Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Contemporary Church - Part I

I can’t help but chuckle a bit every time I see a church sign announcing a “Contemporary Worship Service.” It would seem to me that any service would be contemporary because it’s happening “right now.” Yes, I know, in a contemporary service, the music is usually a bit more modern than traditional, instruments are played beside piano and/or organ, dress may be more casual, and the whole focus is more on the present moment with all of its cultural trappings. Something other than contemporary would be “traditional”, a service of worship that is structured much as it has been for generations, with orders of worship, the wearing of robes by worship leaders, standing and sitting at pre-arranged times, and a more subdued response in the worship setting.

I know of a church that has a really stimulating lecture series each year under the general heading of “Jesus in the 21st Century.” If you are interested, ask me and I will give you the details. I think such an emphasis is important, because in this still relatively new century, some folk are doing some of the finest 19th century thinking to be found anywhere. Tradition can have value, but it may be so hardened that it depresses life and the spirit. I believe we are called forward by the One we know as God. And to be in such an encounter is to somehow figure out how to live in the present moment.

What might a “contemporary” church look like? I sense that there is a need to have changes, additions, and deletions from the present expression. Following are some of my thoughts on how to bring the church into the 21st century.

First, adopt a whole new attitude toward church buildings and budgets. I’ve written on this previously (See June 5). I know there is a vital need for the body to gather and the efforts of the body will require expense on some occasions, so the bills and obligations have to be met. But somehow, let us find more ways to be present in the market place and the neighborhood. Biblical metaphors like salt, light, and leaven ought to speak to us at this point. And we may need to take a cue on using our monies in ways other than building more church buildings. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the largest part of funds shared by the church would be in the areas of missions and Christian re-education and not in salaries and building up-keep?
Secondly, let’s delete some of our hymns. There are some good ones that we need to hold on to and sing with abandon. But have you really read the theology in some of the older hymns? Be gone especially with the “blood” hymns and those who speak of our escape from this world and removal from any presence of struggle. Perhaps keep familiar melodies or easy- to- sing tunes, but the texts need to change. And it’s happening in different ways. There are some great hymn-writers on the scene. We ought to pay attention to them.
Thirdly, do whatever we must to remove the divide between clergy and laity. Let church be seen as a circle of companions and not as a ladder of power with the strongest at the top. Let the voices heard in gathered sessions be of the novice as well as the ordained.
Fourth, eat more meals together. That’s all I’m going to say about that, except to encourage others, who would not normally be at our table, to join with us.

More on the contemporary church next week. I welcome your thoughts on how to do church in the 21st century.

1 comment:

  1. When I was growing up, some of the greatest advice my Southern Baptist preacher father ever gave me came after cautioning me to not make fun of the shouting t.v. preachers or the “no collar” preachers (Catholics were very rare in eastern N.C.) Dad told me that it was okay if there were different kinds of preachers, because there were different kinds of people and not everyone was going to like the same preacher. He said that about churches, too. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of church.

    That has stuck with me and so, when I consider the question – “what might a contemporary church look like?”, I have to resist the temptation to tell you what is wrong with the church today and concentrate more on what kind of church I would like to be a part of. So, here goes …. This is the church to which I would like to belong …
    1. The building is important only in that it has an open door to other groups, congregations, people in need and people passing by. It is cared for and maintained, but it is also a community building, a community yard, a good neighbor wherever it is located.

    2. The church I want to be a part of is like a rest area, a way station for those needing a place to feel included, loved, needed and appreciated on their journey. There is no need to “join up”. It’s just a place to figure out some things in the midst of a really great group of people who want nothing more from you than what you’re willing to give. A church is a place where people will just sit with you and let you be for as long as you need.

    3. At the same time, the church needs to help you identify and use your gifts. The church needs to be a safe place for you to speak up, express concerns, ask questions, play the piano, display your art, share yourself …

    4. The church I want to belong to has got to pay attention to what is going on around us. Oh, I know how churches study the latest market trends to see how to reach the young professionals or what technology should be advertised “A church where you can twitter under the cross” … “Jesus on-line, all the time”. No, what I think the church needs to pay attention to are those without a voice. There is a lot of misinformation out there thanks to things like Wikipedia and extremist talking heads. The church shouldn’t claim to know what is right – but rather, help the different voices be heard – especially the voices belonging to our Hispanic community, our gay friends, our students falling through the cracks … The church is so busy trying to get your attention, they’ve stopped paying attention to what really matters.

    5. And the church I strive for is one that is honest with folks. It tells them that this church-stuff is hard work. Following the way of Jesus is hard. Reading the Bible is hard. Trying to sift through the theologies of yesterday, today and tomorrow is downright painful. But it’s necessary and should not be tried alone.

    I guess that’s the most important aspect. In a culture that makes it very easy to do “church” via satellite, cyber space and credit card donations, the church needs to open its doors even wider so that no one finds themselves alone. I am very, very, very fortunate to be a part of a body that asks hard questions, forgives each other, encourages and loves … but most of all, takes every opportunity to eat together!!!