Three years ago our church changed the way we did worship. It was by far the hardest thing I’ve been through in church leadership (a list that includes a major church conflict in a church I served two decades ago and the relocation of a church I later served in North Carolina). As we approach the third anniversary of our unified worship, enough time has gone by that I think I can accurately analyze what brought us to that point, the challenges of making the change, and where we are now as a result. So for the next couple of weeks I’ll blog on our journey in a way that I hope will be helpful to the many other churches considering the same transition.
We used to have four Sunday morning services with two distinct styles—two were traditional and two were modern—with our congregation equally divided between them. The first two services were at 9:00, with one in the main worship center and the other in the fellowship hall on the other side of the main building complex. I preached live in the worship center to a traditional group and my sermon was sent via video feed to the modern group in the other location.
The next time slot of 10:15 hosted the second traditional service in the worship center. The day ended with the second modern service at 11:45 in the fellowship hall, where I preached live.
We were able to maintain the rigors of the schedule for several years until the summer of 2013, when I began to feel uneasy about the direction of the church. For one thing, when I studied our statistics I discovered that each time we had added a worship service, our overall attendance had actually gone down. While I don’t believe that numerical growth is the goal of church ministry, the trend concerned me.
More importantly, the multiple services in different styles were polarizing the congregation. There was little connection between the traditional and modern groups since each had its own schedule, circle of people and preferred programs. We really were becoming two separate churches meeting in the same building.
But there was something else, something harder to describe and impossible to quantify. Our congregation wasn’t going anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of good things happening. There was a good spirit among the people. New folks were joining. Giving was going up. Sunday School was increasing. Our missions outreach included local, national and international dimensions and reached many people with the gospel. But at the same time there was a lack of energy and enthusiasm, a lack of spiritual vibrancy. We had been doing the same things for so long that at times it felt as if we were just going through the motions. Everyone was entrenched in their set routines. You knew what to expect each Sunday when you came to church: more of the same old same old.
We were stuck. I don’t know a better word for it, and some folks may think the word is light-hearted or unbiblical or unkind. But I’m using “stuck-ness” in the sense of family systems theory, which uses the term to describe families and churches that become so locked into predictability and pre-set activities that individual members as well as the system as a whole can’t mature or move forward. Even if productive in some ways, a stuck system—whether a family or a church—doesn’t inspire or challenge. Instead, it’s occupied mainly with its own perpetuation and self-care.
I wrestled with all this through the early part of 2013 and became convinced that our church—as wonderful, generous and gracious as the people were—needed a change. But then a strange thing happened. What began for me as a rational analysis of organizational trends morphed into one of those Holy Spirit moments when the Lord speaks so clearly that you have to say yes. So at our annual staff retreat later that summer, I made the case for unifying our worship services into a single style. We needed to worship in a way that reached across the barriers of age, gender, economic status and race to bring everyone in our congregation to the throne of grace together. We needed to risk this kind of dramatic step–I said to the staff–not because one change would solve all our problems but because worship is the center of church life; and a church that unifies its people in worship goes a long way toward unifying all the other elements of church life, too. Most important of all, I felt we needed to unify our worship services because it would please the Lord.
We announced our plan the first of January and on March 2, 2014 we made the change. The two worship styles and four worship hours gave way to two worship hours and one worship style that incorporated traditional as well as modern elements. We took our choir in their robes, our praise team in their blue jeans, our ministers in suits, our young folks in their casual clothes, our guitars and our orchestra, our hymns and our praise choruses and put everyone and everything in the same room at the same time to worship the Lord together.
I saw all the possibilities that the change held for us as a congregation. What I didn’t see was the scale of the congregational meltdown that followed—something I’ll blog about next week.
But one thing happened more quickly and decisively than I imagined. The stuck-ness that had been so evident for so long in our church disappeared. In all the conflict and angst that engulfed the church for the first few months of our new schedule, one thing became abundantly clear: there was movement for the first time in years. To be sure, the movement during those early days was largely negative. But soon more positive signs began appearing, signs of real life.
The most obvious change was the worship itself—I’ll talk more about that in coming blogs. I’ll just say I wouldn’t take anything for our worship style now. It took us a couple of years to figure things out, but our worship today is rich, full, Spirit-filled and exciting. We discovered that there really is a way to unify traditional and modern music into a single, cohesive style.
Then, a new generation of people began coming into the church. While I grieved over the many people who left during the transition, those who are now coming in increasing numbers are bringing a new sense of excitement and creativity into our congregation.
I’m not the same pastor, either. The worship shift—along with all the challenges that I had to deal with in its wake—changed my perspective dramatically. The congregation wasn’t the only place where stuck-ness had become the norm. I had been stuck, too. And the last three years rocked my world to the point where pastoral leadership for me now is something far different than it was before–more Holy Spirit driven and less formal; less scripted and more relaxed; more personal and less institutional; more willing to take risks and less concerned about people’s reactions. There were times during the first few months of the new service that the pressures were so enormous that I wondered if the church would get through it. Attendance declined. Giving fell off. Critics wrote and called almost every day. But through it all, I never doubted the decision to make the change even if I did wonder on a regular basis if I would live through it.
Today, I look back and realize that it was all worth it. Our church is now in a different place than it was three years ago. To be sure, most of the people whose families have attended our church for generations are still here (although many have left). And the core church leadership is still intact. Indeed, it never wavered–those dear folks are as solid, supportive and visionary a group that any pastor could ever wish for. In many ways our ministry looks similar to how it was then. But there’s a difference you can feel percolating just below the surface. A buzz among the congregation. A new vision and fresh passion. People come to church excited about what may happen–when the Holy Spirit begins moving as he’s moving now, you never can tell what may break out. Best of all, the old stuck-ness is gone and the church is moving forward with confidence and hope.
NEXT BLOG: The Meltdown