Thursday, 18 June 2015

Church Growth Strategies: 'Change the worship'

I often find myself reflecting upon the Stanley Hauerwas quote:

'Church growth strategies are the death rattle of a church that has lost its way.'

The problem is that , generally speaking, we love all these strategies and so we are often found rushing to grasp, like starving refugees, at the aid wagons driven by the theoreticians and the 'encouraging' sorts who bring the stuff to our doors. The problem is that hungry people will clamour for what they have on offer and so swallow the fare before them without ever questioning exactly what it is that is going on. 'We're starving - feed us,' we cry!

Our innate desire to continue to exist means that we drink water muddied by spin and eat every morsel handed out before us regardless of what it is - indeed a hungry man will eat strange foods - you only have to see some of the tripe on the Christian TV channels to realise that!

We cling to every word of the stories of success that those on the wagon tell us; the tales of great new works and successful churches and we dream of that city called 'success' where the streets are paved with gold and long to be citizens of it also. we pray that God will send Willow Creek to our failing congregation or that we, academy-like, might be adopted by some mega-grouping: 'O God, make us to be like [insert church or group name here]. Send us the image of the blessed [insert leader name here] that we might follow them and, believing their words, be raised from the dead,' they cry.

Now I'm someone who is taken up with Church and making it more effective in its mission. I want to see people reached by the Gospel and I take no greater pleasure than to see someone come into relationship with God through the cross of Jesus (the Christ) and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, take up their right place in the body of the Church as they do whatever it is that God has for them to do. The problem is that I engage with people who appear to want  to 'do' Church  rather than be it.

I meet people from churches where the numbers are diminishing almost as quickly as the candles on the birthday cakes increase and this is truly a nasty reality to be living in.

Yet although I believe that there is much strength and wisdom to be found in the older members of the congregation there is also the sadness that some churches appear to have nothing under the age of fifty in their ranks and this makes them desperate. They see the speed meter falling and realise that those who would have once powered the congregation and supported the works are becoming less due to age and death and so some of the following appear on the horizon as ways forward.

If you happen to read this (or the points to come) then I'd welcome, after you've prayed and thought about them, some comment on them. Give me some solid thinking and some insights gleaned from God and your own experiences - we might actually find we can work together and be of some use to the Church if we do.

i. Change the 'worship'
What great idea this isn't! This is one of the cries of those who see an ageing church and think the way forward is to become 'relevant' (which means 'play the music I like').

Bin the organ, gas the choir and bring in lead, rhythm and bass guitars, add some drums and some overly exuberant singers (thankfully we've dispensed with rainbow coloured guitar straps and chunky pullovers) and you've cracked it! 

You have managed to make the church look so different it is exactly like all the other churches around you and even if the music is excellent - you're still looking at the same market in terms of consumers i.e the converted!

Whenever I encounter this approach I find that the only tangible effect (outside of the noise) is the fact that many of the stalwart (stale wart?) members pack their bags and head for a place where choir, hymn and the more traditional church are to be found: Any growth is transfer rather than converted - and that isn't church growth, it's merely signing up rentacrowd (until the next sparkling fad is announced somewhere that is).


So please stop thinking of liturgy as words and worship as music: It isn't!

And an impassioned plea

If you don't have the musicians (music group or organist and choir) then please look at using 'proper' backing tracks for the hymns and songs. The number of times I have visited places where they are using a 'worship' CD with the audience clapping and singing along and the musicians going off into some heavenly riff and ad lib free worship - and this just doesn't do it properly. 
(I once managed to find a track I thought was a straight rendition of a song I wanted to teach some people but, failing to play it all the way through, never realised that they sung the last verse as a reprise in French! Sacré bleu and all that sort of thing!)

I am just a little tired of the places where the leader is also the DJ. Unless you're doing something club-like then it's in the wrong place.

Please note that I am not against guitars or anything in church, but I am against those who claim that Church can only be done in a certain manner using certain strategies and styles. 

I don't care whether you are high, central or low church, as long as you preach the Gospel and tend the flock and serve the community around you then everything else is optional.

But the hour is coming, and is now here, 

when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, 
for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.     John 4



Anonymous said...

Your first quote makes me think of the Diocese of Birmingham's current "Growing Younger" strategy!!

Interesting read thank you.

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Hmm - that's worrying (I think) :-)

There will be a few of the strategies coming along and 'the Young' is one of them that will be considered.

Thanks for the comments,


HetScam said...

For a long time, I believe the Lord has been calling His church to prayer and to holiness. Until we get to grips with this, He will continue to bring us quite literally to our knees. When I have tried to get this across, I am either met with blank looks or an eager 'Oh yes, we do that in our church,' followed by a long-winded 'prayer,' which suggests that not one word of I have tried to say has not been heard! I am no longer sure that many who attend church on a regular basis have ever truly grasped what it is to pray. If we can wrestle with this, then I believe everything else will fall into place. Different styles of worship suit different congregations, it is a question of being in tune with God and starting where we are - even if you are a bunch of nonagenarians. Strategies that worked for another Church will never translate into success in your own Church unless or until they are infused by the Holy Spirit.

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Thanks for the comments

We are currently in the middle of two weeks of 24/7 prayer and this is helping some people to get it - but we certainly don't do enough prayer.

I heartily endorse your comments,


Garth Nathaniel said...

Thank you for this very thought provoking article and some brill points you have made. I find it difficult when musicians perform, and produce a note perfect performance, but they have not entered themselves into worship. IF they haven't gone into the holiest of all in worshipping how can they draw the gathered into that place of worship.

JonG said...

Oi! I still use a rainbow guitar strap!

Rather than reply straight away, I have been thinking about this, but I am still not sure my reply will be anything better than some random thoughts and observations ramblings.

I've been attending churches my entire life, from tiny chapels, Brethren meetings with what I shall be kind and call a capella hymn singing, through fairly traditional Baptist and Anglican churches, and occasional Catholic service, to enormous independents with semi-professional house bands, and names that you would recognise as writes. I played the hymns in assembly for three years at junior school as part of a pretty decent school orchestra. I speak the language, and I know the music. And by and large, I enjoy the music - and my home music collection, though very heavily slanted in a certain direction, also includes Gregorian chants and Bach organ music.

But I am unusual, I always have been, and have become more so as I have got older. Fewer and fewer people have that background, and I am always conscious of what impression they might get if they walk into a typical (whatever that might mean) British church. Another experience from school was of a deputy headmistress reading from the AV because "the language is just So beautiful" and being painfully aware, as one with a slight interest in what people thought of the Bible, of the beauty going way over the heads of all the spotty oiks sat there, myself included at age 14. I know very well that the message most took from it was that this Bible stuff is incomprehensible bilge that has absolutely no relevance to my daily life.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I am involved in the leadership of a church, and in the music. This was a church that was losing the handful of young people it still had as they reached mid teens, had a somewhat larger handful of young-ish adults, and was heavily weighted towards the older age group. One Sunday, we put on a special service for some reason that I forget now, and we had a lot of visitors who were not regular churchgoers - including at least one nominal muslim.
I certainly found it a very uplifting service, and the reaction from the visitors was equally positive, but I was brought back to earth with a bump by the comment from another of the (actualyl middle-aged, rather than elderly) church leaders: "Very nice, but we don't want That sort of thing every week." The word "That" was half spat.
And, no, I did not expect to dot "that sort of thing" every Sunday, but the message was clear: it is about what We are comfortable with, not what might seem meaningful to anyone new. At the time, I was also involved in the planning for a major local mission with other churches, and it was one of various incidents which ultimately led to my leaving that church - I felt that I could not in all conscience attempt to bring new Christians to a church where a significant part of the church only wanted people to do things Their way - and were not particularly ready even to organise things run that way themselves, but expected others to do so.

JonG said...

More thoughts.

Another observation to make (and I am well aware that this is an observation from my perspective only) is that some friction arises between those who think that more traditional hymns are "their" sort of music, and the typical guitar-led worship songs are "my" sort of music. This is not really the case. If there is anything that classes as "my" sort of music then it would be classic or prog rock, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Genesis etc. But I would not expect to play that style of music in anything like a normal service. And if I want to listen to explicitly Christian music at home, I would play Bride, Iona, or Larry Norman, rather than the typical worship CDs. It is not that I do not appreciate the modern worship music, I love to play or sing Kendrick and Fellingham songs, but to me they work best as part of corporate worship, musically they are more The Seekers or Peter Paul and Mary than Queen or Muse.
What I am trying to get at is that, looked on from a purely selfish point of view, Modern Worship music is, to me, already a compromise, not "the young ones getting their own sort of music" which I am sure is how it is often viewed. Were it entirely up to me, I would quite happily play something by Delirious or even One Bad Pig in church, and I am also going to suggest that much of the horrified reaction that I would get if I ever Did do so would owe far more to worldly aesthetic values than to any justifiable spiritual reasoning.
While writing this I've listened to "Art Carney's Dream" by the Swirling Eddies. For those who don't know it, it is available on YouTube, and the lyrics are easily found online, as they are easily found online too. It would not be an easy song to sing as a part of a service, but the final chorus can bring tears to my eyes just as much as the last verse of And Can It Be or Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah, and might just be more accessible to the unchurched.

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

yeah - I've still got a rainbow guitar strap too :-)

I don't think there is much that can be considered 'wrong' music (although of course giants rap and the like wouldn't ever feature) but the key is to find value in all liturgical styles and all varieties of music. The problem is that some think that abandoning the organ and choir brings growth whilst others think losing the organ and choir means death.

horses for courses: We need to offer as many styles as there are musical tastes (and then three more).

thanks for the thoughtful comments (as ever),


JonG said...

(Before I ramble on any more, I am aware that pretty much all I am saying is about music in church - this is not because I think that music is the be-all-and-end-all of worship, but it is the part with which I am most involved, and perhaps feel most strongly. CS Lewis had Screwtape say that, in Heaven, all that is not music is silence, and I believe that music can take us as close to heaven as anything else on this earth.)

I now have to admit that I am hardly hip with the youth when it comes to the latest music. Any arguments I make for my own preferred style being what we should be playing are just as shaky as someone who says we should rely on the piano, the organ, the lute or lyre, plainsong, or whatever.

Doing a bit of googling, I came across a couple of articles by the same person:

says a lot of what I am trying to get at better than I can. But the other piece makes it plain that this is not a new conflict:

and there are others not listed there- Protestants decrying the organs in Catholic churches as "the devil's bagpipes, Wesley setting his hymns to popular and sometimes rather bawdy music-hall tunes, or the comment about the then-popular style that Ira Sankey chose for his hymns: "... it is sometimes difficult to realise that what we hear is sacred song ..."

And yet so many revivals have been strongly linked to such music.

So why do the conservatives of each generation praise the music that a previous generation regarded as tainted? I am sorry to have to say that I believe that it is one of the weapons that the enemy uses against the Church. I do not find it difficult to imagine Screwtape coaching Wormwood on how to keep us tied up in making our worship seem irrelevant to any outsider who might take a peek through our doors, and taking particular delight in having us fooled that our motivation is holiness. Sadly, so often we have been tricked into seeing as holiness what is, in fact, completely unjustified self-righteousness. And I believe that the harm to our message is immense.

(On a similar note, I had a brief chat recently after reading of someone saying that he would take the Bible more seriously if there were some jokes in it, or if Jesus told some jokes, or something like that. My friend commented that half of the parables could be started "Have you heard the one about the man who..." but, in the spurious name of holiness, we carefully read these passages in such a way as to hide the humour, sounding like the "and, in a very real sense, I think that God is rather like that, don't you?" parodies of Thought for the Day etc.)

As for me, I am getting older and more stuck in my own ways. I pray that I can be like the elderly lady who was asked what she thought of the service that the students in the church had just taken. "Terrible" she said, "do lets have them again soon.

No more rambling, I promise.

Kenneth Cross said...

Thanks for highlighting this. I believe that we rarely look at the root of the problem behind this: fear. Fear of us becoming non-existent and not relevant and (let's be frank) fear that those of us who are paid (who carry much of the decision making power) will lose our jobs! These are usually mixed up with genuinely good motives - related to mission and bringing the liberating news of Christ to folks - but the fear taints everything. Fear only every produces defensiveness and ultimately despair and we need to name it as the curse that it is.
We need to be brave enough to lose our self-consciousness as the church. We are often hopelessly self-obsessed and worried about our image and survival (reminiscent of tribal Israel and Judah who the prophets spoke to, or the 'Israel' of Jesus' day whose end he predicted), and this produces all sorts of delusions and distortions. I believe that if we would let go of this and do what we are called to do and be - rooted deeply in our faith (whether it be expressed as high or low or whatever) and broad in our welcome to all. We need to be in and with people on a level as Christ to them and receiving them as Christ, no exceptions. This may not put bums on seats - and frankly, who cares if it does or doesn't. The Spirit may in fact be far outside our theological and ecclesiastical bounds among the most surprising and 'irreligious' people, and we may be shutting her out through fear. Perfect love drives out fear!
In fact, it may be that in our dying, something new emerges.....which strangely resonates with this thing called the gospel that we say we believe but (in my case anyway) we in fact do anything to avoid!!
So the death throws of the church may in fact may be the labour pains of something altogether new and ancient. Let's not lose our nerve. Lets allow love - already given - to exorcise our fear and give us the courage to self-forget and find life! And somewhere low down the list, our liturgies and music might also find themselves transfigured...
In peace