Music, Traditions and Change

Yesterday I opened a discussion of traditions and music and told you about the changes we made in this area and why.  I told you how we approached the difficulty of resistance when we did so, and today I’d like to wrap up the discussion…church_clipart_white

Please understand that we didn’t make our changes over night or in a vacuum.  It all began with a concerted effort to grow our church spiritually not numerically.  I would imagine that if we just tried flipping a switch and went from totally traditional one week, and then totally contemporary the next, there wouldn’t have been anything but chaos as a result.  In addition, our music evolved slowly for a number of reasons such as a lack of people willing to participate; a general lack of talent available in a small congregation, but as time passed, these things changed  With each new success, more people wanted to be part of a winning team, you might say.

Music was not the only tradition that was either done away with or modified, but of course it was the most obvious.  I must mention here once again that when I speak of our traditions, I am referring only to the way we did things, not to the message of Scripture or to any Scriptural imperative. As time went on, something else started to change…

It used to be that baptisms were so infrequent that when there was one, nobody had any idea of what to do, and each time the wheel had to be reinvented… or so it seemed.  People might actually complain that church got out late that day! Baptisms became much more frequent, and pretty soon, everyone involved in the worship service knew exactly what to do:  Oh, there’s a baptism today, great!  Things go almost like clockwork because the results of the things that had been done, beginning with spiritual growth began to pay off in souls won for Jesus Christ.  To be sure, I’m not suggesting that improvements can’t still be made, that process never should stop, but a dramatic shift had taken place.

The time came when we had, instead of an empty auditorium, a need to go to two services, and the day may well come soon when we need either a third service or a new place to meet: God’s will be done!

The funny thing that comes to me in looking back is that I really don’t hear complaints much any more.  I can understand somebody being skeptical about changes at first, but when the harvest starts to come in, the skeptics are gone.  Oh, I’m sure that some day something else will change and it will take a time for a buy-in from certain quarters, but when you are in a place where God is working in your midst, TWWADI doesn’t seem to count for very much.

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Looking at Your Traditions

I must begin by saying that it has been some time since my last post on Church growth.  I had not intended to be so long away (sorry about that) but I’m back at home and it’s time to move forward… so here goes.church_clipart_white

Last time, I was talking about TWWADI (The Way We’ve Always Done It) and proposed to continue with a look at some traditions that we adjusted so as to move forward both spiritually within our congregation and as a result to bring more people to Christ.  The biggest and most visible tradition that we took a look at was our music.

Now I fully realize that this is a controversial subject in many places and it has had fallout in churches for quite some time.  For whatever reason the style of music in a church is often a polarizing subject that breaks a group into two parts:  The first part is often the older group that likes their music the way it’s always been and doesn’t want to hear about doing it differently, and the other group is often the younger ones who want more modern music. We had the same dynamic.

It is tempting to want to try “blended” music as many churches do.  Blended music is a little of each so that nobody is overly irritated… and so that nobody is overly satisfied. I must admit that we did some of the blended music for a time, but not because it was our desire to compromise, but because we lacked the people who could sing the more contemporary tunes.  This is not a good thing!

The thing that I hope you will understand here is not the “what” but instead the “why.”    There are two very important things to consider when music in the worship service is being discussed.  First we need to remember what the purpose of the church is from a Biblical point of view.  Is it to please its members and give them their favorite music… or is it to seek and save the lost?

If the purpose of the church is to please its membership, then take a vote and follow the majority.  If it is to seek and save the lost, then we must take into consideration what will make a visitor, a seeking person who is willing to consider becoming a Christian and give his or her life to the Lord, comfortable enough to let down their guard and take in the message of Salvation.

Before I go any further, I must confess that I prefer the old music, the songs that come from the old Hymnal, you know the ones, they are all a hundred years old or more… some are closer to 500 years old.  When I come home, I also listen to classical music; I am really fond of Baroque music (1600-1750).  Am I representative of those we are supposed to be taking the gospel to?  No, not really.

Most people who are not already church members aren’t familiar with old hymns, but they usually do listen to music, and mostly they listen to music that is more contemporary than not.  If they are visiting a church, it stands to reason that the more that they come into contact with that is familiar and comfortable, the more at home and relaxed they are likely to be, and the more relaxed, the more likely they are to receive the message of the gospel than if they feel utterly out-of-place.  Thus, since there is plenty of very fine Christian music in a contemporary style, why shouldn’t we use it instead of insisting upon our own preferences and losing the opportunity to win a soul for Christ? I have heard it said that if the music isn’t traditional then it also isn’t worship… but consider this:  What is traditional music?  It is nothing more than contemporary music from a different time!  What is style?  It isn’t something from the Bible, it’s something from the culture of man.  If the music faithfully conveys a Christian message than the style is meaningless!

The other thing we should consider is why some of us insist on making no change in music.  A spiritually mature believer will have his or her top priority on the lost, not on their own preferences or habits, thus when people strongly object to any change, they are not telling us that we shouldn’t adjust our music, they are telling us that we need to do a better job of discipleship, that we haven’t taught them enough for them to grow spiritually.  To put it another way, their objection is a teachable moment.  When we patiently and lovingly teach them where our priorities need to be as Christians, we are able to bring them along into greater spiritual maturity and enable our churches to reach people that we haven’t reached before.

I’ll continue this discussion in the next post…

One Week Later

I would imagine that most of us have various impressions of the last week’s news relating to the events in Boston.  Violence, terror, confusion, outrage, sadness, mourning all fit the bill, but of course there are other things as well.

Praise for the first responders, the bravery of so many of those who put their lives on the line to protect the good citizens of the Boston area, and of course heavy concern for those who were killed or injured and their families.  There were many saddening tales of injuries, loss and grief…

There have been a great number of tributes paid, tales told, news reported and images of all kinds that I wouldn’t even attempt to add to those.  For me, there are certainly many questions that still need an answer: How could this happen?  How did these guys expect to get away with their crimes?  Are there more involved?  All of these are on my mind after a week that shocked us all.

I was struck late last week by the many comments from friends and acquaintances of the perpetrators saying that, particularly the younger of the two was such a nice guy, how nobody could have imagined him capable of such acts.   I heard an “expert” who pointed out that whenever there is a horrible crime of violence, the people who knew the murderer or attacker always say these things, and the expert said that they are simply speaking from emotion and didn’t understand the signs involved in such things.  Maybe the gentleman is correct, but this thought stuck with me:

Suppose those people are right; suppose that this guy was the last one that any reasonable person would have suspected to carry out such an outrageous act of violence upon innocent people… what happened?

Looking at this question from a Christian Biblical point of view, I’m struck by something that a “profession” in security might not take into consideration, and that is the fact that there is a difference between “evil” and “Evil.”  The former is a word that we might use to describe a very bad action: “That was an evil thing to do.”  The latter, however is an active, searching and driving force that is seeking to turn otherwise decent people into monsters.  It is in fact the spiritual enemy of the Christian.  It seeks to corrupt, destroy and foul anybody who lets it into their lives, and it is something that we must take very seriously.

I am normally one of the last people to over-spiritualize things, please understand that.  However, the Bible teaches us that we are on the front lines of a spiritual war, and we must take that seriously.

 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Ephesians 6:12

It is incumbent upon us to protect our young from opening themselves to Evil; to take up the sword that is God’s Word to oppose it, and to be fervent prayer warriors for Jesus Christ, to boldly pray not just for safety from evil, which is the approach that our civil authorities must take, but rather to pray boldly for the utter destruction of that Evil which has plagued this world for so many centuries, and to pray boldly that the cross of will triumph over sin and death in the hearts of the people.

Looking Outward

As a Christian begins to mature in his or her faith, he or she begins to realize that the Christian life is about more than just what we want, what we like and meeting our needs, for the Christian life is about serving God by serving others in a way that advances God’s purpose.  Clearly, this is what Jesus mode;ed to us in everything that he did on this earth.  This is what the Apostles did, and this is what we are called to do; there is no greater satisfaction in the life of any mature believer than in seeing someone give their life to Christ, and we along with the hosts of heaven rejoice every time this happens. When a large enough percentage of a congregation reaches the point where their focus is on serving rather than upon being served, a local church can begin to shift its focus to the lost and away from serving its existing members.  Of course this is not to suggest that we ignore them; not by a long shot.  In fact, when you reach this point, there will be more done to help one another than ever before, but it won’t be the focus.church_clipart_white

I mentioned when telling you about our “phase 2” that we were trying to train up people to lead our small group ministry, and this we did.  Small groups meet in the homes of members to study the Bible in a relational way.  The people in the small groups get to know one another well; they become friends while learning to apply the Bible in their lives.  When one of them is hurting, the group finds out and answers the need; the group leader becomes in essence a pastor of a manageable number of people and sees to their needs.  Often, needs are met without the larger church body even knowing about them, and it isn’t just the ministerial staff that serves these needs, it is now the people who hadn’t ever done so before… they have become disciples in the truest sense.  As a by-product, something else happens on Sunday morning; after the worship service, people hang around and visit.  When a new person comes to church, there really isn’t any great need for “greeters” because everyone has become aware of who is new, and since they have become aware of the need to reach out, they greet new people as though they were family… and nobody ever told them to do it. Why is this?  It’s simple, they’ve grown up in their faith and are looking, entirely on their own, for people to serve.

Here is a key factor in church growth that is often overlooked:  When enough members of a local church become more spiritually mature, Jesus will use them to grow the church by either bringing guests or forming relationships with the guests brought by others.  It is not the Senior Pastor’s job alone, nor is it the job of a “hired gun” or of “professionals,” it will happen when the people become disciples of Christ in fact as well as in name.

This brings us to the other side of the coin, so to speak, and that is how the worship service will be “targeted.” This is a point at which we made a critical mistake that slowed our progress down, for we targeted the wrong group.

The thought process went something like this:  Our congregation is aging, which will sound familiar to many.  We were on a course where the day would come when we would all die off and that would be that, so we need to bring in younger people, who of course would not be comfortable in such an old group…  We made 2 decisions, one was a good one and the other was not.  The good one was that we decided to target males rather than females.  The bad decision was that we would target a young demographic; 18-34 thinking that 1) this is an age group that most churches miss entirely, and 2) that we would gain  young families which are vital to long-range growth.  Before you go crazy on me, these two things were our main focus, but not to the exclusion of anyone else.

Why men?

This seems to run counter to the current culture, but then so is the Bible.  It isn’t that we didn’t want women; nothing like that! It was simply a matter of observation over a long period of time.  When a woman decides to follow Christ and her husband does not, she comes to church by herself, or with very young children.  When the children reach the age of 12 or 13, they most often stay home on Sunday with Dad.  The fact that the wife attends church and the husband does not also create problems in the home, and eventually, most of the wives quit coming… or the couple splits up.  On the other hand, when Dad decides to attend church, you get the entire family, including teenagers, and there isn’t a divide between husband and wife; everyone is better off.

The real question should be: Why don’t so many men like church?  We got some ideas about this just walking around and actually looking at the place.  Most men don’t put floral arrangements everywhere in their homes. Most men don’t choose color schemes that are light pastels.  Most men don’t look forward to a Father’s Day sermon about how worthless they are as fathers and husbands.  Most men don’t really think that every single conversation needs to be about love, feelings and warm fuzzies, but since the 1970’s churches have gone in that direction to appeal to the feminism in the culture. In the process, men began to drift away from the church in vast numbers…

When we fixed up our facilities in phase 1, we used a decidedly masculine color scheme and decor; the flowers are gone.  Activities and events shifted from nice social things to purposeful ministries that either built a culture of service or reached out to the lost directly.  We started to balance our preaching, away from 90% love and warm fuzzies, 10% everything else, to a Scriptural balance.  God’s unfailing love is mentioned frequently, but not just as an abstract concept.  Now it is direct application in context and is discussed in relevant passages that show God’s love as it really is, not just as in “let’s all feel good today.” We no longer dance on eggshells when teaching passages that relate the actual Scriptural role of men in the family. It is amazing how God will bless the church when His Word is taught with accuracy!  Our numbers of women grew.  Our numbers of whole families grew.  Our numbers of men grew. All began to serve the Lord.

Our demographic assumptions turned out to be wrong, and after 2 years or so, we had to adjust to suit the realities of the community.  After the 2010 Census we came to understand that our community was overwhelmingly older and more affluent that we had thought so we changed ou focus to 35-55. A few months later, things began to click.

In our next post, we’ll take another look at TWWADI and go through some of the adjustments made in that area.

Basic Communication

As we continue on with our look at church growth, I think it would be beneficial to review some basics of elementary communication to see if there is an application to growing a church, and of course I mean growing first in the sense of spiritual growth and then its natural result, growing in numbers. As an undergraduate, over 30 years ago, I studied communication, and the one thing that I can remember, perhaps more than any other thing that my professors taught was that the first rule of communication was to know your audience. Certainly you wouldn’t speak to your grandmother the way you might speak to your college-age friends.  You wouldn’t address the President the way you’d address the guys on your bowling team, and you wouldn’t make a presentation to an audience of college professors in the same way you would to a group of elderly women.church_clipart_white

This is actually more of an issue in churches than you might think, particularly when a congregation is diverse, for not all Peoples and backgrounds have the same frames of reference.  When I started this blog, my idea was to comment of frames of reference that people have, and how they affect our view of the things around us.  For example, when I have been teaching in church to a group of people who are mostly in their 50’s and 60’s, I might use as an example a cultural reference to a TV show, commercial or song from the 1960’s.  If I used that same example to a group of people in their 20’s or 300’s, they would probably have no clue what I was talking about, and if I mentioned Lady Gaga to the older group, they would be clueless, as I am.  (Just a name I heard on the radio this morning)

I have been strongly criticized in some comments on this series of posts because I have used some modern terms that come out of the world of communication such as “vision statement” and “rollout.” It seems that when some Christians see these terms used, they assume that I must be running some of a scam, entirely disregarding the message of Scripture and putting together a phony kind of church that is built on tricks and entertainment, containing no spiritual truth… You might ask why I used these terms to describe what went on instead of more traditional Biblical terms meaning the same thing.  For example, I could have said that we ‘proclaimed our vision of the Body of Christ as exhortations to the flock to repent from their wicked ways and follow the Lord with faithfulness.’  I didn’t put it that way because who understand that other than preachers, seminary professors and old school Christians who only read King James?  They are not my (here’s another one from communication) “Target audience.”  Why are these fine folks not my target audience?  Simple: They already know it all, and wouldn’t even consider what I am saying here!

Here are a couple of examples from the Bible:  First, Jesus frequently used analogies relating to agriculture to communicate His message to the people.  He did that because he was speaking to people who lived in first century Judea and the areas surrounding it who lived in an agrarian economy where the major production was in grapes used for wine-making, wheat used for bread making, fishing and the raising of sheep for food and wool.  Do you suppose He would have used the same examples if the area was one that raised tomatoes and artichokes?  Of course not; who would have understood all that sheep stuff?  When we teach those passages today, we must explain it to modern-day Americans; Jesus didn’t have that problem because his audience knew exactly what He was talking about.

Consider the apostle Paul.  Did he present the message in the same terms to Greeks as he did to Jews in Judea?  Of course not; the Greeks didn’t know much of anything of the Jewish Scriptures.  When Paul spoke to the Athenians on Mars Hill did he present the gospel like he had presented it everywhere else?  No, he knew his audience! Consider the synoptic gospels: Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience, Mark to a Roman audience and Luke to a Greek audience.  They all present the same exact message, but they do it in different ways…

In a nutshell, church growth comes down to one problem that leads to other problems which are really a subset of the first one: That main problem is how do we get our current congregations mature enough spiritually so that we can shift out target audience away from them and on to the lost who so desperately need to hear about Jesus Christ? If you are perceptive, you might realize that I just restated my TWWADI post to reach a different audience!

I have already described what we did to accomplish this.  Our approach was in Vision rollout phases 1 and 2.  First, in phase 1 we pointed them to the Great Commission and got their attention.  In phase 2 we actively stepped up our educational efforts to teach them Scriptural application in daily life.  The next step in the process was to shift the target audience for everyone from selfish things to reaching out to the lost, and that discussion begins tomorrow.

TWWADI: Church Killer

OK, What is TWWADI?

It’s “The Way We’ve Always Done It” Another word for this is “Tradition.” I think I’d rather use TWWADI because I’ve learned that as soon as I say tradition, I have a fight on my hands…church_clipart_white

Let’s get this out-of-the-way right at the beginning: I’m not saying that all traditions are bad, but I am saying that all traditions can be dangerous, just like matches aren’t bad, but they can be dangerous.  Here’s what I’ve observed over the years: People within a given local church develop over a period of time a certain way of doing things.  These things are safe, regular, routine, predictable and comforting.  After a while, people attend worship and look forward to their traditions, in fact when they visit another church while out-of-town, they can almost feel like it wasn’t really “church” because that church had slightly different traditions and ways of doing things.

For example, I’ve had people tell me that if the music in worship wasn’t from a hymnal, it just didn’t feel like worship to them.  This is TWWADI.  The next thing I’ve noticed is that once a local group has TWWADI in sufficient quantity, their spiritual growth comes to a grinding halt.  There is a very good reason for this, for you see, TWWADI happens in a setting in which our personal preferences take a priority position, and what is the manifestation of personal preference called in Bible terms?  SELF, yes that thing we were supposed to have put to death.  A church that is all about TWWADI is almost always also all about self.  If you don’t believe me, try tweaking the TWWADI and see what happens…

Here is a trustworthy saying: A person who is mature in Christ, who is a selfless servant of the Lord, fully understands that his or her personal preferences regarding worship and church, are utterly irrelevant.  To be clear, I am not talking about aspects of worship that are Biblical, I am talking about things that are not Biblical, such as the style of music or preaching.

We know that worship in the New Testament contained singing spiritual songs, fellowship, the “apostles’ teaching” the breaking of bread and of prayer.  It is safe to say that nearly all scholars would say that in modern terms this would be music, fellowship, Communion, a sermon (or lesson) from Scripture and prayer.  The style of the music, the way Communion is served, the time and style of prayer, the way the lesson is given and the manner and nature of the fellowship are all TWWADI. When you reach the point where the people can go through the motions without really giving much of a thought to anything, they will grow no further spiritually.

Most traditional churches in America, and by that I mean most churches that do things the way they’ve always done them, are following customs and practices that would have been reasonably familiar in the 19th Century; certainly they would have been familiar in the 1930’s and 1960’s.  In the late 19th Century, the church in general was very influential in the culture, and non-believers who would have come in to hear the message would have felt reasonably comfortable; the same is true of the 1930’s.  By the 1960’s, however, the culture had shifted quite a bit.  Music had changed, language had changed and expectations had changed… and large numbers of people were no longer attending church.  After 50 years, most of a generation quit attending church, and the influence of the church in general in the culture was pretty much lost.  What do you think America will look like if this trend continues for another 50 years?

A significant reason that the church began to shrink over this time was that its TWWADI didn’t change when the culture did, at least not to any significant degree.  At the same time, congregations held on to TWWADI ever more strongly as a bulwark against the crazy culture around them and they didn’t grow spiritually in Christ so their outreach stagnated and became less and less effective, resulting in a gospel that was seldom spread.  Oh, I know there were very hard-working people during this time.  There were evangelists like Billy Graham who did wonderful work, for instance, but their efforts didn’t reverse this tidal shift to darkness within the culture in general, nor did they stem the flow of people out of their local churches.

Some church groups did try to change their TWWADI, but in a large measure, they did the wrong things, and rather than change the way they presented the message, they compromised the message itself, and God will not bless such things.  Some tried becoming more “socially relevant” but this too was not the kind of “making disciples” that the church is called to do, and their efforts have largely been in vain.

Yes, TWWADI is a potential church-killer, both on an individual basis and on a larger level.  In the next post on this topic, let’s take a look at specific things that make up TWWADI and see if there can be change within local churches that can stem this tide.

Hint: Yes, there are, and without ever compromising the message of the gospel or the purity of Scripture!

Stranger in a Strange Town

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For the past few days I’ve been here in our Nation’s Capital, and what a different place it is!  This isn’t the slow-paced Midwest I’ve become used to, no, this place is big city.  The traffic is horrific, the streets are crowded and there are people everywhere who are in a big hurry to be somewhere else.  When you talk to them, they seem to have a whole different point of view on things.  Everywhere I’ve been has a long list of rules, people to enforce them and people following the rules without complaint; nothing like what I’m used to!

The weather is chilly, these good folks think it’s cold, the cherry blossoms are just starting to pop out, and the traffic, did I mention the traffic?

As different as things seem at first, there are some things that feel more like home.  For instance, there are many people in this area who are brothers or sisters in Christ.  It really doesn’t make any difference what the local culture is when you come across one of these, for they are like running into a family member you haven’t seen in a long time, and the funny thing is that you can tell who they are.  Maybe it’s something in their look or their walk, I’m not sure.  Even I who can’t really see very well can tell…

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

Psalm 133:1

We may not always agree on what goes on in this place, but we are united in the things of God, and those are the things that count.