Attractional is dead! The rallying cry of nearly all church vitality books, articles, and seminars today. Gone is the day can you grow your church by simply offering the best religious goods and services in your community because, today, so few people are in the market for such things. Indeed, people drive by our churches, and our new fancy electronic signs, and take as much interest in what is going on inside as I take in women’s shoe stores. Meaning, near zero.
So, no more Field of Dreams. “If you build it they will come” is an idea (and, frankly, a movie) that should stay in the world of decades past.
However, and this is a big however, this isn’t an excuse to do things poorly.
Leaving behind an attractional model for church growth doesn’t free you from having good, strong, fundamentals in your congregation. In fact, without strong fundamentals few of the now blossoming strategies, including the missional movement currently permeating everything, will work.
Or, to put it as my first mentor in ministry did (himself a poster boy for the missional movement), “You can’t grow a church with bad worship.”
So, here are some honest questions you need to be asking about your worship. Now.
1) Is our worship bad?
Be honest, you know when worship is bad. You know when the songs are sung too slow, when the order of service is awkward, or when the majority of people are just going through the motions. If you’re a pastor, then you know when worship just ain’t working.
If your answer is yes, it’s bad, then you just discovered the one thing you need to work on immediately. The truth is, we haven’t found a version of church life that doesn’t center in some way on the act of worship. Not everyone is in a bible study, not everyone is feeding the homeless or working VBS. Yet, if you were to point at someone and say “She is a member of our church community,” chances are almost certain “she” attends worship. It is the common denominator.
Additionally, I have yet to encounter a church that passes the plate at any activity other than worship. The entire funding model for what we do is based on people attending worship.
And why would they if it’s bad?
2) Are we playing to our strengths?
In the United Methodist Church, we are blessed with nearly free reign how we structure our worship. So long as the basic building blocks are present (preach, pray, sing), they can be arranged in infinite combination. Too often, we tend to focus our energy on what isn’t working. For example, increasing resources funneled into keeping a choir afloat that, if we are honest, isn’t adding much to the service any more.
Instead, see what is going well and ask how you can make that more prominent. At my last church, no matter what we did responsive readings (i.e. call to worship, unison prayer) never sounded anything but flat and lifeless. Yet, our congregational singing was strong. So we took out what wasn’t working and added another song. Unsurprisingly no one complained, or even noticed I’d imagine.
3) Are we trying to hard to be relevant?
“Relevant” is the current church buzzword to end all buzzwords. Let me say from the beginning that yes, churches should attempt to be relevant to their communities. However, another big however, you also need to be true to who you are. There is nothing sadder then a group of people putting on a show of what they think the world wants to them to be.
My wife only started attending church when our first child was born. I had been a churchgoer from youth, so I had expectations about what worship was supposed to be. She, on the other hand, was a blank slate. So when we moved from a very casual service with coffee and round tables in the fellowship hall to a traditional service with pews and organ she took it all in stride. She had no issue understanding both were “church.”
In both cases, she had to learn the patterns and movement of the services, which she was perfectly willing to do. What was the most important thing when she was doing that, though, ultimately wasn’t her, it was the people around her. If others at the service were genuinely engaged in what they were doing, if she could see that the song, or the word, or whatever had deep significance to the people gathered she was motivated to learn to experience it as they did.
Bringing new people into a relationship with Christ through the church will always mean some learning for those who are new. How silly is it to think they will learn to take something seriously that we don’t already take seriously ourselves. Or, learn to value something that we don’t demonstrate we value
4) Are we being too selfish?
Now for the counter point of the two points I just made. Often in the church preference is given to established patterns and tastes to the exclusion of all else. Anyone who’s ever insisted that a congregation learn a new song knows this. Yet, the world doesn’t stand still and progress and growth is a vital part of how God put the world together. Worship, like the world, cannot stand still frozen in time.
One concept we need to get comfortable with is the basic notion of turns. We teach our kids at an early age to take turns and share. Yet, too often we aren’t willing to live out the same principle in our worship. When we added a projection system for song lyrics some questioned it as unnecessary. My response was quick and to the point, “It’s not there for you.” Please, continue to sing from the hymnal and songbooks. No one is taking them away. This is for other people.
Same with the songs that we choose, the children’s messages we do, and on down the line. Over and over again, when people registered discontent about one aspect of worship or another, I would issue a simple invitation. “When the thing you don’t care for happens, take a moment to look around, are others engaged in it?” Is someone else singing his/her heart out to God during that new song you don’t care for? If so why can’t we celebrate that? Why isn’t that enough? Just relax a moment, it will be over soon, it’s just not your turn right now. And that’s okay.
Ultimately even having the best worship in town will not guarantee growth. However, continuing to have bad worship will guarantee decline. As we endeavor to move the church forward, and discover all the things that no longer work as they did, we can’t neglect the fundamentals of what makes the church the church. Worship is not by any stretch the only thing, but it is an important thing. If it isn’t working well it will drag down your efforts in any other area.