Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Songwriter Bill Gaither once sang, "Let the church be the church. Let the people rejoice." While he was exalting the One True Church, there are many folks in local congregations today who are saying, "Let the church be the church, but what exactly does that mean?"

Even though the vast majority of churches in the United States have fewer than 100 members, the attention seems to be on the so-called "mega-churches" with attendance in the thousands each week. Smaller churches by the score have adopted some of the techniques and practices.  Many churches use (to some extent or another) contemporary arrangements in their music.  Their pastors have shed the suit and tie look.  There is a greater emphasis on looking, feeling, and being a church for the 21st century, where Christians and unsaved "seekers" alike can feel comfortable.

Already, the readers are taking sides. Let me state for the record, that I have no problems with "mega-churches." Obviously, those that reject the Word of God or otherwise clearly teach false doctrine need to be examined closely, but as I've read commentary about mega-churches, it's clear that a lot of criticism is based on envy, not on substantiated fact. A common observation is "since they've grown so large, so fast, they must be a cult." That's not the case. One could just as easily say that the small church is small because they are not being blessed by God. Bottom line: the size and style of the congregation is irrelevant to this discussion. Having been in a mega-church environment and having served in a small church environment, I can testify that both have very similar challenges, albeit on different scales.

Yet in spite of the whole "seeker sensitive", contemporary church movement, some studies have shown that people are leaving the church in droves. As Group Publishing's Thom Shultz observed in a recent blog,
"Over the last year, while working on a major documentary film that examines America’s state of faith and the condition of the church, I’ve talked with hundreds of people. Many of these are de-churched. They’re done with the organized church. In some cases, they’re wounded. In other cases, they’re simply disinterested."("The De-Churched: Why They Left," Holy Soup with Thom Shultz)
I'm certainly no expert, nor do I claim to have all the answers.  In fact, my thoughts today may very well be different a year or two or ten from now. But at the moment, I'm wondering if the very things that have attracted people to church might also be the things driving them away. I had a friend who professed no real faith and didn't care much for church.  But one Sunday, at the invitation of a friend, he visited a "seeker sensitive", contemporary church. I asked him later what he thought.  He said everything was good...good music, good atmosphere, nice people.  Even the speaker was engaging. But he would not go back, because it didn't feel like "church."

I believe, deep down inside, we want to connect with something bigger and grander than ourselves. I'm not defending the ultra-ritualistic church, mind you (and high worship is not my particular preference), but at least they've nailed the basic premise: God is bigger than us. Although my friend confused style with intent, his memories told him that church music was grand and a little hard to understand because God was grand and maybe a little hard to understand. The pastor wore a suit and tie because he represented the King of Kings. And when the pastor spoke from the Bible, it was eloquent because the subject matter was exalted.  There seems to be a need for tradition, for ritual, and for "deepness" in our hearts. We want to be overwhelmed by majesty.

Once again, this is not a criticism of the contemporary style of worship, for there is an equally legitimate purpose for this as well.  We do need to be sensitive to seekers and visitors, and we need to be aware that not everyone we're trying to reach speaks "church-ese." On the other hand, we need to figure out how not to alienate those who want, need, and feel comfortable with ritual, tradition, and the whole language of the church. This is the challenge of the 21st century church.

So to answer the original question: "Let the church be the church, but what does that mean?" I believe the answer is "yes."

Just thinking out loud....

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