Monday, December 18, 2006

Exposing the fault lines

Last night we finished a three week advent series using film as a way into exploring certain big advent words - Signs helped us look at losing and finding faith; Chocolat gave us the opportunity of examining rejecting and finding grace; and The Shawshank Redemption of giving and receiving hope.

It was an interesting series to prepare for - Jonathan and I team-preached the theme and we tried to allow the films to move the argument on. Many people found the approach stimulating with a good number saying that if we do it again, they will bring friends who are exploring faith for themselves.

The series has exposed the fault lines in the church, however, with many older, more traditional members reacting very negatively to the whole approach.

This clearly gives us some questions to ask in the new year. At the top of the list is 'can you meet everyone needs in one service format?' The obvious answer is 'no' (the question really is a no-brainer!) but it's amazing how many churches - including ours - continue to believe the Holy Grail of one-size-fits-all service formats are just within reach. I think this brief series has told me (again) that it's not.

More than that, I think I've learned that everyone is very intolerant of styles they don't like. We all know that the young vote with their feet, going to meetings, services, events that capture their imagination and look as if they'll scratch where they itch rather more than what's on offer at their home church this week.

Indeed, some of our own young people were at an event across town that featured a band and visiting roadshow. I hope it was good.

What I've seen over the past three weeks is that older, more mature Christian people are equally intolerant and picky about what service format they'll put up with. Some have boycotted the advent series saying they don't like movies, that they come to church to hear the bible read and preached on in a traditional way (well, in a way that's been traditional since Victorian times).

One size does not fit all. And churches that try to stick to this model will wither and die. The reason is simple. If we allow what we do to be determined by those who want the traditional menu - albeit tinkered with at the edges - those wanting more radical change will look elsewhere or more likely stop coming to church altogether, reasoning that the Christian faith offers nothing to help them navigate their way through the world they live in from Monday to Friday.

Eventually, those who champion the traditional model, will die and the church will be empty.

So, it seems to me that we need to revisit conversations we had a year or so ago about having a variety of styles of Sunday service, meeting the needs or suiting the tastes (take your pick which) of those who attend.

Our proposal then was that we have four services on a Sunday morning with fewer people attending each - thus enabling greater interaction between attenders. Each service would have a different feel and focus - though the teaching programme would be common across the day. So those who want a classic style service can have one; likewise those who want a swinging from the chandeliers celebration. There'll be opportunity for a quieter, more reflective service and for a more exploratory, liquid worship style.

Inevitably everyone will have to give a little. For example, timings will change, so people will have come to church at a different time on a Sunday. We'll have to think about the needs of families and which service (or services) has Sunday school provision. But hopefully, everyone would gain more than they would have to give up.

Of course, even this amount of change is only a half-way house to a much more flexible, smaller more federal church structure that I think most churches will have to move towards in the coming generation. But it's a start.

Watch this space as the debate kicks off again next year. Pray for us. And join in the discussion.


Stuart Blythe said...

Simon these are very interesting comments and tensions. I would personally favour a multi-service approach to Church with a variety of ethos. Is this a capitulation to consumerism I have been asked. MMMM? If so this is risky for by such we enter the market of demands - but on the other hand to be sure, with any style of service even a traditional one we are choosing a style that will connect with some and not with others. My own concern as I am sure with you has been not so much to offer those who are attending variety - but to seek to reach by variety those for whom the existing style is not connecting.

Wulf said...

Where are you going to find enough people to lead three or four separate services? Where will you find time to bring them together to ensure the teaching programme stays consistent even if you are going to be singing from different hymn books / song sheets / acetates / funky video projections?

There are plenty of churches around with different styles; perhaps it would be better if people went to a church they felt comfortable with, celebrating our diversity. If that means local churches being more aware of each other and engaging in more conscious co-operation, that has to be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Simon,

Thank you for your honesty and I, for one, believe it is healthy to air these concerns.
I like Wulf's point that people who are unhappy with the situation should seek other churches. The problem I see with this is that the type of people Simon is describing are often adverse to change and having different services to pick from is one thing, but going to a new church is probably out of the question.
So I think Simon's suggestion is a good one that certainly deserves further exploration with all parties involved, getting round the table as it were, and talking these issues through.
As for who would lead all these services - what a fantastic opportunity for more people to be involved, rather than simply being spectators - who knows what hidden talents lie undiscovered. On a smaller scale those seeking this kind of ministry may have a safer environment in which to explore.
One option which seems to me to be not open is the current atmosphere where people are expressing their intolerance in whatever way. Paul in his letter to the Galatians has a severe warning about biting and devouring one another. Instead he says that we are to serve one another in love. To do that will involve a huge amount of prayer (I echo Simon's request for prayer here), and reliance on the Holy Spirit and I believe this would be exactly the way God would want the church to handle it.

Wulf said...

It could be argued that those who are so set on doing things according to a particular tradition or worshipping in a particular building are slaving away in bondage to an idol. Preach and teach for their conversion! ;-)