It’s well known among the Churches of Christ that our largest congregation, the Richland Hills Church of Christ in Ft. Worth, recently decided to add an instrumental Saturday night worship service to their two Sunday morning a cappella services. I understand that the decision cost them 200 members, but that, in less than six months, they regained at least that many and are poised to continue their growth. But, then, they were out of room at their two Sunday morning services and couldn’t have grown at all without adding a third service of some sort.
Not surprisingly, many congregations are now wrestling with the question of whether to introduce instrumental music or a separate instrumental worship. The theory is that most church growth and most conversions occur among young couples and that popular music—essentially always instrumental–is very, very important to the generation presently coming out of college.
And these are manifestly true statements—proven by social research and personal observation: ask any parent or minister who works with the young.
The natural mode of thinking in the Churches of Christ is to immediately delve into the theology and hermeneutics, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. (Do We Teach Another Gospel? and the posts listing in the Index under “Instrumental Music”) As I’ve already argued at some length, there really is no scriptural basis for declaring instrumental music in worship sinful. Therefore, the appropriate discussion should be one of practice: what best effects God’s purpose for the church?
Given the naturally rebellious nature of many us (myself most certainly included), it’s easy to leap to the conclusion that we should, by all means, jump on the instrumental band wagon. It’s permissible and it’s evangelistically beneficial. Q.E.D.
But, much to my own surprise, recent events have led me to a somewhat different conclusion. This is partly based on four stories.
The first happened when my law partner and I built our law office. By then we had 12 or so people working for us, and we met with them all to discuss designs for the new building. My partner very badly wanted to install Musak for the staff. I hate working with someone else’s music playing, and so I campaigned against the idea.
We asked the staff for a show of hands: how many would like music piped in through speakers in the ceiling? EVERYONE but me raised their hands. My partner grinned at me, assured of his victory.
I asked, “How many want country? How many want classical?” and continued through a list of musical styles. Two or three hands went up with each listed style, and soon the staff was arguing—very bitterly—over which style we should play. I grinned at my partner, assured of my victory.
We asked everyone to bring a radio to play in their offices so they could all have their own preferred choice of music.
Lesson learned: People really like music and are quite emotional on the subject. But musical tastes are highly divided. People like instrumental music, but they don’t like each other’s instrumental music at all.
Last weekend, I traveled to by nephew’s wedding. His parents are very devout, very active members of a large Baptist church. The church has a band and plays only contemporary music. Their son was marrying a girl who’d also grownup in that church, but the parents were just learning that the new couple would likely worship at another church. You see, they don’t like the music at their old church. They want a congregation that rocks!
Lesson learned: There is no musical style that will make everyone happy. Therefore, just because you change from the a cappella style to the contemporary style doesn’t mean you’ll become attractive to all who happen by. You’ll have just shifted from one “market segment” to another. Of course, if you have multiple services, you’ll have now become more attractive to two market segments, but that’s just two out of dozens.
A teenager from our congregation is about to graduate from high school. As teenagers go, he is not as into music as many. However, in visiting the college he is about to attend, he advised his mother that he’d likely attend the Baptist Church rather than the local Church of Christ, because he likes the music better.
Our church has excellent, state-of-the-art congregational a cappella music. We attract many from outside the Churches of Christ despite having no band or organ. Obviously, he was looking for something more like the music he listens to on his CD player.
However, he visited the college’s Church of Christ campus ministry and discovered 250 students at an a cappella devo—with music not as good as ours. And yet he was convincingly sold on attending this church, despite its less-than-state-of-the-art music. Why? Because he found a community.
By “community” I mean a group of people willing to socialize and help each other. Although he’s a high school senior, the college students he met took him out for coffee, introduced him to someone in his major, and accepted him into their social network.
Lesson learned: Community is more important that music. Community is not just numbers, but numbers matter. Community requires being open to newcomers in an active, not just superficially friendly, way.
My wife asked my youngest son, a high school sophomore, where he’d like to go on vacation this summer. In all seriousness, he said he wanted to have six or seven friends over to the house for week—rather than going to the beach or DisneyWorld.
Lesson learned: Friends are more important to this generation of kids than Mickey Mouse. Community is the force that drives this generation. This can also be seen in the Facebook phenomenon, World of Warcraft, and other social networks now on the internet.
Therefore, I conclude that a mere change in musical styles will not be the solution to the desire for church growth. However, figuring a way to create real community will.
This is not to say that music doesn’t matter. It matters a lot. It’s just not the most important thing.
Satisfaction vs. Dissatisfaction
I read a book on church leadership a while back that broke church growth issues down into matters of dissatisfaction and matters of satisfaction. Dissatisfaction matters are things that annoy members or interfere with their enjoyment of the congregation. An inadequate air conditioner or lack of parking would be dissatisfaction problems.
Satisfaction issues would be such things as whether the church has an effective missions program, helps the poor, provides community, has a good teen ministry … the things people look for, as opposed to the things people will avoid.
I’m thinking that people don’t look for instruments. They look for great worship. More importantly, they look for community and great programs. Some look for programs that help them with problems—divorce recovery, for example. Some look for programs that meet family needs—marriage coaching, parenting classes, teen and children’s ministries. Some look for programs that help others—evangelism and benevolence.
There are, of course, some people for whom musical style is most important. I know one couple that drives an hour to church to get old fashioned, Church of Christ hymns.
But I think most people put musical style more in the dissatisfaction category. Bad worship drives people off. Good worship doesn’t drive people off. Great worship doesn’t attract that many more. It helps, but it’s not enough. Rather, most people have higher priorities.
Fitting the church’s mission into the equation
At this point, we need to talk about real theology. You see, Biblical Christianity is not really about market segments, satisfaction, and dissatisfaction. These are useful tools to help think about church, but they can’t be the drivers. They are not what church is really about.
Rather, whenever we find our thinking being about providing what the people want, we are becoming worldly in our thinking. The command is for us to provide what Jesus wants—which may not be popular at all. He wasn’t that well received, you know.
When we decide to change musical styles as a marketing decision, we are dangerously close to a worldly decision. When we decide to stay a cappella because it’s safe, easy, or popular, that’s also worldly. Rather, the decision has to be driven by truly Biblical principles.
There is no Biblical command that our church should grow. THE church should grow, but not necessarily our congregation. If all that we do is cannibalize other churches in town by being better marketers, we’ve secularized the church. We must be Kingdom minded.
People brought to Jesus is a far better indicator of church health than people brought to the building. Good done for the needy is far more important than good done for the pewsitters.
A church that has decent but not all-that-good worship but which has great community—where people easily make friends and feel supported—will thrive. But even then, the church will just be a well-managed social club unless it also learns to effectuate its mission. I’ve discussed this before (An Unconventional Approach to Mission). In short, I believe that the best way to make friends and form community is to do so as part of doing mission.
The best friends you’ll ever make are the friends who travel with you to Romania or Fiji or the Bahamas to do mission work or who go with you to the inner city to teach children or literacy. Shared experiences and shared emotions form a genuine, spiritual bond that lasts for a lifetime.
Therefore, a church that focuses exclusively on classes and small groups that are run like classes will not as easily create community as a church that has a common vision of helping those in need and that actively works in concert to do exactly that. After all, as great as community is, even better is a mission–feeling needed and valuable, feeling that what you do makes a difference that will affect generations upon generations, is a blessing that few churches offer.
How mission is done will necessarily vary by age group, as different age groups have different abilities and levels of maturity. But all age groups will seek community and seek mission, given the chance.
Community is most important among the teens and other younger members, and being truly motivated by mission is something teens, college students, and even young couples and singles have to grow into. You start with community and then build mission into the community (you don’t pull kids out of community to do mission). As mission is integrated into the DNA of the community, the community becomes stronger.
For example, in recent years our college ministry has recruited students to do mission work in Fiji. They were required to spend months in training to go, learning to do one-on-one Bible study.
And the training and hard work and commitment of the campaign drew them closer as a group and helped build better and deeper community. The program also trained students to do evangelism, and a number have now gone into fulltime missions.
Community and mission should be synergistic, with each building on the other. The wise leader never sets one in opposition to the other.
Heading toward some conclusions
And so, what about instrumental music? Is it smart to keep our a cappella practice rather than bring in a rock band? The answer will be shown by history, but here’s what I think—
- A communion service. Begin with the sermon and point the songs and readings toward the communion, which is at the end.
- A prayer service. Skip the sermon and interweave prayers with songs.
- A service focused on missionaries. Have missionaries lead communion via an internet video feed. Have films from missionaries (get past the old slide mentality). Educate the church on missionaries being persecuted and martyred. Talk about missions other than your own. Pray for missions, for martyrs, for opportunities to go to Moslem lands, etc.
- A confessional service. Rather than asking members to come forward, offer them the opportunity to meet in a side room or in the back with elders or ministers for prayer—do this early in the service so members don’t have to ask the church to be late for lunch so they can meet with a leader.
- An ordination service. Focus the service on charging missionaries, or new deacons, or new elders. Make this not an interruption in the service but the focus of the entire service.
- A service focused on benevolence. Educate the church with pictures and video about the needed good works in the community. Have multiple speakers from church ministries or social service agencies. Have testimonies from people helped—or helped by helping.
- A testimonial service. Have members (in person or via video) talk about what God has done in their lives.
- A song service.
- A service on giving. Have testimonies from those blessed by being givers.
I have great respect for preachers and the good that can be done through sermons, but the sermon was never meant to always be the focus of the service. The Catholic Church has focused their services on communion for 1,500 years or more. The idea of building the service on the sermon started with Calvin and reached its nadir with Frontier Revivalism in the 19th Century. The invitation, an element of Revivalism, is a practice only about 200 years old.
There are other ways to do church.
And there are other ways to do music. Four-part harmony, a cappella music is wonderful worship. But we can supplement and add variety musically as well—
- Songs can be interspersed within a sermon or, viewed another way, a sermon can be interspersed among songs (or prayers).
- A solo or group song can be used to illustrate or reflect on a sermon thought or the communion.
- A solo or group song can be used in lieu of or to work with a communion meditation.
Now, I’m hardly the most creative person when it comes to these sorts of things. I only give these examples to point out that we tend to be a bit stultified. Worship involves music and meditation and prayer and instruction, among other things, and these all lend themselves very well to creativity. There are lots of ways to mix and match the elements. And yet we just can’t seem to keep ourselves from making this week just like last week.
Some people find comfort in the sameness, but others find it suffocating. The solution is to be somewhere in between, which should satisfy about 80% of the folk, which is about as good as you can hope to do. Add variety but don’t add so much that people get disoriented.
Just refuse to be lazy. When your worship team meeting is all about picking songs rather than designing services, it’s time to make some big changes.
And so, this is all a rather long way of coming to these few somewhat tentative conclusions. This is not theology from the mountaintop, just where I am in my own thinking—
- Think very, very hard about how to create community in age-appropriate ways, especially among the congregation’s younger members.
- Don’t let the idea of community devolve into a mere social club. Jesus didn’t die for that. Rather, although at some age levels you may have to start at a largely social level, carefully blend in missional activities, such as short-term mission trips and meaningful benevolence activities, especially activities that involve working closely with the people being served.
- Among the a cappella churches, don’t run headlong toward instrumental music as though it’s going to solve all your problems. A cappella music is not the problem—at least, not nearly the biggest problem or the highest priority.
- On the other hand, if you have truly bad or uninspiring music, fix it. No church is going to do well for long with an inadequate song service.
- Long before I’d add instruments, I’d add what’s sometimes called “special music,” that is, solos, duets, quartets, and such. This should never supplant congregational singing, but can be very powerful used thoughtfully in moderate doses.
- And I’d add much more variety to the worship service. Get away from “three songs and prayer.” But don’t go overboard. Some sameness is good—just not too much.
- Beware the temptation of the paid staff to think that their parts of the worship service are the only parts of real importance. The paid preacher and paid song leader quite naturally spend their time preparing the sermon and the song service. Get them to think as worship leaders, that is, someone responsible for the totality of the service, who thinks communion is at least as important as preaching. And get someone with an artistic streak—preferably someone who isn’t afraid of being disagreed with—on the worship planning team.
Once you mastered community, mission, and the art of worship, then perhaps the next step is to think about an instrumental service. But if you aren’t doing mission and community, then you aren’t really even doing church—not the church Jesus died for.