Overcoming our Churchiness

Setting out to blog today, I suppose this one could be classified as a rant. I’m not sure what will follow these openning sentences because I’m airing out some personal frustrations while earnestly attempting to keep my thoughts constructive. At the same time, I remember the words God used to commission the prophet Jeremiah: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you… to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Not that I’m Jeremiah– and Lord, I hope to never be!!— but the point is plain enough. Sometimes you’ve got to tear things down and rip them apart in order to plant new life.

I’ve always lived with a tolerable level of frustration with the state of the church, such as it is. It’s like living with achy knees (which I do, by the way). You simply learn to live with it, work through it, and perhaps use the annoyance to spur on some kind of greater good. (In my case, achy knees constantly remind me to lose weight and keep my leg muscles in shape.)

There are certain churchy mindsets, attitudes, values, and priorities which I live and work in everyday. Sometimes I even catch myself falling back into them. As a spiritual leader, much of my job is reforming the church away from these inhibiting qualities which have led us into serious decline, and shepherd us towards more authentic, Christ-centered, biblical mindsets, attitudes, values, and priorities. Sometimes it feels like pushing Mt. Everest. Other times, it’s rapturous to see how easily many of us “get it.”

But I recently had something happen which ratcheted up the normal tolerable level of frustration to jabbing pains. When that happens, I rant.
Two Sundays ago at our Vacation Bible School celebration, we used some technology normally not utilized in worship. Our VBS leaders used PowerPoint digital projection to display the words of the VBS songs we sang all week. I’ve been a longtime proponent of our church installing digital projection into our sanctuary, for reasons I’ll unpack a little later. So, knowing there would be digital projection during our worship services that Sunday, I asked the leadership team if I could create and include a PowerPoint presentation of my sermon. There was method to my madness; if folks could see the full potential of digital projection, they just might want more of it. And yes, people loved it!

Yesterday, I followed suit. During my sermon, I used PowerPoint again. I wanted people to be able tune in more and see what they were hearing. I projected my major points, some Scriptures, and some images of things I was describing. Despite a few minor technical glitches that need working out, it was a success. I saw people paying more attention and taking notes. Better yet, I saw younger people with their heads up and eyes facing forward.

“Why PowerPoint and digital projection?” you may ask. We’re in a postmodern world. In our postmodern world, most people are visual learners. Immersed in an image-rich world of computers, TVs, vivid advertising, smart phones, and gaming, many of us connect and learn from others through our eyes. Arguably, so much visual living has diminished our capacity to learn and connect by using our ears. Nevertheless, more of us function and absorb information in visual formats.

Most traditional churches, on the other hand, still operate in the older “modern” world of auditory learning and communicating. We come to these churches and must hear the announcements, hear the music, and exclusively listen to a 20+ minute sermon. That asks postmodern visual learners to carefully focus on the primary medium of sound in order to receive the Word of God. No wonder I see many people with blank expressions on their faces or fidgeting doing other things while trying to “listen” to a sermon. In settings like these, I could be the most charismatic and profound preacher and still see people tuning out.

So, I began some much-needed, corrective steps last week and yesterday. A lot of people saw it as a welcome change. They commented how much easier it was for them to pay attention and walk away with more from the message. As a preacher, I was able to share more detailed, substantive information knowing that people would be able to see and follow along with my points. They could visualize how all these points come together into one whole. They could see the ideas I shared. In other words, it was much harder to get lost in information overload because I gave them a multi-sensory message from God’s Word.

But here’s what got my goat: the unhelpful negative comments from some well-intentioned church people. While I keep myself open to listen and learn to anyone, here’s what some people said:

“It’s just a gimmick.”
“I feel like I’m in a classroom, not church.”
“This is a dumbing down of worship.”
“This stuff doesn’t belong in our historic, sacred sanctuary.”

“You may be trying to get younger people, but going to chase away us older people with that kind of thing.”

I even had one person tell me that as long as I use digital projection, they would not come to our worship services!

Franky, it astonishes me how easily the church’s churchiness gets in the way of making new disciples of Jesus Christ. The use of technology is no gimmick. It’s not “church-lite”. I’m trying to stay in step with people like Jesus and the Apostle Paul who knew how to communicate the good news of the gospel in a way that people can both understand and retain. My interest in using technology in worship is not an ends in itself. I want to share the Word of God and form followers of Jesus, and I’ll use whatever means necessary to do it.
lost-sheepIn this discussion or in any other concerning the church’s ministry, there are two hallmark questions we church people must ask ourselves:

1) To what lengths are we willing to go to make new disciples of Christ?

2) How willing are we to sacrifice our own sensibilities and wants in order to reach new, younger people for Jesus?
Asking these questions illuminates one of the major barriers we face in making new disciples of Jesus. That barrier is none other than the churchiness of the church. What is churchiness? It’s the inflexibility of a “me first” approach to ministry. It’s the attitude that worship and ministry revolve around the wants and desires of church members rather than the vast neediness of a lost world. It’s the arrogance of assuming that the world must conform to our church culture in order to have a chance at being disciples of Jesus. To put it another way, it’s when the church thinks of itself more as a club who tends to the wants of its club members and less as a missional people of God who will stop at nothing to bring their world to salvation in Jesus Christ.

Whew… I got all of that off my chest. The rant is over.

But in all seriousness, I love the church I serve and the community I live in far, far too much to allow anything or anyone, myself included, to be a stumbling block to people coming into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I also know I need to keep my own churchiness in check, too. I have a lot to learn in order to become a more missional and mission-leading pastor. Some of that means learning to take hits from folks who resist needed change to the church. But, I’m confident we’ll get there and that God is able to use us, even in spite of ourselves. After all, God will not rest until each lost child of God’s discovers how Jesus Christ died and was risen for them. I just pray my church and I can keep up!


Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

11 Responses to Overcoming our Churchiness

  1. Dave Self

    I’m with you. I think we sometimes get overly attached to the forms of worship and lose focus on the purpose of it. Along with that can come turning the focus 180 degrees from where it should be.

  2. Dan Brennan

    Amen, Chris! I couldn’t have said it any better. With your permission, I am going to share this with some folks at my church, in the hope that they will lose some of their fear of change, and perhaps be more open to those who want to grow in our approach to worship to meet the needs of today’s people. Stay strong, and persevere.

  3. Janice Crouse

    I shouldn’t be surprised; I grew up in a UM parsonage and agonized with my father over these sorts of reactions. I LOVE powerpoint; people get more out of a message that utilizes more than one means of message transmission. Some people are visual learners and they get much more out of sermons that include a visual element. This is just an updated version of the old VBS “felt” Bible stories. The “medium” does sometimes become the “message” but this is such an important advancement I would think all church members would rejoice. Plus, as pastor you will have to work much harder to get your message focused enough to go on the slides — I’ve found that REALLY sharpens my focus.

    • Yes, actually the PowerPoint has been more challenging for all the reasons you mention, plus it’s prodded me to take my sermon writing and presentation to a new level of excellence.
      People fear that the medium could overtake the message, and that’s a valid fear. It’s something I’m gong to keep in mind. But I think one thing to keep stressing that you mention here is that digital projection allows me to engage more senses in the congregation than just auditory.

  4. I understand that people tend to like what they like and not like change. Some are more in tune to modern technology and some are irritated by it.
    But the matter of Christ is a matter of heart, not likes or dislikes. What makes a message or a church or worship is not the physical instruments or technogadgets used – it is the Spirit.
    Is He living and moving in the church? In the message? In the worship? That is what matters! But as you’ve said before not all can be satisfied and if they are then you’re probably doing something wrong – lol!
    That said, we need to remember that God’s Word is eternal and living, not confined or conformed to this world’s cultural changes. So something that the culture uses may actually (and often does) run contrary to Biblical truth.
    So, Chris, you pray to find the balance that God wants you to find in preaching His Word and leading His people and then let your conscience be clear!
    Nice post on a relevant topic…

  5. Keep the faith Chris. Bringing the Church into this century is important, albeit difficult work. Jesus used the media of his day and believe we are called to use it as well. I began introducing videos as meditations during worship and they are received well – by a variety of congregants. Remember 70% of the population are visual learners – people loved by God.

  6. Kyndra Holm

    PC, I’m sorry that you had that experience. I hope that your efforts to finally start a contemporary worship service will not meet with that same response and that it will be a huge success in reaching a new generation for Christ!!! God bless!!! You and FUMC remain in our prayers!

  7. Chris,
    I am planning on adding a presentation by projector to our Sunday school teacher presentation on Sunday and I am concerned about the reaction from the church. I can’t even imagine trying it in the sanctuary. Great job and keep up the good work building up the body of Christ and meeting people where they are…God bless you!

  8. sarah

    Found this old post by accident.
    Couldn’t disagree more.
    It has taken us quite a while to find a “churchy” UMC. Love it!
    The start of our quest was the desire of the 30 something postmoderns in the family to find a church that wasn’t just another corporate meeting or worse yet, classroom.
    We chose deliberately no powerpoint, no contemporary rock concert worship, no following the trends and fads of the age.
    Seems to be working nicely for us.

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