I recently sat through a three-hour service, with well-behaved children and a one-hour sermon in the package—and that after an hour-long Sunday School class. Only the occasional sermon is devoted to tithing, and yet 80% of the congregation tithes. But one feature in particular caught my attention: in 45 minutes of non-stop singing (worship and praise time), I heard no grand hymns of the church, only typical praise songs of the sort one might hear in any “contemporary” worship service.
Yet a customary criticism leveled at churches that sing only these “mindless” praise songs is this: how can we expect to form mature Christians when all they sing are worship songs without Scripture or “doctrinal” content. Two observations come to mind. One is that this church’s choice of worship songs “lite” does not appear to dilute the devotion and commitment of its members. And I wonder how those of us in mainline and even some traditionally evangelical churches would respond if that question were put to us. While we are wearing out our time-tested hymnals, have we in fact produced mature and knowledgeable believers? In other words, maybe the song selection has little or nothing to do with the question of spiritual maturity.
I think the problem is systemic, hidden deep within our institutions. One of the first books to attempt an explanation for why mainline churches were losing numbers in the late sixties was Dean Kelley’s 1972 sociological study, Why Conservative Churches are Growing. He argued that high commitment churches—churches that give you a reason to shuffle off to church on Sunday morning—attract more people than low commitment churches which require little of its members. Yet it is precisely this issue that continues to haunt us: we silently envy the laudable benefits of high commitment religion, but are theologically or practically ambivalent about employing the strategies necessary to achieve those effects.
I need to enter three caveats here. One is that our profile of a mature disciple of Jesus will vary along the ecclesiastical spectrum, even when we use the same words. A mature conservative evangelical, fundamentalist, pentecostal or charismatic will know their way around the Bible and can memorize numerous verses, generally attend church-related spiritual programs throughout the week, give generously to the church and mission, and place a high priority on evangelism, locally and globally.
A mature disciple in a mainline church may not differ much in theory, except that they will be expected to be more theologically nuanced (translate, less literal) in interpreting Scripture, express a greater appreciation for the church’s tradition, be more culturally sophisticated in hymnody and liturgical practice, and view mission more in terms of responding to social needs and justice in society.
The second caveat is that many pastors in low commitment churches do struggle deeply with the pressure to compromise the church’s teachings. The response was palpable following the publication of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s provocative book, Resident Aliens (1989). Pastors confessed they felt like ecclesiastical prostitutes, offering religious services without requiring commitment.
Third, no church is simply culturally compromising or counter-cultural. Evangelical and pentecostal/charismatic churches are high commitment in terms of their doctrines and certain moral standards. But they are low threshold in terms of worship styles. Mainline churches, on the other hand, are theologically and ethically low threshold, more “in step” with cultural shifts in ideas and mores. But they are traditional (high threshold) in their worship, preferring pipe organ, choirs and traditional hymnody.
There is undoubtedly an important link between Christian teaching/beliefs and practices. The question is where these two intersect in a congregation. The link is seldom direct and observable, but subterranean and systemic. Where will we find doctrinal and theological “input” within the congregational system in a way that produces maturity in its members?
While this may suffer from over-generalization, let me suggest four profiles that may help us understand our own church and others better.
Profile 1: Traditional Pentecostal/Charismatic
- Participation: high commitment to the spiritual programs of the church outside of Sunday worship; e.g. involvement in Sunday School by both children and adults; greater number at weekly midweek services
- Educational curriculum: high commitment to biblical content, and earlier introduction of Christian doctrine
- Worship: low commitment to theological content in hymnody (except for those churches that continue to use a hymnal); low to medium commitment in preaching (a few pastors with a “theological bent” may preach the occasional doctrinal sermon)
- Practices that support core doctrines and values: medium to low commitment to “tarrying meetings” for Spirit baptism; high commitment to camps and regional events for children and youth to guide them in making an early commitment to Christ
Profile 2: Evangelical (including some Pentecostal/Charismatic) Seeker Churches
- Participation: medium to high commitment outside Sunday worship, including Sunday School; small groups are emphasized, but theological content is a lower commitment than building community and support; midweek activity is devoted to these cell groups
- Educational curriculum: low commitment to doctrinal and theological formation; focus is on practical living
- Worship: low commitment theologically in both hymnody and preaching; “evangelistic” focus is on connecting with the practical needs of the worshipper
- Practices that support core doctrines and values: low commitment to doctrine, though higher commitment to core values of reaching the seeker and mirroring the “needs” of the culture
Profile 3: Traditional Evangelical
- Participation: high commitment to participation outside Sunday worship, including Sunday School for all ages and mid-week Bible study and/or prayer meeting; mid-week service might include a sustained study of a book of the Bible or a doctrinal theme
- Educational curriculum: high commitment to the doctrinal beliefs of the church; Sunday School curriculum will be rigorously biblical; doctrinal teaching is designed to reinforce the theological identity of the congregation
- Worship: high commitment to doctrinal content through use of the traditional hymnal (even if mixed with “praise songs”), and emphasis on exegetical, expository and doctrinal preaching
- Practices that support core doctrines and values: high commitment to practices that support the church’s doctrinal identity such as Bible study; commitment to theological consistency throughout the life of the congregation
Profile 4: Mainline
- Participation: low commitment to participation outside Sunday worship; Sunday School for children integrated with worship time, as families are often unwilling to sacrifice the extra hour outside worship; low commitment to weekly adult study opportunities; only short-term education programs are successful (e.g. Alpha); conferences and retreats are attended by the few motivated core members
- Educational curriculum: low commitment to doctrinal beliefs; Sunday school curriculum may give priority to social ministry rather than to issues of personal discipleship; the view of Scripture may reflect a more critical approach
- Worship: the doctrinal content is located primarily in the liturgical rites (e.g. the Anglican Book of Alternative Services) and traditional hymns; low commitment to doctrinal preaching, which is possible but not necessary in lectionary preaching
- Practices that support core doctrines and values: low commitment to practices that support the church’s doctrinal identity; programs for children, youth and adults are sporadic and uneven, and mostly at the initiative of the local congregation; resources from the denomination are minimal, due to lack of finances, commitment, or interest.
The dance between doctrine and practice is tricky. Separating the two can be lethal for
discipling believers, as neither dry doctrinal treatises nor pietistic platitudes will be effective. My interest here has been to take notice of our conventional criticism of one practice, “superficial” praise songs. This sliver in our brother’s eye belies the log in our own, because many of us in the mainline tradition have little cause to boast of the spiritual maturity of our own members.
I do not say this to disparage the riches in my own mainline tradition. But being a low commitment church, with its distinctive European heritage, is the hand we have been dealt. Nevertheless, we are not helpless. Lyle Schaller, patriarch of the church growth movement, once observed that those churches that are most successful in growing do two things: they are committed to proclaiming with confidence what Scripture teaches, and they are consistent in communicating those teachings at every level of the congregation’s life.
That may not be a magic wand. But is it a good place to start.