Sunday, April 13, 2008

Change

Really interesting church service today. But before it, our worship leader talked about worship through the ages. He started by having us repeat a phrase in latin, a language we didn't know and one that most early worshipers didn't know either. Then he added some musical notes behind it, the sort of lyrical/liturgical chanting still done in some Catholic and Lutheran churches. Then a few more notes. Then spoke of the reformation where one of Martin Luther's contributions was that music started being sung in the common language of the people. Theirs German, ours English. So then we begun singing "On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand." And then additional verses. And then organ. And then more instruments. And different styles. And the influence of Negro Spirituals and Gospel. And electric guitars. It was rather interesting. I had to laugh near the end and lean over to Lori and say "I'm glad they didn't just stop in the 50's like most churches." (This has been something that has been a bone of contention with me.. so many churches' refusal to continue to evolve* and grow and stay relevant. Beyond occasionally stealing from corporate America in a blatant misunderstanding of the terms "fair use" and "parody.")

*Yeah, I get the irony.

And then the Pastor started the service talking about his complaint that they had changed the Safeway he liked to buy candy bars at. (The new subtle changes they've been rolling out to Pavillions, Vons and Safeways nationwide - new softer lighting, nicer looking floors, consistent and more obvious layouts, etc.)

And he segued into how Jesus was seen as a trouble-maker. He was changing things up, challenging people, challenging ideas and telling the people of His time that things were changing. And they weren't happy about that.

The pastor went through five vignettes. It was good stuff. The sermon notes don't do it justice, but I'm reprinting them here as a jumping off point. (If anyone is curious, let me know and I'll get ahold of a copy of the CD or get a recording added to the church website.)

Story #1 - A Paralytic Forgiven
  • Criticism: His beliefs are questionable.
  • Jesus' Response: My actions prove my orthodoxy.
  • See: Luke 5:17-26
Story #2 - A Party with a Pagan
  • Criticism: Proper believerrs associate only with proper people.
  • Response: My heart reaches out first to those who most need me.
  • See: Luke 5:27-32
Story #3 - Forgotten Past
  • Criticism: He doesn't value our traditions.
  • Response: A new day requires a new way.
  • See: Luke 5:33-39
Story #4 - Hungry Harvest
  • Criticism: He's doing what we don't do on our day of worship.
  • Response: Helping people has always trumped human rules.
  • See: Luke 6:1-5
Story #5 - Synagogue Scandal
  • Criticism: We don't do it that way in our synagogue!
  • Response: People matter more than tradition.
  • See: Luke 13:10-17
At this point, I'm starting to get excited. He's stirring the pot. He gets it! He's pointing out how wrong it is for people to get upset about when change happens... like repainting the sanctuary a different color, or the pastor not wearing a suit, a construction project to build a new Worship Center, or even the dropping of the "u" in the spelling of "Saviour's" in the church name.

Is it possible he's going to announce something is going to happen at our church? Is this it? Is something going to change? Will something make me excited? Don't get me wrong, I was excited last year when they announced plans to expand. And then I saw the plans and I was sorely disappointed. The plans were underwhelming, disappointing and would offer new versions of the same problems (undersized hallways, tiny tiny tiny foyer, plans that don't consider future development, phases that would probably never see the light of day, and important things left off of first phase.) For one, there's no "mother's room" in the new sanctuary design, and one of the nicest pieces, a really pleasant and welcoming front entrance and facade will either have to be built twice, or won't happen until phase II, or something else. No one's been able to explain yet to me how you can build that facade if there won't be 15-20 feed of building behind it until a later phase. Anyhow, I'm digressing.

But, yeah, he was basically chastising those who grumble about changes to "their church." Was a fresh wind about to blow in? Would things be shaken up?

At that moment, he's tracking right with me when he says that some people are now excitedly or nervously waiting to hear about a big change that he must be making if he's going to present a sermon like this. That it must be so big that he planned this whole sermon series so that he could get to this point now and make some announcement.

But that no, there was no big announcement. That many in the congregation would now be sitting in their chairs, some relieved, some disappointed. Darn straight I'm disappointed.

He went on to remind people that this (and all churches) are Jesus' church and that Jesus was more interested in reaching new people than in maintaining old ways. That if we insist on doing things the way we want them, we only reach people like us. (Who he suggested were people who are already Christians just looking to change churches.)

This is where I got thrown off track and began scribbling madly on the back of my sermon notes. I've heard this before. Many, many times. It seems like it's something churches always struggle with.

How do you take care of the existing "flock" while seeking to help people find/learn of Jesus Christ and His love for them and the hope that they can find in believing Him?

At Bethel, they circled the wagons. It was hard to be a new person there, and usually new people didn't stay around long. So that led to a slow death by attrition.

At Lake, it was refusing to recognize the challenge, refusing to honor the heritage, refusing to accept reality. Here was a 110-year-old church with an average weekly attendance of about 5,000. And an average congregant life-span of about five years. Smack dab on the crossroads of Pasadena with wealth and prosperity to the southwest and northeast and poverty and a largely minority populations to the northwest and to a lesser degree, the southeast. And a congregation who mostly drove in. And a struggling latino service led by a well intended, very well educated spanish-speaking minister of the wrong ethnicity. (Like hiring a bigger-than-life Texan to lead a church in rural Pennsylvania. Same langugage, but not the right fit.) Someone told them that if they wanted to grow and really fulfill their purpose, they need to do a lot more in the community and really ramp up their offerings to the Spanish-speakers. They did ultimately start a separate 503(c) to help in the community (and receive corporate and government grants that a church couldn't), but they still held it at arms length not just for legal reasons, but to keep it away from their church. And this was a church that started as a Bible study led by a 13-year-old black girl.

So, seriously, how do we find the balance? And is the statement even legitimate? I'm not so convinced it is. If, at the core of it, we all profess a belief in Jesus Christ, then what one thing makes each church significantly different from one another? Location, location, location.

If a church is to be "successful" then, I submit that it must be a fixture in its immediate neighborhood. That means learning the demographics of the neighborhood, and then learning the tastes and styles. It means becoming a welcoming place to the people who live around it.

If that means it's a place filled with people like us (not the definition above), then we're doing our job. But if it's means that we must change everything in order to be appealing to the tastes and styles of the neighborhood around the church, then we've got several big problems.

1. Where did we go off-track?
2. What to do with the current attenders who just don't fit in at all?
3. If it's not like us, then are we the best people to try to make it appealing and attractive? Do we risk looking like frauds?

Too often, we take the extremely easy route. We claim that we want to be all-inclusive, welcoming to everyone. (Except for where there's the appearance of ongoing sin that we don't want in our church, lest we look like we condone some sinful lifestyle choices.)

So we don't identify the types of people who we want to reach/attract. We don't define. We don't apply that as a filter against decisions of what programs to start (or stop).

And we risk ending up with a "product" that feels wishy-washy, dated and irrelevant. And so, ultimately, it does attract people like us, because those are the types of people who are going to feel comfortable in the comfortable place we've crafted for ourselves.

So what's my point? I guess my points are this...

1. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a church full of people like yourself, provided that the church is alive, relevant, attracting, evolving while at the same time, holding firm to the truths of the Bible that are unchanging.

2. You cannot be all things to all people. When you do, you end up like General Motors... they make a wide variety of cars. But they still neglect important segments and/or they produce a blah product that doesn't consistently compete well against someone who only focuses on a specific "customer" (Honda, Lexus, Maybach)

3. You must be intentional. This stuff doesn't just happen on its own.

As an aside, this sermon also pointed out for me my own inconsistencies. I am often concerned about change, and sometimes frustrated by it. At the same time, I'm all too eager to see change happen. I want Federal Way to grow up and to become Bellevue South. I want my church to be more savvy/clever/relevant to me*. I want this baby to be born. But at the same token, I want things to stay the way they were. I don't want my daughter to ever grow up. I don't want menus to change at my favorite restaurants - the ones I'd prefer to go to time after time instead of trying new ones. (* Is this so wrong? On the other hand, what does this suggest? I'm in a blue state complaining about the blueness while wishing the church I attend were a little more progressive, a little more hip, a little less red?)

I don't know. There have been some good sermons lately that I kept meaning to write about when I got home. Most of those would have been "Yeah, this was so spot on and I agree 100% and listen to what I learned..." but in too many cases I didn't get in front of the computer with my notes and get them entered in. But today the sermon sparked so much thought that I had to get it typed up and out of my head. I'm sure the usuals will have their own thoughts to add. I especially hope Anonymous is still reading because I've found their comments to be hugely insightful, obviously a very intelligent and thoughtful person.
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