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I was at a denominational meeting not too long ago, sitting at a table with half a dozen other pastors and elders. At one spot in the agenda we were supposed to take 10 minutes to talk about vision and direction of the denomination. This led to a conversation about our churches and why so many RCA congregations keep losing members. An older man at my table lamented that his church continues to shrink. What used to be a rather large church has declined to a shadow of its former glory. He quickly offered an explanation, “People just don’t like traditional worship anymore. We have the hymns and the liturgy and the organ. The growing churches have guitars and drums. Our style just doesn’t work anymore.”

I wasn’t sure quite how to respond. There can be a hundred reasons for a church’s decline–some of them the fault of the church, some of them not. But I knew a little bit about the church this man was from. It’s a church with classic worship and liberal theology. They have hosted pro-gay events before (to cite one example). Knowing this, I asked the man if he thought the gospel was faithfully preached each Sunday. Of course, he said he was certain it was. I suggested that the reasons for their decline were probably more complex than simply their worship style. I didn’t get far in the conversation except to add that there are plenty of examples of thriving churches with classic worship and we shouldn’t assume our church problems can be fixed by a simple change of instrumentation.

I don’t share that story to suggest that liberal churches always shrink and robust gospel-centered churches always grow. But I do wish church leaders would stop assuming that their problems boil down to a certain worship style and can be fixed with another. I run into church leaders fairly often who struggle to make sense of their declining numbers. I feel for these brothers (and sometimes they are sisters in my circles). I don’t know all the reasons for church growth or church decline. Growth does not equal faithfulness any more than decline equals failure. Sometimes situations, histories, and circumstances are outside our control. Regenerating human hearts always is. So we should be slow to judge another church’s fruitfulness.

And yet, we can ask better questions. I’m not against changing worship styles. There may be good reasons to do so in some circumstances. But I doubt very much that’s usually the real problem. Instead of assuming that young people will flock to our churches if we drop the organ and plug in the guitar (and we have both at our church), declining denominations and shrinking churches should ask deeper, harder questions:

Is the gospel faithful preached?
Is the Bible taught with clarity and passion?
Are the sermons manifestly rooted in a text of Scripture?
Do the elders/pastors and deacons meet the qualifications for church office laid out in the New Testament?
Are the sacraments faithfully administered and protected?
Is church discipline practiced?
Do the elders exercise personal care over the flock?
Are there good relationships among the staff and other leaders?
Is the worship service put together thoughtfully and carried out with undistracting excellence (as much as possible).
Do the people in the congregation sing the songs with gusto or are they going through the motions?
Is a high bar set for church membership?
Are the people of the church engaged in personal ministry?
Is the congregation marked by increasing prayer and evangelism?
Do the pastors believe in the complete trustworthiness of all of Scripture?
Do they take adequate time for study and preparation?
Do they truly believe and eagerly rejoice in their church’s/denomination’s statement of faith, creeds, and confessions?
Are their lives examples of personal holiness?

There are scores of other questions you could ask. These are only a sample. It may be after facing these questions that a church decides to change a few programs or alter a few songs. But until a congregation asks these tough questions, the quick fixes will not fix much of anything. Don’t assume the style is the thing. Check your substance first.


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64 thoughts on “It’s Probably Not the Worship Style”

  1. Aaron J says:

    Jeff Baxter wrote: “Just as the music of the 1980′s had an appeal to the Gen Xers, so the music and worship style for the Millenials is just different. ”
    I don’t even understand this comment.
    I never remember any churches in the 1980’s having music by Quiet Riot or Madonna or Prince in their worship services. And yet, plenty of boomers and xers stayed in the ecclessia (called out ones).

  2. Jeff Baxter says:

    Thanks for the reply Aaron J. I was not speaking of specific groups, but “music and worship style” as Kevin’s post was about that. Whether we are paying attention or not, “style” does matter whether drums, guitar, organ, electric guitar, piano, etc. It is not the most important thing (as Kevin pointed out), but worth paying attention too for the forms of the church worship service moving forward.

  3. Aaron J says:

    Jeff, I only mentioned the specific groups because their “style” is known by nearly all. And yet again the style of Prince, Madonna, and Quiet Riot were not necessary to ensure the “moving forward” of Christ’s church.
    The purpsoe for making the point is because there is a pattern for worship that is appropriate and a pattern that is not appropriate. Simply adopting a style says nothing toward the end of whether the actual music is edifying or Godly or whehter it in fact deserves to be considered for being incorporated into the corporate setting.

  4. Jeff Kaldahl says:

    My family and I just moved to a new town and struggling to find a church home. I have been pondering exactly what we should set as a guide beyond basic biblical preaching and I find this list to be a helpful gauge. Even though that was not the intent I think it is a good start for those having to look for a new church home.

  5. Melvin Shuster says:

    Robert and Meredith:

    Thank you both for your response to my post. (Thanks also to you J.J.) I do appreciate it. I find your use of the word “church” interesting though Robert. Where was the Body of Christ meeting when Paul sent his letters to the faithful, in church buildings? I believe that they were meeting in homes. No doubt at times when they met in people’s homes they were reading the letters from Paul, who was not present with them. (Writing on parchment was their equivalent to our downloading pod casts).

    Also, to Meredith, during the two years now that my wife and I have been apart from the church we have been quite active in giving of our time and money to those in need.

    My point to both of you is that yes we need, for a variety of reasons, to be in fellowship with other believers. I just have come to believe that the organizational structures that are now in place, and that have for so long have been synonymous with Christ’s church have become too concerned with keeping the numbers up and are now, as a result quite frequently spiritually dead.

  6. Robert "Cricket" Renner says:

    Melvin,

    I agree that “evangelical” churches can become too concerned with numbers, however that does not make the church as an institution a bad thing. The “organizational structure” you mention was set up by Christ and His apostles … Christ as the chief cornerstone, the apostles as the foundation, and we are building upon that structure. Also, if you notice, Revelations was written to the “churches in” various cities. Also, I believe some early churches did meet in homes, just as some probably also met in other facilities (like the temple in Jerusalem, for instance, in the first few chapters of Acts). So, church is not a building or location, but it is the body of Christ, set up with a structure of elders and deacons (something I would dare say home or internet churches don’t have).

    Paul’s inspired writing on parchment that is the Word of God is not the same as listening to a sermon on podcast, although if you mean it was how they communicated, I can see your point.

    My major problem with home churches is primarily with those that want to stay a home church and now “grow” into an organized church. How do they elect elders / deacons? Who trains them? Who serves communion? Who does baptisms? Who administers church discipline?

    Just because some churches are concerned with numbers and are spiritually “dead” does not mean the church is wrong. In fact, it probably proves the point that those churches most likely did not have an appropriate organizational structure and government, i.e., did they have a group of men who led the church spiritually, accountable to one another, accountable to a higher organization, etc.? I bring up the last point because it is easier for an independent church to lose its way if it is not accountable to a higher organization, i.e., a denomination.

    Thanks for the graceful discussion, and I pray you are able to find a good body of believers to worship with and be accountable to!

  7. Calvin Synod says:

    I like your post in general, but it could be made to sound as if the booming mega churches ARE “Gospel Centered”… many are sadly shallow and man centered as you know.

  8. Melvin Shuster says:

    Robert:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I do hope that my comments are perceived as graceful, full of frustration maybe, but graceful.

    Let me also say that I believe in Christ’s church, the Body of Christ. Our Christian lives are meant to be lived out in community. I hope that none of my comments are taken to mean otherwise. I believe in the Biblical model for community.

    As I read the responses to my posts, though, the thought has come to me that my experiences and therefore my perception of how the church is “currently” structured is probably different from those who are reading my post. With that in mind, my point is that the “organizational structures” that I referred to and that I have experienced and am finding as I search for a congregation are really not based on any Biblical model. My experience is that increasingly, it seems, that the congregations are built around one man and maybe his board. They are more like businesses than organic communities of saints.

    The Sunday gatherings that I find as I search frequently consist of trivial greetings, followed by painfully loud music (?), that is self-focused, narcissistic and devoid of any content that even remotely resembles Christian beliefs, followed by preaching that may or may not be Biblically based or relevant, followed by more trivial banter.

    This is what I am leaving.

    Best,

    Mel

  9. Robert "Cricket" Renner says:

    Amen, brother Mel! I agree with your analysis of what you’re leaving, and I will pray for your search. I also agree that what you’re leaving is worth leaving, as it is mostly shallow / dead of spiritual truth! As for ‘mega’ churches, I think they have a very difficult time staying true to the gospel (I know that’s a gross simplification and stereotype, but it’s hard for the pastor to do personal ministry in a church that numbers in the hundreds, much less the thousands!)

    That is one of the reasons why, over the years, I came to the Reformed view of the faith and now worship in an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). I’ve also enjoyed PCA churches in the past.

    In His service,
    “Cricket”

  10. Sally says:

    After 25 yrs going to and becoming a Christian in an armenian church, we too have ‘discovered’ reformed teaching and have been over whelmed by the great teaching we are now hearing, mainly through the internet listening to Don Carson,John Piper, Mark Driscoll,and many others, but also to some good preaching here in WalesUK.
    The problem here though is most reformed churches live in the 18th century, and the other churches in the area either High Anglican with very little gospel or very charismatic churches,great on compassion but wanting on any systamatic preaching….

  11. Brendan Kelly says:

    When I was in the Army we would occasionally be out in the field training, and would miss Sunday services; so the Chaplin would come out to meet us when schedules allowed. I remember it was Wed. afternoon and we broke out of training for an hour, headed over to some trees, and the pastor did a quick service for us under the trees, with no hymns or anything. However the Chaplain was faithful to the Gospel, and the service was meaningful.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I recall going to an Episcopal Church in Conway Ark. a few years ago. The church was about 100 years old, so it was a beautiful faux Gothic building with stained glass, a great choir, vestments, all the “smells and bells”. The Gospel however was not from Luke, Mark, Matthew or John, but NPR. The Gospel reading was the story of the loaves and fishes, and the preacher, who had a Simon and Garfunkel faux fro, literally got up and spent the next 20 min. explaining how the Gospel that had just been read was literally wrong, no miracle had happened, Jesus had not actually fed anyone, how people had actually brought food with them and shared it with each other, and the whole story was a metaphor for something… I forget what exactly, I had given up on this church by that point, but I recall that it was vaguely socialist and humanistic, and was in direct contradiction to the Gospel message.

    I never went back to the Church in Conway. There wasn’t any reason to… I could get the same thing at home from Liane Hansen and Scott Simon, and despite the traditional decor, Jesus wasn’t at the Church in Conway anyway.

  12. Miguel Leontiev says:

    I like the discussion! We were members of a church where leadership decided to aspire for mega church status. Everything went downhill from there. The stage was built as large as the rest of the sanctuary; more resources were spent on sound equipment and technology than on support to missionaries and outreach; the worship team alone “performed” at every service and everyone else occasionally moved to the music; the baptistry was used for diving skits; and there was a “ministry” to appeal to every conceivable need, I.e., overcoming loss of pet grief. Shallow sermons lasted 10-15 minutes and made people feel good; and there was little prayer or reading of scripture. All this fluff brought in a lot of new people who were looking for entertainment, and they left just as quickly when the novelty wore off and could no longer be enticed by a free latte. Many of the faithful who love the Lord and whose appeals were not heard also were compelled to leave.
    The wonderful thing is that a new church was started by these faithful, meeting in a humble school gym, and it is growing strong in the Lord, not because of great technology, ministries for everyone, hip worship teams, or free lattes; but because it is founded on the Gospel, great Biblical teaching, lots and lots of prayer, scripture reading, heartfelt musical worship rather than entertainment, and a reverence for our Father as the Holy God that he is, rather than the much more tolerant “friend” the world prefers. Christ’s church does not need our props-modern or traditional-to prosper. Blessings to you!

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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