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To what extent should the church change in order to attract people?

A while back a fellow Elder resigned at the church I used to serve. True, one of the reasons was a long-term medical situation in his family which took a great deal of time and emotional energy. As a result he felt that he was unable to give enough attention to his responsibilities at church. But there was another reason as well. He was disappointed that the church had not been growing as fast as he thought it should.

Looking back, the seeds of his disappointment probably germinated a little over a year after we started the congregation. It was about that time we were told by some among the 30-somethings that the concepts with which we began the congregation sounded fine in principle, but weren’t working in practice. We had already puzzled and agonized over why people in that age group seemed so uncommitted and erratic in their involvement. So, it was interesting to hear the perspectives of some from that demographic.

One of the things which drew the most criticism was our speaker rotation. It was pointed out to us that some speakers are not as polished as others. They didn’t like some of our speaking styles. They felt uncomfortable bringing friends because of the inconsistency of style.

From the time we got the criticism, the light in my fellow Elder’s eyes began to die. From that day forward, in spite of my protests and urging, with the exception of a Communion meditation or two, he never addressed the congregation again. Though he never said it in so many words, it became clear that he was willing to abandon the rotation altogether and even hire a full-time ‘preacher.’ He made it clear that he didn’t think our speaking was of the sort to attract and hold new people; if we kept on with our current practice, the church wouldn’t grow as it should, numerically.

Customer orientation

This whole episode raises a very important question. To what extent should we accommodate others in order to get them in the doors? H. Dale Burke – the man who succeeded Chuck Swindoll at First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California – has this to say in his book Less is More Leadership: “…ministry and the marketplace are not as different as you might think. The bottom line for both is service to survive – to please or perish. I have customers, and so do you. And if my customers don’t like the product that they’re getting, there are many other places they can go for the same product. And they are very quick to find a new spiritual outlet to meet their needs.” (Less is More Leadership, 8 Secrets to How to Lead & Still Have a Life, H. Dale Burke, Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 2004, p.29)

This concern, to please spiritual ‘customers,’ is not limited to Burke. On October 10, 2008 the Weekend Journal of the Wall Street Journal published an interesting article called The Mystery Worshipper. According to the article, a growing number of churches are hiring people to pose as first-time attenders to come and covertly assess everything from the toilets to the sermons. In keeping with the ‘customer’ motif, these people are actually referred to as “secret-shoppers.” The ‘shoppers’ issue the churches a grade and a report on the problems they saw. The church uses the report to make changes which will attract more people. The article quotes one pastor as saying, “My competition is Cracker Barrel restaurant down the street… If they go in there and are treated more like family than when they come to CrossPoint Church then it’s lights out for me.”

Now in one sense, I can see where the insights and impressions of an outsider could be very helpful. We all have our blind spots and need a reality check from time to time. But on another level I find this ‘customer’ orientation not only disturbing, but profoundly wrong-headed. Let’s take a closer look at Burke’s statement. How does it stack up against the principles of Scripture?

Please who?

“…please or perish.” Somehow I can’t help but contrast this philosophy to that of the Apostle Paul. In writing to the Galatians he says, “…If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (1:10 NIV) In light of this statement is it possible that Paul would consider anyone who adopts the ‘please or perish’ philosophy to NOT be a servant of Christ?! I think it is a real possibility. Any time we find ourselves starting to get concerned about pleasing people, we’d better start getting concerned about whether we are still pleasing Christ.

Nor was Paul’s statement to the Christians in Galatia some sort of aberration. Look at what he wrote to another group of Christians: “…with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.” (1 Thessalonians 2:2-4 NIV)

From this it is clear that the gospel Paul preached was not pleasing to men. But pleasing men was not the standard or the criterion Paul used to determine what he would say or how he would say it. His was an entirely different standard. His concern was to please God. If people didn’t like it, too bad. He was not about to change his God-given message just because it wasn’t popular.

The Gospel a product?

“…there are many other places they can go for the same product.” Oh, really?! I guess it depends on what sort of product you’re peddling.

I have two objections. The first is to equate the gospel to a product. Frankly, it strikes me as prostituting the gospel. How so? Well, what comes to your mind when someone talks about buying or selling love? And what is the gospel but an expression of God’s love? “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NIV)

The gospel is not a product. It is not some sort of commodity which can be bought or sold in the marketplace. On the contrary, “…it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16 NIV)

My second objection is the assumption that everybody is proclaiming the same message. Yes, I am perfectly aware that in our postmodern world people claim that there are no absolutes and all faiths are merely different paths to God. But that is simply not true. The fact is that all messages do not lead to God. What you believe really does make a difference.

Even assuming that Burke did not mean to imply that all roads lead to God, I take issue with his assertion that the ‘same product’ is available from ‘many other places.’ Oh, I suppose I agree that if someone is in search of a ‘feel good’ gospel; a gospel which caters to ‘felt needs;’ an anemic gospel which provides ‘cheap grace;’ a gospel which does not require counting the cost or crucifying self, there are plenty of places to find it. If that is the kind of ‘product’ Burke is peddling, then he is right to be concerned. But if that is the reason for his concern, he’s concerned about the wrong thing. Jesus said, “…wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” (Matthew 7:13 NIV) If we’re keepers of a gate which everybody is flocking to, perhaps it would be a good idea to evaluate how wide that gate is. If our gate is identical to everybody else’s gate, perhaps we’d better check out who made it and where it leads to.

Jesus went on to say, “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:14 NIV) It’s been my observation that the small gate is becoming harder to find than ever. The billboards advertising the wide gate tend to hide it.

‘felt needs’ or ultimate Need?

“…they are very quick to find a new spiritual outlet to meet their needs.” I think this epitomizes the core of the problem. Since when has ‘meeting needs’ become the standard by which to judge a congregation? The task of the church has never been to cater to ‘felt needs’ but to proclaim the gospel – “…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 NIV) Whenever we start to focus on perceived ‘needs’ instead of on Christ, we become a secular church. The following quote expresses it well.

“…Instead of the pulpit, with its uniquely Christian task, setting the agenda of the “helping” ministries, the therapeutic and technical aspects of the “helping” ministries often set the agenda for the pulpit.

“How does this happen? Perhaps it results from our infatuation with numerical success. What the people really want, we tell ourselves, is family ministry, youth ministry, involvement ministries, and short-term solutions to anxiety and depression. And at one level they do. But instead of leading people to see the ultimate answer behind their immediate needs and then proclaiming the cross of Christ as the Answer of Answers, our preaching often falls victim to the illusion that secondary, penultimate, and “felt” needs are the truly fundamental needs that we must address…

“…to refuse to speak of sin, suffering, and the ambiguities of life in our Sunday worship is to evict from our midst the very cross of Christ… Without conviction of sin, failure, and finitude, there can be no meaningful sense of grace.

“…The gospel is the message of life in the form of death, power in the garb of weakness, and success in the guise of failure.

“These, however, are precisely the themes the secular church does not want to hear. Its passion, instead, is for life in the form of life, power in the form of power, and success in the form of success; as a result, it thrusts talk of death, weakness, and failure out of doors. Not surprisingly, then, it confuses immediate, penultimate questions with the ultimate question and its own temporal answers with the Final Answer found in the Crucified One…

“The church is not called simply to meet needs. It is called, rather, to meet the ultimate need. To do less than this is to forget both who and Whose we are and to fail in our calling altogether.” (The Worldly Church, A Call For Biblical Renewal, Second Edition, C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes, Michael R. Weed, ACU Press, Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas, 1991, pp. 46-48)

This, by the way, was the principle which cost Jesus most of His following. After the feeding of the 5,000, the people actually wanted to make Jesus their king. Here was a man, they thought, who would meet their “felt needs” – after all, food is one of the most basic needs. But when Jesus dared to address their ultimate need, rather than the perceived ‘need’ of the moment, the crowds left. It was a turning point in Christ’s ministry. From a human perspective Jesus failed. He was left with not many more than the 12 Apostles (See John 6:25-71). And, from that incident forward, the opposition to Christ began to really gain momentum.

From a divine perspective, however, Jesus’ refusal to cater to the “felt needs” of the people and His steadfast commitment to do the will of the Father, even though it was unpopular with the crowd, was what made redemption possible. There is no place for the cross in the ‘pleasing the customer’ mentality.

I’m afraid that about the only thing I can agree with in Burke’s statement is the emphasis on service. Not only are we who have leadership roles in the church called to serve (1 Peter 4:10), we also have an obligation to prepare others for ‘works of service’ (Ephesians 4:12). It is worth noting, however, that those ‘works of service’ are not defined by the “felt needs” of people but are predetermined by God (Ephesians 2:10).

What’s the assembly for? Evangelism?

Perhaps part of the reason so many churches have lost their way in the attempt to attract people is that they have either forgotten, or redefined, the purpose of the church assembly. For many decades church leaders have tried to harmonize two basically incompatible goals. On the one hand, they have tried to use the church assembly as a means to win those outside of Christ. In other words, the assembly has become a (and many times the primary) means of evangelism. This is why there has been such an emphasis on “bring your friends and acquaintances to church.” On the other hand, ministers recognize the responsibility to spiritually feed those who are already in Christ. The trouble is, it is very hard to do both at the same time.

These two goals, to win those outside of Christ, and to feed those already in Him, are at odds with each other. Messages designed to help Christians grow in the Lord simply do not apply to those outside of Christ. Messages designed to help those outside of Christ see their need of a Savior do not greatly benefit those who have already given themselves to Him. Recognizing the fundamental disconnect between these two goals, some authors of older books on preaching, suggest that the Sunday morning assembly be evangelistic while the Sunday night service be geared toward meeting the spiritual needs of Christians. This was, at best, a compromise. And now that the majority of congregations have abandoned evening services altogether, the attempt to reconcile the divide between the two emphases has become even more daunting. In an attempt to resolve the fundamental conflict between these two goals, many congregations have consciously chosen to orient their assemblies toward those outside of Christ and feed the flock in other venues such as small groups. They’ve deliberately made changes both to the format and content of the assembly in order to attract the ‘un-churched.’ They call it being ‘seeker sensitive.’ Tragically, that decision has, as mentioned above, all too often resulted in also doing away with the offense of the cross. (Notice, by the way, how it is now beyond the pale to describe the ‘un-churched’ or the ‘seeker’ according to their actual spiritual condition, that is, ‘unsaved’ or ‘lost’!)

When we started the congregation where I used to serve, we went the other way. We deliberately and consciously decided that the assemblies were going to be for Christians. That is the teaching of, and the example we see in, the New Testament. We certainly didn’t forbid anyone to come, but the main purpose of the assemblies was to remember Christ and build up and strengthen those already in Christ. They were not primarily intended for evangelism. Most of our evangelism was done at other times, in other venues.

But, oh, it is hard sometimes to not acknowledge the siren song of culture when someone tells us that she doesn’t feel comfortable inviting her friends. How do you tell her, without sounding like a sadist, that you hope her unsaved friends don’t feel comfortable in the assembly? Yes, we certainly want to show love to everyone who comes but, at the same time, if the unsaved are so comfortable among us that they see no need of change; if they never feel the conviction of sin and the need of crucifying self and surrendering to Christ, we’ve failed. This position may not be the most popular; it might not get as many bodies in the door, but I think that in time, and by God’s grace, it will build a far healthier congregation than those who have chosen a ‘consumer orientation.’

Does a consumer orientation even work in the long run?

Now the object is not to create artificial barriers. There’s nothing wrong in trying to make it easier for people to attend the church assemblies. There’s nothing wrong in trying to arrange our assemblies so that it’s as easy as possible for people to direct their attention toward God. There’s nothing sacred about the ‘order of service’ or what time we meet on the Lord’s Day. For example, what point is there in insisting that the assembly start at 8:00 in the morning if people work the graveyard shift and can’t get there before 9:00? What benefit is there in irritating people in unnecessary ways?

The problem occurs only when our yardstick becomes pragmatism (doing what seems to “work”) and expediency (doing what people want) instead of Biblical principle and precedent. In my opinion, for example, we cross the line when we provide a Saturday night assembly as a substitute for those held on the Lord’s Day.

So, we listened to the criticism and made what changes we could without betraying principle. But behold the irony: In spite of our efforts to accommodate the concerns of the 30-somethings, there was no change in their commitment level. We merely succeeded in annoying the faithful with no offsetting benefit. And thus shall it ever be when we try to appease those whose eyes are directed more toward self than toward Christ.

It’s my personal conviction that we are far better off asking people to conform to the ideals and culture of the congregation (provided, of course, that the congregation is solidly grounded in Scriptural principles) than to try to conform the congregation to the expectations of any demographic. The faithfulness of the newer converts seemed to back me up.

Well what about our speaking rotation?

As noted above, our speaker rotation drew some of the harshest criticism. Well, I happen to think that the speaking rotation was one of our strengths. I think it was a step toward recapturing the participatory nature of the assemblies of the early church. I think it is important for the congregation to hear God’s Word proclaimed from different angles and with different emphases. To my way of thinking, content is far more important than style. And who should have the final say on style, anyway? I know for a fact that the very style which one person thinks is the best, drives others nuts. One of the beauties of rotation is that if you don’t like a particular style; if you don’t like a particular speaker, you only have to wait a month or two for a change. And, as far as some being better speakers than others goes, how can anyone get good; how can anyone improve unless he has the opportunity to practice speaking? In my view if someone has an insight from the Word, we need to hear it regardless of how polished his speaking ability is. The larger question is, “Does he have something to say?” A corollary to it is, “Is he making progress?” If so, I say let him speak.

I realize that not hiring a ‘preacher’ to do the majority of the speaking bucks the trend. It’s almost unheard of. But I’m not interested in following trends. My concern is trying to fulfill God’s intent for the church. I firmly believe that the New Testament precedent is to have a number of speakers.

Since we weren’t going to go to a ‘one-man band,’ my fellow Elder strongly urged – almost to the point of rudeness – that we get some formal training in speaking. I’m all for improving. We need to do the best job we can of communicating. But, like in all things, there’s a balance. I sometimes wonder if we don’t lose something in the pursuit of professional polish. There’s something real and genuine in the efforts of the untrained amateur. To lose that would be a heavy price to pay for formal training. I’ve seen too many speakers who put on a different persona when they get behind the lectern. Personally, I’ll take the untrained presentation of someone who shares himself over the trained rhetorician who hides his real self behind slick technique. I’ll go for content over style any day. If we can have both, great! But if we have to choose one or the other, give me the content and what’s real every time.

One writer put it this way: “Remember, it’s mutual participation we are after at every possible level. Whether song leading, or bringing thoughts around the table, or teaching and preaching – open it up for all the men to take responsibility. And train them to do it well, beginning not with methods but with prayer and study of the Word. Center a man on God, and the methods will take care of themselves.

“But as the men grow, don’t teach them to preach. That’s right. Don’t teach them to preach. Teach them to share their study…their struggles in the Word…their experience in living it out…and their hearts as they reflect on what they’ve studied. Let’s not perpetuate an expectation for the same kind of sermons from those who continue to preach full-time. Let’s allow them to talk to us about our spiritual needs. To feed and nurture is not necessarily to prepare a sermon with three memorable points…” (Radical Restoration, A Call for Pure and Simple Christianity, F. LaGard Smith, Cotswold Publishing, 2001, p. 271)

I totally agree.

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