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worship service

Uniformity, One Happy Church Family and Resistance to Mission

Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

One effective strategy for initiating change in a declining church is to start a second worship service with modern music, projection system and informal liturgy. The point of the service is to connect with a younger generation who for the most part relate more readily to modern music styles. Research has demonstrated this is one among a handful of strategic moves that has the potential to turn around a declining church.  A significant number of ABCNW churches have made this move along with a renewed focus on reaching the lost. In many instances growth has resulted. Even with such positive outcomes and clear communication that the traditional service will continue as usual, resistance can be vigorous.

Bill Easum writes in Unfreezing Moves, “The easiest way numerically to grow a church and thereby change the system is to begin a worship service with a different style. Be forewarned. It is also the easiest way to start a riot and get run out of the congregation.” (p. 97)

Resisting a worship service designed to reach a different generational and cultural target group reveals that the church truly doesn’t value reaching new people. Amidst the sounds of protest the true values of the congregation bubble to the surface There is little desire to exegete the missing generations and discover ways to connect with them. The true value that emerges with such vigorous resistance is what Thom Bandy has labeled “the cult of harmony.”

The cult of harmony is usually cloaked in “family talk.” One will hear innocuous sounding statements like “We are one happy family” and “We are a friendly, caring family of believers”. The pastor who introduces a second service will be told that he or she has divided the family into factions and that’s why everyone is upset “ Never mind that some of these church factions have existed before Noah built the ark, but the new service gets blamed for “dividing the family".
The highly prized yet elusive value of harmony is grounded in nostalgia for a by-gone era when the culture was more homogenous and so were churches. This nostalgia distorts what life in the 50’s was really like, projecting backwards the fiction that all generations of that era shared common values and the same taste in music until Elvis came along and wrecked it all. Dare I mention the culture shifting impact of the Beatles a mere 44 years ago.

The cult of harmony is motivated by a desire to recapture a feeling that has been lost in the wild cultural shifts and chaos of today's emerging post-modern world. For those stuck on harmony, the church has become the one place to relive the nostalgic memories of the past. If truth be told these memories would bear little resemblance to the real past. The missional value of reaching the unchurched is squashed by the “one harmonious family” value. So rather than being a people intent on mission the congregation settles for maintaining the cult of harmony. To the young seeker such a church feels like a religious museum, a spiritual relic left over from 1965.

Church controllers use ‘family talk” to stymie change including the addition of a second service. They believe they are playing a biblical card when they accuse the pastor of “dividing the family” by adding the new service. After all, the Apostle Peter refers to the church as the “family of God” (1 Peter 4:7) and the Apostle Paul said that the whole family in heaven and earth derived its name from the Father (1 Timothy 3:4). In using this language they assume that most everyone will agree that the highest priority for the church family is unity.

This “family” metaphor requires critical reflection. If it’s such a compelling image of the church it should appear often in scripture, especially in the Pauline epistles. To the contrary, Paul used it rarely, twice to be exact and always in a universal sense (Galatians 6:10, Ephesians 3:15). He never described an individual congregation as a "family.” Peter uses it once in reference to judgment beginning with the family of God (1 Peter 4:17). Again the reference is universal, not in a localized sense. The author of Hebrews uses the family metaphor to teach that Jesus and His followers share a familial relationship (Hebrews 2:11). That’s the extent to which the NT uses the “family” metaphor. It is never used to describe an individual congregation.
Paul’s preferred metaphor for the church is “body.” A concordance search reveals numerous references. Examine these closer and certain themes arise:

  • The church is one body comprised of variously unique and different members (Romans 12:4-7)
  • The body is a unit composed of people from every kind of ethnic and social background (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
  • It takes many varying parts each ministering according to its unique giftedness for the body to function effectively (1 Corinthians 12:14-27)
  • The church is a body with Christ as its head who constantly fills it with Himself and empowers its growth (Ephesians 1:22-23, Colossians 1:18)
  • The body is unified around the purposes of Christ, starting at ground zero with the command to publish the Good News (Ephesians 3:6)

These biblical references demonstrate that church unity was never meant to be about uniformity. Rather, the church as a body of disciples would be a widely diverse people engaging in a wide variety of ministries, worshipping in various styles, while trusting that its unity was fused in Jesus Christ and His purposes.

Now please do not misunderstand me. I value the “life together” that is a characteristic of healthy churches. Whether we call it “community” or “family”, the sense of belonging and support we find in a vital congregation is important to our spiritual lives.
However, the “one uniform family” value should not be the church’s preeminent reason for existence or even its unifying factor. Rather, the glue that binds should be the mission of reaching lost people with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Being on mission together to reach the world for Christ is the one driving value the Scriptures consistently affirm for the church (Matt 28:19-20, Acts 1:7). Various worship services and widely divergent ministries flow out of this norm. Unity of purpose assumes priority over uniformity of style and taste. The “family” unifies around the common mission that living out the Great Commission is the church's very reason d’être.

Of course there will be those who cry out, “We no longer know everyone around here.” That cry will send us off in search for biblical affirmation of yet another value contending for preeminence in the congregation (which I will not take on in this article). When was knowing everyone gathered under the same roof a biblical expectation or value? If some are singing modern praise songs while others are singing Fanny Crosby at two different worship hours within the same congregation, what does that matter as long as increasingly more people are able to give praise to God in the language of their heart?

The predominant unifier in the church should always be our love for Jesus Christ, and our passion for reaching those who yet do not know His marvelous grace. That's what the “family” should be all about, a highly functioning body that is effective in reaching the world with the Good News of Jesus Christ, and makes it job number one.

Originally published August 2007 © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest