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Teaching an old dog new tricks

Reflections on "Stained Glass & Starbucks"

 

I admit that I don't like change. I used to like it much more when I was younger, especially before I passed the half-century mark four years ago. As a child I could never understand why my parents so embraced the status quo. "Keep things like they are, don't rock the boat," seemed to be their mantra.

Now I'm singing along with them.

One thing I've learned about growing up, though, is that change is constant. Like it or not styles change, music changes, and much to my disappointment, how we worship changes. It's reassuring to know that the Gospel never changes.

I like hymns. I love choral worship. I enjoy sitting in pews and listening to a sermon my pastor has prayed and sweated over during the week. Looking at life through stained glass windows on Sunday morning sort of makes the troubles of a lost world fade away, if only for 60 minutes ... or ninety minutes if my pastor has lost his watch. Unfortunately my church doesn't have stained glass windows but the natural light streaming in can be just as calming.

Through the centuries much of worship has been tied to tradition, which is good and bad. Tradition helps us remember who we are and where we came from; it gives us a place in time to call our own. But when it becomes exclusive it can become damning. Literally.

In the Feb. 17 issue of the Index, David Suddath of Noonday Association shared with our readers the need for churches to keep current with cultural change (see www.christianindex.org/1048.article). Here I must pause to make the ever-present disclaimer in Baptist life - the Gospel never needs updating. But having said that, the way in which it is communicated can clearly stand some nips and tucks along the way.

If that were not the case we would still be speaking King James English long after it passed from usage and singing psalms as some English churches do today. No harmony, no rhythm. Hard to swallow, harder to stir the spirit. It's sorta like taking cough medicine without the accompanying syrup. I've sat in worship services in small Welsh and Scottish churches and I must admit the singing was downright painful. But for those strong on tradition you can't get any more biblical than singing straight from the Psalms, awkward though it may be.

Southern Baptists do not have a corner on the Gospel presentation, though we do have a distinctive way of how we have presented it. But a time comes when every generation needs to take stock of how effective that presentation is being received. My generation and that of my parents is now standing at the crossroads of an important decision in their faith walk. Is the way we share Christ through the week and on Sunday morning bringing more individuals to Christ or is it keeping them at arm's length?

A recent article I wrote titled "Stained Glass and Starbucks" tackled this issue head-on and generated insightful Letters to the Editor. The thrust of the article was to get churches to rethink how they share the Gospel and consider updating their approaches where needed.

It was not an endorsement for abandoning the past. If the past works in your community and you have a growing congregation, stand your ground. This could not be any clearer than in a letter from Wilburn Hill, pastor of Centennial Baptist Church in Rutledge. His comments appear on page 5 of this issue. It would be a heinous sin for a church like Centennial to change its approach. The goal of every church should be to discover the most effective way to reach its community and then stick with it until it finds an even better way.

The focus of my article, though, was a call for believers to be as effective as possible in whatever they do. We need traditional churches like Centennial to incarnate the Gospel as effectively as possible; we also need contemporary churches where there are contemporary communities. That's why the article was titled "Stained Glass and Starbucks," with the emphasis on the "and." It was not an "either/or" condemnation but a "both/and" treatise. The truth of the matter is that we need all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. We can no longer exist by offering cookie cutter approaches.

 

'Doing' church

The most difficult decision facing many Georgia Baptist churches - congregations that are plateaued or declining - is how they are going to reach the Anglo, also known as the "white," populace. As a denomination we have made commendable inroads in reaching ethnic groups and we are now the nation's most ethnically diverse denomination. We need to keep that momentum going. But another growing issue is "How are we going to reach our Anglo peers?"

Are we willing to experiment with different approaches in evangelism, worship, and outreach? Are we willing to take some risks and fail in order to learn what works? Do we really want society at large to join us in our pew if they have different thoughts on how to 'do' church? Should we force the hundreds of millions of lost to embrace our way of doing things or can we learn from them how to reach their still-unchurched friends? (Insert Mandatory Baptist Disclaimer: Without compromising the Gospel message.)

To what degree can we expect people to change when they become Christians? Of course they should abandon obvious sinful habits (some more easily than others; we all share hidden sins that we struggle with inwardly but paint ourselves on the outside as whited sepulchers). Winning the lost is sorta like picking a spouse; we want them to join us for eternity, but in short order we want to change them so they will reflect our preferences. Roll the toothpaste from the end, please, don't squeeze it from the middle.

History is a great, though stern, teacher. I would like to draw two parallels between the church of today and the church of the past; one a hundred years ago in Wales and a second 40 years ago in the U.S. Both deal with reaching society at large when that society was the same ethnic peer group (Anglos).

When the Welsh Revival occurred in 1904-05 (www.christianindex.org/735.article) nearly one fifth (150,000) of the nation's population came to faith in Christ in 18 months. But such a massive outpouring of the Holy Spirit took the church completely by surprise and it couldn't cope with the change. Worship and outreach at the time was very cold and impersonal; the established church had such a difficult time adjusting to the warmth of the new believers that many were actually voted out of membership because they were upsetting the "natural order."

Tens of thousands of new believers, abandoned by the very Church that brought them to faith in Christ, eventually joined together to launch new, small congregations scattered across the countryside. Churches were formed and began meeting in little more than glorified shanties where believers were free to worship without ties to tradition.

The Holy Spirit did His part, but the Church failed in her part.

It wasn't racial diversity that destroyed the revival; it was diversity within the dominant population. We find ourselves in the same boat today.

We consider such an occurrence to be shameful and are quick to say it could never happen here. But could it? Absolutely. In fact it did, because I lived through it to a lesser scale during the 1960s. It was called the Jesus Movement and it was when a spiritual awakening rolled through the young Baby Boomers.

Hundreds of thousands of high school and college students came to faith in what could be called nothing short of a miracle. Judy Collins' haunting acapella version of "Amazing Grace" was the number one selling record in the nation and was on the Top 10 for months on end. That was nothing short of a miracle. The church's long-prayed-for revival came to pass in the lifetime of those who had prayed for years but many didn't know how to handle the harvest. And others didn't even recognize it as a true revival on God's terms, calling it "counterfeit Christianity."

 

Embrace, don't abandon

Many of the hippies and groupies who came to faith gave up their drugs and promiscuous sex. But not all wanted to cut their hair and many could not understand why they couldn't wear their bell-bottom jeans and tye-died shirts to church. They didn't own a suit; was it required attire?

Unfortunately many of those who came to faith were abandoned at the door of the church because they didn't embrace all of the church's preferences. Was their general appearance different? Absolutely. Was it unbiblical? I have never found anything in Scripture to dictate clothing style other than what is modest.

I wonder what our churches would look like tomorrow if a full 20 percent (58,000,000) of America's population came to a saving faith in Christ and showed up in our churches? How would we assimilate them, culturally speaking? How much would we require them to change their ways so they could worship in our preference of style? Just how open would our hearts and arms be to people who share the same spiritual love but enjoy different approaches of evangelism, or worship, or networking with the lost?

The most important thing in my life is for my two young girls, Charlotte and Elena, to come to a saving knowledge of faith in Christ. I will stop at nothing to be sure they understand the message in a form they can understand. As they grow and mature I will change how I present that message to adapt it to their level of understanding, but I will never change the message. I will inconvenience myself in any way possible to assure that they will hear "God loves you" in the purest form they can understand.

We should feel the same toward the lost in our communities. We should offer them stained glass and Starbucks whenever it is appropriate.