These days, there seems to be no end to the ever-growing stream of articles (usually heavily accented by bulleted or numbered lists), telling churches, pastors, and Christian leaders what they are doing wrong. In the spirit of being helpful, most of these writers are trying to help churches to reach out to their communities, grow, and be intentional about the whole church thing. That’s great—to a point. As a college chaplain, I have taken many of the points in such articles as helpful hints for us when we think about welcoming the campus community to our worship and programming space. However, I can also relate to those pastors and church leaders who read such articles and throw up their hands, saying, “Forget it! There’s no way my congregation would ever go along with any of these suggestions!”
Bless you, pastors and lay leaders, if you have ever felt inadequate because of what someone once said you were doing wrong in your going about being the church in the world. For you, I offer the following numbered list of things that you are probably doing “wrong,” along with explanations of why that’s o.k.
- Providing unprofessional, sometimes messy and slightly out of tune music.
I remember the church service where we heard the most out of tune, tremolo-filled, and scratchy solo ever forced upon the people called Methodist. The soloist, however, was quite proud of having been asked to sing, and sang her heart out to the Lord, with all her might. Everyone there understood in that holy moment that it was not the quality of the “performance” that mattered, but the heartfelt expression of this person’s love for God and her fellow Christians.
Church, it’s good to have clear and singable worship music, and musicians who show a level of care and professionalism in their leadership of singing, but we shouldn’t idolize perfection in the name of “excellence.” Yes, God wants us to bring our best, but our best may not always be professional quality. Some of us could use a reminder that the scriptures tell us to “Make a joyful noise to the Lord,” (Psalm 100:1) sometimes with extra emphasis on the “joyful,” even if that joy sounds to our ears like a lot of “noise.”
- Not having seventeen “touch points” for first-time visitors.
I know what the research says—people need to feel welcomed in worship if they are ever to come back. Make sure your visitors make six new friends in the first six weeks. Have a welcome gift that someone takes and gives to first-time visitors within 24 hours of their first visit. Connect. Touch base. Whatever you do, don’t let them get away! That’s all well and good, but some of us are terrified by such things!
As a chaplain, I have the opportunity to visit many churches for the first time. It’s always nice to be greeted by smiling friendly faces, and even to be introduced around a bit. But it can be really disconcerting to a newbie to be confronted by 30 such smiling friendly faces within the first three minutes of arriving at worship! It’s good to have greeters, but consider having greeters who are sensitive to the fact that people respond well to different levels of welcoming intensity is key. If you don’t always provide seventeen “touch points” for every single visitor, that’s fine, as long as you are keyed into the fact that different visitors require different approaches.
- Preaching that is sometimes dull and “teachy.”
I get it—dull preachers not only turn away new folks, but they might just bore away the faithful committed members. I also get that not every sermon hits it out of the park (a metaphor that went over like a lead balloon when I used it in a sermon in England once—they don’t so much know about baseball metaphors!) Even the greatest of the great preachers have a bad day, and sometimes certain passages of scripture just lend themselves to more extensive teaching rather than three points and a poem. You know what? Sometimes, the sermons that I thought were the dullest and least inspiring, some of my very worst stinkers, were the ones where someone from the congregation would come up to me and say, “That’s exactly what I needed to hear today!” God works through even the driest material sometimes. If what was required of us as preachers was to give an awe-inspiring sermon every seven days, regardless of what has been happening in the parish or in the community, then we would go through ministry without paying much attention to what’s going on around us. Those weeks that I had three funerals, two pre-marital counseling sessions, and a visit in every hospital in the county? Those weeks did not have very polished sermons, but they were the weeks when my preaching most relied on the work of the Holy Spirit to get us all through.
- Traditional music/worship.
The experts all tell us that traditional is dead. Hymns are passé. Robed preachers and choirs are on their way out. Formal liturgy is off-putting. If you recognize yourself in any of those statements, then everyone knows you’re doomed to a slow and painful death, right?
Not necessarily. I have experienced beautiful so-called “traditional” worship–with robes, choirs, Eucharist, liturgy, and all the smells and bells–which has lifted the worshippers closer to God than any contemporary-music fest worship in which I’ve ever participated. Done well, such traditional worship can be breathtaking, inspiring, and yes, will attract young people. Traditional doesn’t have to mean boring, and ritual doesn’t have to become rote. To me (and I suspect, to others as well), one of the most beautiful expressions of worship can be found in the ancient words of Orthodox prayers being said in an incense-filled nave, while the priest enacts the ancient liturgy of the miracle of Christ coming among us from within the sanctuary. Such worship can seem totally foreign to modern sensibilities and style, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing—sometimes we could all use a little mystery in our faith.
- Contemporary music/worship.
On the opposite side of the coin of the above comment is the notion that so-called “contemporary” music and worship are wrong. Comments such as, “It’s all just a show,” and “There’s no theological meat on those bones” are quite common among the worship snobs I know and love. I’ve even caught myself saying such things, and I work in an environment where we encourage the use of contemporary music and worship forms! This idea is as empty as the previous one, because it doesn’t necessarily hold true.
Contemporary worship and music don’t have to be banal and shallow expressions of the faith. Indeed, some contemporary worship music has taken me to new heights of theological reflection that I had not encountered before. The first time I sang the David Crowder band’s lyrics “heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss,”* I was thrown into a long theological reflection on how God meets us in the “thin places” of our lives, and how God’s love meets us in unexpected ways. Such lyrics can be deep sources of theological reflection if we just give them a chance. Contemporary music is no less dangerous to the overall message of the Church than is traditional music.
Church, it’s time for us to stop listening to the list-makers and the ecclesiastical pundits, and time to start listening to the Holy Spirit. In the still small spaces of our sanctuaries and chapels, if we are quiet long enough and seek after God’s heart fervently enough, we might just occasionally find the Spirit moving among us, enlivening our communities and enriching our worship. No technique or gimmick can ever replace the powerful transformation that takes place when a person meets the loving God for the first time within the context of a community of faith. No list of do’s and don’ts could ever give an exhaustive account of what we need to be about, because what we need to be about is helping to usher in the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven. If we only listen to the naysayers, we run the risk of not being open to the fact that God just might take our messiness and turn it into something beautiful that is exactly what the world needs right now.
So, are you doing some things wrong with your church? Probably. But we’ve been doing them for 2,000 years, and God hasn’t given up on us yet. That gives me hope, and I pray that it gives you hope, too.
*Yes, I know that the original lyrics read “sloppy wet” in place of “unforeseen,” but those are the lyrics I first heard, so deal with it! Either way, they provide interesting fodder for theological reflection.