In a previous post
I discussed a guaranteed method to reduce workloads for overwhelmed pastors and church planters: reduce the number of monthly worship services. In this edition, I ask a related question: do worship services have expiry dates? Or does what we have now work great?
In terms of expiration, high church liturgies don’t update or shift much at all. Evangelical liturgy doesn’t change much either. 5 songs, announcements, and someone preaching for 45 minutes. In Christendom, these rhythms were familiar to most; today, not so much. There’s nothing specifically wrong with either, but the emerging problems is doing the same thing week in and week out as mainstream culture moves beyond what the church currently offers.
The prevailing thinking behind most contemporary churches is to treat Sunday service as the most important component of the church. Let’s be clear, worship gatherings are important, but they can also become rote tradition disconnected from the world and the faithful. With this in mind, is it time to consider whether we need to rethink our approach to church, including the services, and whether what we have now is past its expiry?
If It Ain’t Broke….
The argument against substantive change is rooted in fear and denial. Fear that change will cause a loss of parishioners to the church down the road. Denial that there’s a problem to begin. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” or so the saying goes.
The odd mega-church, or perhaps your own, seem healthy on the surface. Yet churches can look good on the surface by catering to a continuous flow of already churched people. Underneath there’s negligible conversion growth. This would suggest what we have now isn’t working very well. I would argue part of the reason why is because how we “do” church has expired. Not merely the Sunday service, but how the body functions as participants in the unfolding kingdom.
Mission for All?
There’s an unwritten rule for most career Christians: the more “church” you attend, the better Christian you must be. Is this the result we want to produce as leaders in a post-Christian world? A culture that leaves crucial activities of mission in the hands of the “professionals”? A culture that leaves churches struggling to create replicating discipleship because that notion is too challenging for generations who believe their primary role is to “go to church”?
What we have now also struggles to connect with outsiders, and sometimes even with the already churched. With each ensuing generation, more and more are leaving because what’s left is in-congruent with life beyond the church walls. This isn’t to suggest a solution means “watering” down beliefs, but it does mean a deep effort to find ways to live out the Gospel in ways that don’t rely on dad’s traditions from yesteryear. The first thing we should approach is asking if what we have now needs revamping.
There’s Still A Point
Before we accept the suggestion of expiry, we should ask what’s the point of worship gatherings to begin with? Is it to hear someone preach? Is it to sing a song? Is it to feel good? Is it to connect with community? All of the above? Ultimately, these questions serve to expose the central problem–is the church operating for itself, or for the sake of mission? Within God’s mission I believe gathering is crucial. Despite losing a place of privilege at the center of post-Christian culture, worship is still important for believers. How that worship looks is one shift we need to think about. Gathering hasn’t expired, perhaps the delivery of how we gather has.
Same Stuff, Different Day
Hear this, the change we need, the how worship ought to look, does NOT mean changing largely inconsequential components like music genre or adding stage lights. The change we need is to the core of church function in post-Christendom. If the church service has an expiry, the root cause is deeper than a service. Expiration means doing away with the entire problem. We need something that re-centers church function to mission and away from service format (although presentation of content might need updating).
Don’t hear I’m suggesting we need to stop gathering, nor our change is merely updating the “seeker sensitive” approach. We have enough of those expressions. The change I’m suggesting fundamentally challenges the why and how we gather in a post-Christian world. That world, dare I say, has no pews, Hillsong, or even a Sunday morning.
How to Gather in a Post-Christian World
In a culture that is increasingly post-Christian the church and its format has dwindling relevance. What will take its place? The short answer is I don’t know.
How we gather is the bigger question that can’t be answered in this post, but one that I’m trying to glean more data on by trying to compel practitioners to try new things. We desperately need more expressions seeking what works for specific neighborhoods, spaces, and people. Admittedly, trying something new is much easier in a brand new venture like a church plant. Changing an existing body that’s reliant on tradition is almost impossible.
Nonetheless, if there is an opening for some change here are two simple shifts. One, try cancelling a service. Maybe once a year, or a quarter, or a month. Teach people to live in their neighborhoods with the new time. Practicing deep incarnation presence in the neighborhood with neighbors is a strong witness. Two, do away with the two primary gathering elements: singing and preaching. You don’t have to remove them permanently, but try to reduce their importance.
The why we should gather is rooted in our celebration and return back to the story that God’s mission has us participating in day-by-day. Post-Christendom has given way to the fragmentation of culture where numerous sub-cultures emerge. In its wake the church has remained unchanged, steeped in telling their meta-narrative largely through a single format of the Sunday preacher. Although that works for a few, prevailing culture no longer connects, and many no longer trust, the primary voices of the church. However, core human longings remain in all.
The heart for justice, beauty, purpose, and love are shared attributes. The church has something to say about these things, and the growing “spiritual but not religious” crowd are waiting for answers. We have a lot to offer, primarily through living out the character of Jesus. We’re just missing churches capable of speaking a language that hasn’t expired.