Don't dumb down church

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Speaking of Dawn Eden, I like what she said recently to Terry Mattingly regarding churches' outreach to singles:

If church leaders truly want to reach out to women and men who are looking for an alternative to that lifestyle, said Eden, they must realize that the last thing single adults need is a singles ministry that turns "your church basement into a sort of 'Animal House' with crosses."

What congregations should do is rally single adults around worship, prayer, books, the arts and service to others, she said. Then friendships and relationships can develop out of activities that strengthen the faith of those that choose to participate.

"You really don't have to dumb things down for us," said Eden. "There are plenty of ways for single adults to get less church if that is what they really want. Why not talk to some of your young adults and ask them what they really want. They may want more church _ more faith _ not less."

That's not just true for singles. You don't have to dumb things down for the rest of us either. Christianity is at its most attractive when it stands in contrast to the ways of the world. If a person has come to realize that the "lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life cannot satisfy his soul," why would he then be drawn to something that looks like a cheap watered-down imitation? If he's discovered that he can't find contentment by making himself the center of his life, why would he seek out a church that puts the focus on him? Why disguise a fountain of living water as a broken cistern?

Perhaps if the real reason for tarting up church activities is to appeal to cradle Christians who might otherwise feel that they're missing out on all the fun the world has to offer. I suspect that many church activities are most effective at recruiting people who are already churchgoers rather than attracting the unchurched.

Or perhaps it's because church leaders have become bored with what is foundational, what is solid, what is time-tested, what is true and lovely. It's a problem that extends to every area of church life. For example, music.

I'm reminded of the way a choir director will get tired of performing the Hallelujah Chorus every Easter. It's old hat to him, and he's jaded, so he wants to replace it with something modern. The choir director reasons that if he's bored with it, the congregation must be bored with it too. But to the people in the pews, it's a thing of beauty and transcendence. There's always someone in the congregation hearing it for the first time. There are plenty more who will feel cheated if they don't get to hear it again. Likewise for old hymn tunes, ancient prayers, etc.

On Palm Sunday 1989, I was attending Holy Trinity Church, an evangelical Anglican parish in Hounslow, Middlesex, west of London. I was excited to be in a liturgical church for the beginning of Holy Week. I was excited that we would be singing "All Glory, Laud, and Honor" as the processional hymn, and I was all set to boom out the traditional tune, but instead a different, sappy little modern tune was sung. Whoever planned the service must have been bored with the majestic traditional tune. I felt like I'd been deprived of the very reason I sought out an Anglican parish.

Preachers even get bored with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, preferring to deliver self-help messages. They forget that even long-time believers need to hear that Jesus died for their sins and has reconciled them to God. (Our pastor doesn't forget that, I'm happy to say.)

This tendency -- getting bored with and discarding the church's most attractive distinctives -- must be especially grating on Catholic converts like Eden, drawn to the church by a beautiful and ancient tradition, only to have their eyes and ears assaulted with ugly modern buildings and music, created by people who were evidently bored with Gothic architecture and Palestrina.

On a business trip to Montreal a couple of years ago, I took a walk up and over Westmount to St. Joseph's Oratory, which dominates the skyline on the north side of the island. Construction of the basilica began in 1924, and the exterior is dramatic and stately in the Italian Renaissance style.

The interior was completed in 1967 -- and it looks it. It was like being in a very large bank vault. There were only a couple of other people there, tourists like me, taking pictures.

I made my way to the lower level of the complex, to the crypt chapel, which was built in 1917 and used as the main church until the basilica was completed. It was as warm and colorful as the basilica had been cold and grey. Here you had traditional stained glass and statuary and shrines and thousands of votive candles and racks of abandoned canes and crutches. It looked like a Roman Catholic church is supposed to look. And here, not up in the basilica, is where you found dozens of people praying.

Seekers are looking for something solid, something permanent. Why remake the church into something flimsy and ephemeral?

To return to the quote: Eden's suggestions for singles activities are spot on, and not just for singles. Churches hold mixers, progressive dinners, and ice cream socials, build massive recreation centers and even open Starbucks franchises in the lobby, trying to create a sense of fellowship and friendship among their members. But it doesn't work. True koinonia is built when the people of God are side-by-side in worship, study, and service.

TRACKBACKS: Manasclerk has three entries addressing this topic:

Don't Smarten Up Church Either
More on singles in Christian churches
Again with the singles

From that last entry:

I suppose one of the things that I found sad about Eden's comments was that someone actually has to say "I would like to learn about God at church, please." Her requests are ludicrous as Requests For Singles because they should simply be Things That We Do Here. Singles should not have special classes on the faith simply because they are single. They should participate in the full life of the congregation as members, including teaching and learning the doctrines and the scriptures.

Not that I haven't seen it recently. Friends of mine left our church in part because there wasn't any opportunity to learn about the Bible. In depth. Not just verses but the whole thing. They're married, with kids. And he has a great new job. How can we lose someone when they want to learn about God more deeply?

Somewhere, we became embarrassed about the only distinctive that we have: we're the adopted children of the Almighty. We have the Word of God among us, and can read the words about the Word to learn more of him. (Yes, he's a heretic but he's right on that point.) What can be better than learning about the work of God through the scriptures?

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7 Comments

W. Author Profile Page said:

Not playing grand old hymns that have stood the test of time is akin to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys not playing "New San Antonio Rose" or "Faded Love."

Those songs -- in both religion and music -- helped make them popular. Give the people what they want.

See-Dubya said:

Dern' tootin.

pgcfriend said:

As an unmarried committed Christian I'm glad this post was done. This has been the angst of unmarried Christians for many years. I'm glad to see a married person taking on this issue. I know there is a general idea of dumbing down church. However there is a twist to this not mentioned in this post. Most churches no matter the type market their churches to married couples with children. Most married people do not notice this but unmarried people do. The only thing available for unmarried people is the meat market offensively called singles 'ministry'. And the church has scorn when some go to the bars, clubs and the like to meet people? It is no different other than the location of the hunt.

I have felt for many years that if the church leadership trained people for works of service like it states in Ephesians 4:11 instead of babysitting families all the time more of us unmarried would have probably found someone by now and more importantly we ALL would be better salt and light in a dark world. When there is nothing of real meaning for unmarried people they will not attend the churches. Why bother when the only thing offered is the religious meat market? I would do better staying home or going out with friends. I stayed away for a while because I was bored. I wanted to serve the Lord and be a part of a community where I had a chance to do that. All I experienced my entire adult life (I'm 47) was suspicion and a total disregard for what my desires were in service to the Lord. I was looked upon as a sexually frustrated person that was only focused on marriage so I can experience legal sex. That is an absolute insult to unmarried people, especially older ones as myself. When I leave here I want to know that my life mattered for Christ. Whether I marry or not is up to the men I meet and whether there is a connection. We will only experience marriage here on this earth which is only a drop in the bucket compared to eternity.

I'm determined to serve the Lord unmarried or married. I hope those leaders that DO NOT PRAY and dumb down the gospel just to gain numbers will have a shift in focus. The Bible says in James that teachers will have a harsher judgment. They have influence over many people. It would behoove them to lead according to God's word and NOT by their whim or the tactics of the world. That will not further the kingdom of God on earth. That's all I care about. I will do it within a community of believers or outside. It makes me no difference.

pgcfriend, I appreciate your perspective. Thanks for posting your thoughts.

I'm happy to say that our church doesn't have a "meat market" atmosphere, and there are opportunities for service beyond the walls of the church -- for example, tutoring kids at low-income housing projects. But it is still very family-focused, and I'm sure we married folks don't see clearly how that affects older singles.

pgcfriend said:

Michael,

I'm very glad to hear that your church is well rounded. I could care less about the emphasis on families. They are very important and need a lot of input. They have a lot more issues than I do (I have no children). However the issue for me has been the emphasis on families with the exclusion of those of us that are not married. Let the ministry fly towards the families. However I want something to do. I guess being task oriented makes this even harder for me:) It has not been as much of a sore spot for me as it has for other singles. This very issue can be really painful for many, especially those that have been married before. I have tried to encourage them to plow their own path and keep trucking until you find a place of peace.

You will be pleased to know that after all these years I have finally found a community of believers that focus on ministry away from the four walls and embrace every person attending from any walk of life. They do not officially dismiss service. They said that we are shifting to another phase of ministry to the lost and hurting. I just started attending on a regular basis not quite a year ago. I have told all my unmarried friends across the country that they would be welcome there. There is no schism or distrust from the married people there. I have made some wonderful new friends, married and unmarried. For the first time in my entire life with the Lord (since 14) I truly feel like I have found a community of believers that believe that Christianity is a family, not a business to be marketed to one segment of the population.

They are definitely outward focused. A young minister (about 30) and his wife have moved here from CA. A part of their ministry is to Muslim nations in the Middle East. Another part is a feeding ministry. I thought, THANK YOU JESUS I will have some real fun now:)

God Bless You

Pamela (pgcfriend)

(By e-mail, Pamela told me that the church is the Family Prayer Center at 86th & Union in west Tulsa.)

J. M. Branum said:

I agree with much of your comments. I know many single young folks who are buying into the red bull and Krispy Kreme churches (this was I and another single friend call the megachurches that that do all kinds of crazy stunts to get people in the door), but many more of us are seeking something more.

For myself, I found it in a small (15 member) Mennonite Church in Northeast Oklahoma City. I like the Mennonites because they actually believe something and they try to live it out, and more importantly I appreciate the fact that they take Jesus' teachings very seriously (particularly the Sermon on the Mount).

Other friends have gone to Catholic churches or to other settings but I think the main commonality is that we want something real, not manufactured and commercialized. Church should be different than watching TV.

manasclerk Author Profile Page said:

Here's the question, Michael: how will you as an elder in your church incorporate the single people in your parish into your church's very life?

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 7, 2007 8:07 PM.

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