Many churches bemoan all of the changes that are happening in today’s society. Every time you stop to take a breath, something changes. Whether it is how teenagers communicate to one another or even what is the hottest TV show or song this week, everything seems to be moving in fast forward. Just once we start to figure things out, the ground shifts underneath or feet and we need to change again in reaction to these cultural waves.
While I personally feel this all of the time since I work in the technology sector, this is even being felt in our local churches. Worship styles and approaches sometime feel out of date even through the church just launched a contemporary service. Kids would rather watch a video during Sunday School than use traditional written materials. The Pastor uses an iPad to read the scripture verse instead of reading out of a Bible. People want to “tweet” during worship in addition to saying “amen.”
Should we fight the cultural waves of change?
The world has changed and there are a number of people in church who are not happy about it. They want to stop people looking at their cell phones in church, make sure the latest version of the United Methodist hymnal is in the pews and keep to the “tried and true” methods of the faithful that have worked in the past.
In other words, they want to be a “surf break” against the cultural waves which are slamming our church and create a calm in which they can connect with God. There is nothing wrong with this desire. In a world where everything changes, we look for calm in some area of our life. There are many who believe that the church need to be this sanctuary in this storm. We can hunker down in this storm and seek peace in the breaking waves of life.
The actions at General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2012 and the consequent Judicial Council rulings show an extension of this desire to maintain the status quo. Our structures at all levels of the church reflect the best thinking from the 1960s and not 2010s.
We are not alone…There are a number of industries fighting change and will become extinct because of it. One look at our living room television reveals that we are not alone in our desire to maintain the status quo. Today’s cable companies are trying desperately to maintain control our what we watch and how we watch it. Television advertising, 30 min and 60 min shows and even the idea of prime time television are all tied to the basic model that people will sit down and watch shows when they are aired. Companies like Time Warner and Comcast (and even Direct TV and Dish Network) make you buy blocks of channels to watch programming.
Now enter Netflix and Hulu. They offer unlimited viewing on demand for under 10 dollars a piece. While it may not have every show, you can use is as a simple substitute for your expensive cable bill to meet 90% of your TV needs for under $20. (The only exception being live sports programming and there are ways to satisfy that as well with MLB.com and NFL.com). We are not that far away from the situation that we will be paying and watching our television content on demand.
The reaction of many of the cable companies have been to dig in and try to maintain the current state of affairs Music and radio are in the same boat. We are moving to an on-demand world and yet they try to make people come to them, when and where they want and ingest their content in a particular way.
The winners focus on the principles of their industry. For cable companies, it is providing killer content. Broadcasters want people to watch when they show it and interrupt their viewing with commercials every 12 minutes (so they can make money.) Netflix and Hulu understand that people want to see killer content when it works for them so they charge a rate and make the content available when they want.
Principle vs. preference (for churches)
Whether we care to admit it or not, we seek to do the same with the church and our content (called the message of Christ). We hold our services at a particular time and in a particular way and we feel that people need to come to us to hear the life saving message of Jesus Christ. We want things on our terms because it makes us feel comfortable. We feel the waves of change hammering around us yet we stand firm. Many believe that we should stand on principles and not allow the world to change us. We are standing firm for Christ, right?
Here is the killer question: Are we (as the church) standing firm on the right principles or stuck on our preferences? Let’s take a look at a few…
Jesus is God’s Son = Principle
Worship styles = Preference (the organ was once considered the devil’s bagpipes)
The Holy Trinity = Principle
Use of hymnal (or screen) = Preference
Serving the Poor = Principle
Going on International Mission Trips = Preference
Christ came to this world and upturned many of the rules the Jewish faith. Working on the Sabbath. Hanging out with the unclean. Drinking water with a Samaritan woman. Jesus took religious convention and turned it on its head. He had a very clear mission to reconcile God and his people. He focused on saving the lost and not about following the rules laid out by the religious authorities (many of which were layers upon layers of man-made rules on top of the scripture.) They were made with the best of intentions to keep the Jewish people from breaking God’s commandments. Instead, these rules turned into a straight-jacket for our faith and kept the church from moving forward to reach the least and the lost.
The same is true today. Take some time to list out all of your church’s key principles and then ask yourself, “Is this really a principle or is this a preference?” Then back it up with Scripture and key church writings (meaning the Apostle’s Creed and not the Bishop’s latest letter.) If an unbiased person looking at the evidence would not say it is a “principle,” then you may need to ask yourself why you are holding onto it so strongly.
Many times, it is our emotions trying to convince ourselves it is more important than what it really is or we want to conform God and Jesus to our worldview instead of the other way around.
It is time to get clear on our calling!
When we strip our thinking from our preferences and focus on God’s key principles, we can surf the cultural waves of change while staying committed to God. If our goal is to make disciples, what do we need to attract people to God’s message of reconcilation and disciple them in the faith. It may not be on a Sunday morning at 11am singing Hymn #256. It may be at a recovery group being held in a community library or a bible study in a coffee shop (or even a bar (gasp!))
If someone commits their life to Christ and grows as a disciple in the faith, do you really think God cares about anything else?
We as the church need to get very clear on our calling (to make disciples) and then be willing to surf the waves of the world to be able to achieve it. We need to leave behind our “preferences” on how we like to reach them.
At the end of the day, we cannot force people to like what we like and do things the way we want to do them. We need to attract people to the message of Christ and connect with them in a way that they can relate with and connect to.
Jesus did it. Why shouldn’t we?
To learn how to craft programs that surf the cultural waves, check out the article “How does picking surfboards look a lot like creating church programs?”