?
It should not surprise us to hear about changes in worship. Many churches use fewer hymns and more newer music. Dress is less formal, with casual clothing being the norm in many churches. Most thought these were positive changes which helped to retain or draw younger members.
The changes which people wrote about reflected the situations they knew best - their own congregations. Some were hopeful about the future, especially because of the presence of children and young families.
Others, however, lamented a decline of younger generations and feared that aging buildings would eventually become too expensive to maintain. This represented a change from the days when families grew up and attended together. The church had always been there, a symbol of hope. Without the children, there were doubts about the future of the church and a loss of hope also.
I was pleased to hear about some other changes people saw. Some commented that their churches had become more ethnically diverse. This has indeed happened in our own congregation where people of a dozen or so different languages now attend.
Several commented that their churches and denominations had become more aware of the social responsibility of the gospel. "Instead of just presenting the word of God in authoritative (or perhaps authoritarian) ways it seems there is a shift to viewing our society as more of a mission field needing some basic felt needs met before lovingly presenting the gospel."
A few wrote that their churches had become less legalistic, with more emphasis on grace for sinners: "I’ve noticed more teaching about how our salvation is all about God's grace and not about following rules..."
I was surprised when one person commented positively about the public church scandals we have seen in recent years. While these sins were horrible, painful and embarrassing, the fact that they were exposed meant that God was purifying the church. This was a hopeful sign that Jesus would soon come for His "spotless lamb."
I was also surprised when one person felt that a decline in attendance was not necessarily a bad thing since it represented a move away from cultural Christianity. The people who now attend are more inclined to be committed followers, not just going through the motions.
What Needs to Change?
Not surprisingly, not all agreed over the direction of worship style. Many saw a "blended" style of worship, which uses both traditional hymns and new music, as a good thing, but there were those who lamented the lessening role of hymns in worship. I think it would be fair to say that those who wrote felt a little conflicted over this. They missed some of the familiar music but appreciated the appeal of newer music to younger members. In this way I think people wished that there was a way to do "both/and."
One person in particular understood the difficulty in bringing together multiple generations and their different approaches. In the future, she predicted, it will take more creativity to bring the traditions together.
Financial responsibility for the future was on the minds of many. Noting that 20, 30, and 40-somethings do not seem to give as much time or money to the church as older age groups, a few suggested that pastors need to teach more about this.
Again, remember that people wrote from the perspective of their own church. Some wrote from churches where it was evident that they felt joy and hope, while others wrote with great concern, pain even.
After trying unsuccessfully to persuade the congregation to change worship style or offer programs for younger families, one person stopped because it seemed there was no desire to change. Was change really necessary when a few large contributors could keep the church going? "Maybe nothing needs to change. So why do I feel like I'm watching a tsunami off shore, slowly getting closer?"
Reluctant or resistant leadership was a common theme. Fearing the "perfect storm" of aging congregations and crumbling buildings, one person suggested that "by the time these demographic factors hit us, I don't think we will be able to adapt."
Another common theme was the mission of the church. Many wrote to say that we must be more intentional in our outreach. "Ask this question: What would my community look like if the Kingdom of God was more visible?" For that person the answer was very personal: "We can’t just sit back and not get our hands dirty, and we certainly can’t expect our religious professionals (read: pastors) to do it for us. Their job is to lead us to give our lives away, not to do it on our behalf! "
Community was important to many who wrote. "The church needs to be more outwardly focussed, more missions oriented at home, and less about maintaining our comfort and security inside the building." The solution, said another, was not to try to recover the culture of Christendom, but to "embrace the reality of living more like the early church. I see the Kingdom moving forward more in grassroot ways than in institutional ways."
Finally, there was the suggestion that the church needs to find new ways of funding ministry, both here and abroad. Why not use internet giving or automatic bank withdrawal? Why not form partnerships with churches in other countries to fund their ministries? Why not sell homegrown curriculum materials like the megachurches do? Why not create small businesses to sell products or services which fund ministry?
I wanted to see how people felt about the state of church and their role in its future. Most OnFire readers are highly involved in their local churches. You have thought a lot about the future and I knew you would provide valuable insight. As you wrote, I saw two important themes I want to respond to.
False Opposites: Organization VS Organism
I sense growing tension between "organization" and "organism." There is an ever-increasing feeling that we do not need the organization of the church as much as we need to free people to go out into the world to serve in basic ways. In this way ministry is "organic" - growing, changing, dynamic, taking on a life of its own as we engage in hands-on ministry. For many the thought of organization implies sitting through dull and unproductive meetings, when we would rather see the joy of ministry first-hand.
I like organic ministry, and indeed it is exciting to be on the "front lines." But I also think we have to be careful not to discard something very valuable as we discover the power of organic ministry. In Acts 6, the apostles actually created organization in order to feed the poor more effectively. Some ministry is too valuable or too big to be left to a few passionate individuals and this is why God gifted some to be administrators. Let us not let the pendulum swing too far in extremes. Organization and organism are not opposites.
Change or Die
Change is a reality all of our churches must face, but lots of factors lead us to resist it. We have invested a lot of energy to make things the way they are. It takes more energy to change direction, and we don’t always feel up to the task. There is the risk that we may lose congregation members. Someone may disagree with us or criticize us, or we may miss the mark all together.
Change is not all bad, however. Obviously, if we get it right we will see renewal. But more than that, change is an opportunity to see God’s image in people. God is creative, and this did not stop after He made the world. When we set our minds to a problem and rely upon Him for direction and answers, we begin to see the creativity which is part of His image in us.
Those of us in church leadership, whether as pastors or as lay people, need to think carefully about our role in change. Is it true that we sometimes resist change? Do we go along with change reluctantly, or only when we see no other option? Do we sometimes lack courage? Do we sometimes block new leadership? These are tough, but important questions, and if we put them off too long it may be too late.
OnFire is a weekly letter on authentic faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published Feb 23, 2010. Scripture references taken from the New International Version. To subscribe or reply, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Archives are located at www.onfireletter.com Blog located at http://onfireletter.blogspot.com