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.