It’s been an interesting week. I spent Tuesday meeting with Todd Deaver, Phil Sanders, and Greg Tidwell planning our GraceConversation dialogue. Toward the end of our meeting, Greg described how many Churches of Christ that have added an instrumental service are losing members, rather than growing as they’d hoped. Richland Hills is, of course, a major exception.
Then on Wednesday I attended our weekly elders meeting, and some of my fellow elders were describing how their (conservative) home congregations were dying — losing members, aging, and having no young members join them. There are, of course, exceptions, but around here, there aren’t many.
Well, I guess we can see how the Churches of Christ are in numerical decline. We have small rural churches preaching the 5-steps of salvation to an already-saved, declining audience, and progressive churches finding that change doesn’t always mean growth. It can trigger decline.
I don’t have all the answers, but I would like to put one idea on the table for consideration. Let’s suppose you’re an elder at a progressive congregation. You begin receiving pressure to add an instrumental service — to help the church grow. What’s your thought process, beyond the obvious “political” consideration of whether the church will support the change. Let’s assume the membership will be supportive.
I think a question we progressives sometimes forget to ask is: why are our members members? You see, in many of our churches, members are members because this the church that teaches sound doctrine, that is properly organized, that properly worships. They see no choice but to attend this congregation. Their salvation depends on it.
But as the members learn grace and find that there aren’t as many rules as they once imagined, they can quite reasonably ask themselves: why be a member here?
You see, if you take away the thinking that held us together for the last several generations, you have to be prepared to replace it with something else.
In fact, if you’re not very careful, by doing all the “right” things the church growth literature recommends to grow your church, you just might create a consumer mindset among your members. Of course we want our members to have the benefit of great youth programs and worship, but if you replace “we are the only church going to heaven” with “we have the best youth program,” some members may well prefer someone else’s youth program and leave.
You also have a consider a certain bit of psychology. Change is traumatic for most people, even if we are doctrinally okay with the change. And so, most of us don’t leave our home congregation just because change is so painful. But if the leaders make me endure painful change at my home church, I may decide to shop around because, well, I’m already in pain.
And for many — perhaps most — of our members, instrumental music is a difficult transition even if we are doctrinally quite fine with it. After all, we may have family members who see us as damned for attending a church with an instrumental service. We may lose friends over it. We may see our favorite elder resign in silent protest. We may just hate listening to the rancor it causes. And so we leave. After all, if my parents are going to disown me, I’ll be no more disowned for going to the Baptist Church — and they have cappuccinos before worship.
What’s the solution? After all, quite obviously, some churches, such as Richland Hills, with some 4,500 members the last I heard, have done quite well after the change. Some credit Rick Atchley’s excellent preaching, and wouldn’t question the value of great preaching, but I think there’s something more to it.
Long before Richland Hills was “the church with an instrumental service,” they were “the biggest Church of Christ.” And if you asked Rick or John Jones how it happened, they’d tell you it was due to their mission to the poor and hurting of their community. I know. I had breakfast with John Jones and asked that very question some years ago.
I’ve heard Rick preach on the vision of that congregation. Their vision isn’t “church growth using the latest innovations.” It’s “being about God’s mission.”
And so, long before they brought in the guitars and drums, they began ministering to victims of AIDs, the desperately poor, and many other marginalized people. They built the congregation on compassion and service.
You see, you can keep people in church either by —
* Building a fence of fear around the church, or
* Making church appeal to their self-interest, or
* Calling people to live like Jesus, by living lives of compassion for the lost and hurting
Escaping a works-based salvation is not about finding freedom to be selfish. We flee works to find grace — but we’ve not really found grace until grace changes us to become gracious people, that is, people who serve others, especially those others who least deserve it — you know, like us.
If all we do is enjoy the freedom rather than using the freedom to serve, well, that’s not really grace. That’s American consumerism.
Therefore, I think we make a mistake in unduly focusing on instrumental music. It’s an important issue, but it’s not what’s keeping us from growing. No, our selfishness and lack of mission is what’s killing the Churches of Christ — conservative and progressive.
But as ironic as it is, if we’ll ask more of our members, asking them to love as Jesus loved and show compassion as Jesus showed compassion, will be lifting Jesus up, and he’ll draw people to us.
We should still have great youth programs and worship, but not as attractors. Rather, we need youth programs that teach our kids to serve and worship that spurs us to love and good works.
We’ll lose a few selfish people along the way, but not many. After all, we’ve always talked about First Century Christianity. It’s high time we started practicing it.