Anticipating Change?

An old friend sent me the link to this blog post.  He’s not a church-going person, so it’s interesting that it caught his eye enough to send to me.  A few thoughts on each of the author’s points.

1.  Live, simultaneous viewing has been waning for decades.  With the proliferation of cable networks as well as VCRs (remember those?) over 30 years ago, people haven’t been watching the same things at the same times.  Our cultural attention has been shattered for a long time.  Granted, the Internet has accelerated this to an almost unimaginable level, bolstered by the ability to constantly surround ourselves with only exactly what we like or agree with at all times.  

The author then draws two conclusions, or questions.  He implies that Sunday worship is no longer an adequate offering of “content” for generations accustomed to having everything on their schedule.  Secondly, he stresses the importance of relationship.  

Firstly, if we continue to view worship (whenever and however it occurs) as content, we’re missing the point.  It is’t about content, although content is part of what happens.  It’s about relationship.  But it’s not the relationship that the author is emphasizing – human-to-human interaction.  It’s first and foremost about the relationship between God and his people.  Not you.  Not me.  But his people.  Which we are a part of.  Worship is inherently a communal action, something that stresses that my personal preferences and ideas are secondary to the shared beliefs of the community.

For people used to church, once a week worship isn’t an issue.  They ought to have this pattern well-established (although I maintain that this is the easiest faith behavior to be disrupted, and once disrupted, it can be the hardest faith behavior to re-establish).  For people not used to church, once a week worship isn’t an issue either.  They likely have no idea what to expect.  Either they’re looking to understand better and will accommodate themselves to this – like we’re conditioned (more or less) to turn our cell phones off during a plane flight.  During this period of transition, accommodation, transformation, is the time when the proper reasons for worship need to be communicated.  Relationship, yes.  But not relationship as we’ve grown to define it – me-centered, but rather Christ-centered.  

If we treat worship as content, our main focus will be production (something we control) rather than transformation (something that stubbornly remains firmly and exclusively the job of the Holy Spirit).  The point of church is not to “gather a crowd”.  The point of worship is transformation and renewal through the continued outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God and the Sacraments He has entrusted to his Church.  It’s a paradigm shift all right – but not the one that most church ‘experts’ are pushing.

2.  Yes, continued shifts from communal to individual.  However unlike the author, I would argue that this is a strength of the Church, not a liability.  In an era where nobody needs to be connected to anyone live, in-person, Church stands as a very visible and anachronistic organism calling us back to community.  This is our strength, not a liability.  The content is best received in this context.  

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to augment the material that we give to parishioners, making it available online and in a variety of formats.  But we need to understand that this is always secondary to our purpose.  Our main purpose is not to present the Church, but to be the Church.  That doesn’t require a crowd, it just requires two or three gathered in the name of Christ.  A crowd is only necessary if what you’re really trying to do (for whatever reasons, good or misguided) is to begin or continue a specific ministry model that demands crowd economics.

In terms of calling people to something greater, this is dead-on.  But it isn’t “mission-driven”.  It is first and foremost a matter of repentance and forgiveness, confession and absolution.  It is oriented around transformation.  Mission is something we control.  Transformation is something the Holy Spirit controls.  Transformation will, inevitably, lead to mission in one form or another.  But it isn’t necessarily something as neatly organized as a mission trip.

3.  Again, beyond my earlier caveats about the role of content, this is fine.  But this also requires a level of discernment.  Not every congregation may be equipped to produce quality content.  A congregation needs to clearly understand what they are equipped to provide and why they are providing it.  This can be helpful for members, but remember that what goes online has a habit of showing up in unexpected places and ways.  I have a colleague who posted some of his Bible studies on YouTube.  He got into a theological discussion with a Roman Catholic in South America.  It was a fantastic opportunity for the body of Christ to act in a beautiful way.  But I’m not sure that his YouTube videos have resulted in dozens of new members.  To avoid frustration and irritation (particularly as budget resources are allocated), there must be very frank and deliberate discussion and consensus about why this content is being created, how it is being provided, and what the goals are.  

4.  I agree with this completely, though I think it needs to be focused further.  Don’t just tell a story.  Tell the story, and that fundamentally is not a story about us or me, but about God.  The story is essentially disruptive in that it short-circuits the dominant cultural story that is being told (at least in America), which is that everything is about my story.  Christianity posits that my story, insofar as it even exists, only has meaning (and possibility) within the story of God.  

I recently attended a great preaching seminar focused on story-telling in the form of narrative preaching.  Telling the story is important because it is not a story being told anywhere else in our culture.  The Church is the only one telling her story now, the story of God’s creative, redemptive, and sanctifying work.  Don’t assume your congregation knows the stories.  Don’t assume that they know how the stories function to link their personal stories into God’s meta-narrative.

5.  Money shouldn’t be an issue.  Money is an issue when a group of people insist on a particular model of ministry that requires economic resources.  This isn’t bad or wrong.  But look at the New Testament – the major exhortations regarding money come in regards to charitable giving to alleviate the suffering of Christians and Jews in other places in the midst of crisis and great need.  But this is rarely the focus of our congregational emphases on finances.  Missions are usually tacked on at the end, in the category of if-we-have-enough-left-over (regardless of whether this is a budgeted line item or not.  When funds are tight, watch how quickly missions get cut before staff salaries or facility maintenance line-items).  

People//members/congregations are not paying for something they use.  At least they shouldn’t be.  People are responding to the grace and gifts of God by offering back for his use part of what He has given them.  I’ve met with parishioners who had pastors decades ago liken tithing to paying membership dues.  This is faulty (regardless of how well-intentioned) information.  Giving in the Church is always first and foremost a response to the goodness of God.  

Failure to understand this properly will lead to financial issues (it’s one reason that financial issues might arise – certainly not the only reason!).  This doesn’t exempt “Mission-centered, mission-focused” churches either, unfortunately.  Why?  Because there are so many ways and places for people to direct their financial resources now.  Many of these are excellent.  The advent of micro-funding and crowd-funding has made it possible to raise money quickly and across a broad spectrum of givers, fueled by the ability to communicate the need and message quickly and inexpensively.

If Christians are conditioned to view tithing primarily as a means of directing their personal resources to worthy causes that they believe in, we’re missing the point.  Giving money to a needy family on the other side of the street or the other side of the world is not the same thing as tithing, according to Scripture.  Both are important and Biblical, mind you, but they are not interchangeable.  

Yes, the world is changing quickly.  The Church can and should adapt to a certain level.  But we also need to recognize that the Church is fundamentally different from culture.  Culture is transient, shifting, ebbing and flowing.  The Church is the Rock, the very Body of Christ in the world.  This should determine how the Church discusses change.  When we begin discussing change in terms of content and finances, we’ve missed the more fundamental issues that need to be not simply discussed, but affirmed and lived.  It’s a lot easier to talk about content than it is to talk about transformation.  Then again, being the Church has rarely been an easy thing.  

 

 

 

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