It’s interesting to watch the trends that drive worship settings in churches. For a number of years it has been assumed that a more contemporary setting is the best practical way to get young people who have left the church or never been a part of it to come inside the church doors for a worship service. Champions of the contemporary scene can boast the numerical success to prove this reality. Traditionalists have sat back, often frustrated, watching their time honored traditions go by the wayside in order to implement the various new styles. Of course over the last few decades this has produced more than enough debate and division in local congregations everywhere. Pragmatism seems to rule, the attitude is simply that if it works, and it honors Christ by proclaiming the Gospel then it is the right practice. We want to reach those who have not yet heard the Gospel, so we develop our services accordingly. In recent years we are beginning to see a trend that suggests that a more traditional service might be a pragmatically viable as the contemporary service. It is not uncommon to see, especially around universities, a return to a more traditional setting becoming the more attractive method of doing church. Traditionalists sit back and rejoice in seeing this trend, and are hopeful now that sticking to their guns is going to pay off as interest in the big box contemporary church begins to show signs of waning.
There is a brutal irony here. We who are more traditional are now coming out of the woodwork saying ‘look, it still works’ and we puff out our chests and rejoice in the trend that seems to vindicate our refusal to succumb to the latest trend. The irony is that traditionalists have argued against pragmatism ever since the mega-church stage show got rolling, and yet now that the traditional service seems pragmatically viable, the traditionalist appeals to the very pragmatism they once decried. Both the traditional and contemporary camps, are now appealing to the trends to say that their method is viable. The underlying truth that is being exposed here is that most traditionalists were still nothing more than pragmatists all along, and it is evidenced by their willingness to come out of the word work now that their method seems to be working again. Those of the contemporary mindset could rightly make the argument that the traditionalists were merely frustrated pragmatists all along. During the worship wars (contemporary v traditional) many of the contemporary people would level the claim that the traditional church was jealous that their methodology had run its course and was no longer as effective as the new style. We of the more traditional set decried that claim and we thought ourselves to be adhering to a more pure form of worship. Eventually many traditionalists, myself included, began to look at ourselves with some sort of ‘persecuted remnant’ philosophy, and found ourselves taking comfort in that. The truth is that the whole persecuted remnant thing was just a ruse. We traditionalists have come out of our shell, rejoiced at the gradual changing of the trend, and our rejoicing proves that we have longed to appeal to pragmatism and the will of the masses just as much as the most contemporary of churches.
The reality is that the appeal to pragmatism is flawed at the outset. Whether it is the traditionalist trying to justify their tradition by the renewed public interest in it, or whether it is the contemporary churchmen who can boast of gigantic churches, it really is simply two sides to the same coin. The fatal flaw in the whole debate is that success can be judged by how many people walk through our doors on a Sunday morning. Now listen, I get as excited as the next guy as I watch the church I serve grow, and I would be a liar if I did not say that I monitor our numbers very closely to assure that we are growing. The church that does not want to grow has serious problems. However if the church boasts rest in the fact that they are in line with the latest trend, and their growth is predicated on their trendiness (traditional or contemporary) there is a serious problem.
As we look in Acts we cannot deny the reality that large numbers were being redeemed, and that the magnitude of those numbers were recorded as important facts. You cannot speak out against a church because they have seen 3000 people converted, because the early church saw just that and found it important enough to include in the Holy Writ. There is one distinct factor in this though, that all the pragmatist worship design seems to miss… the great numbers that were converted were never converted by attending the worship service of the church. If you recall at Pentecost the great movement among the people was not because they were drawn into the service, but that those gathered in the upper room were led into the streets preaching a language which those outside of the church miraculously understood. All the great movements of the book of Acts were external to the gathering of the Church. The biblically normative method of church growth was the church outside of the facility discipling and baptizing. Of course those who were discipled and baptized then became a part of the church. The normal order of church growth was not attracting people to the church, but was in sending the church into the world.
This flies right in the face of all trend following. It doesn’t matter one bit that traditional worship is becoming more attractive to the next generation, because the worship service was never meant to be an attraction. Traditionalists are falling into the exact same trap that the contemporary church has fallen into, the trap of believing that people needed to come to church to hear the Gospel.
At some point we need to get off of this wheel, because the trends will continue to go back and forth, and the war will continue to wage, and whoever has the style that is most current to the times are the people who will believe themselves to be vindicated.
I can only think of one way to change this trend, and it is painfully difficult change to embrace. The change is simply this, make the Sunday worship gathering a setting that exists primarily for believers. The reality that unbelievers will gather in every assembly is a truth we must deal with, but that reality can no longer drive our methodology, be it traditional or contemporary. If we take this approach it allows us to preach as though we are preaching to believers, it allows us to practice church discipline as though we are disciplining believers… and more importantly than this, it places the onus of proclaiming the Gospel to the world upon the body of believers, not merely their pastor who represents them. This shift in thinking allows the pastor to approach their flock as an actual shepherd of believers, comforting them with the Gospel and commanding them with the Law so that they might go forth and make disciples. It causes the individual Christian to work with the people they meet in their vocation to bring them to the faith outside of the church, and then when the person begins to receive faith bring them into the church. It changes the whole dynamic. Yes it makes for smaller churches in the short run, but it makes for a more robust body of believers over the long haul.
Any thoughts on this?