Its been a frustrating 6 years trying to find a church home here in the States. There’s lots of them, sometimes they’re just barely afloat, and when you get there, you start to wonder why they keep trying. We’ve been to lots, and given up on quite a few. We’re not fickle “church shoppers”. We know that churches are made up of imperfect people, like ourselves, and therefore there is no perfect church. We’re willing to make a commitment, and love other people through their foibles and hope they can put up with ours. But with the kids approaching middle school, its reasonable to have a minimal set of expectations, so that we can maintain that commitment through their challenging “youth group” years. Here’s some of the reasons we haven’t been able to find a permanent church home (within a reasonable drive of our actual home!)
You weren’t prepared
Having a theme and an anchor verse for your message is not preparation. You are charged with delivering the most important material in history — take that responsibility seriously. A good sermon requires careful study, serious exegesis, historical research, and thoughtful application, delivered in a structure that allows even the most immature congregant to follow along as you deliver the material. You don’t get to just pick a topic and pray for the Spirit to speak through you. Granted, thinly prepared material, disguised with a charismatic, folksy story-telling style is at least entertaining (I’ll get to that in a minute), but it doesn’t make up for a lack of substance. Disorganized rambling is even worse.
Whether you intend to deliver a topical message or an expository one, I expect your sermon to be backed by a significant chunk of contiguous scripture, which is read aloud and, during the course of your sermon, is properly contextualized (from its source) and applied (to the target.) And I say “contiguous scripture” because you’re not allowed to pull one verse from the Old Testament, another from the New Testament, and claim the Bible backs up whatever point you’re making — that’s called proof-texting, and you should be shown out of the room when you do it. That doesn’t mean you can’t show relationships in Scripture — it means you don’t get to make up your own.
(By the way, be real careful about fresh new discoveries in the Word — most of them aren’t fresh and new. Most of them are heresy that someone in the 1st century already tried.)
Your music wasn’t worship
I get it, church music is hard. Different people have different tastes, and most don’t like to be outside their comfort zone. Immature believers are unwilling to put their personal preferences aside for the good of the body. My point is not about style or preference, its about who the music is for (hint, its supposed to be for God!) When you lead corporate music, your job is to facilitate the worship of others, not put on a show, impose your preferences, or create an experience. You should all but disappear.
There are lots of ways to get that wrong: are you the only one who knows the song you’re singing? are you selecting a variety of styles so even the most “immature” congregant can feel a part of the worship — or are you only selecting your favorite style and hoping everyone else adapts to you? did you rehearse together in advance so that you can lead properly? is the tempo so slow that people are yawning? did you decide not to sing Christmas songs at Christmas for some reason? if you’ve rejected hymnals on the belief that no one can read music, are the words on the screen at least the ones you’re actually going to sing, or are you planning to free-form it, and leave everyone guessing? are you singing so many songs that the congregation is tired and the older folks have to sit down?
You don’t have to cater to everyone’s preference. You do have to create an inclusive and transparent environment, so that you disappear and God can become the focus. The golden rule for church music: don’t be a distraction…
You thought this was an entertainment venue
Related to music, but not strictly limited to it, I did not attend your church service to be entertained by you. There are plenty of entertainment venues in the world — I can go to a movie theater, a play or a concert if I want to be entertained. I didn’t come here for that. I came to be with fellow believers, to worship God, and hopefully to feed and be fed in the Word. Sound, lights and video can facilitate that, if used appropriately and with restraint, but they shouldn’t replace it.
I have no problem with technology in worship — we can give glory to God with the tools He gave us. But if we replace worship with tech or media, or use those things in ways that are so distracting that we can’t focus on what we’re there for, then we have made an idol of our technology, and we should repent of our sin and stop.
You tried to manipulate my emotions instead of engaging my brain
This kind of manipulation can happen with tech and media, but it also happens in more subtle ways. Repeating a line or chorus in a song repeatedly is a technique used in cults to induce a suggestive state — don’t do it. God doesn’t need us in a suggestive state to speak to us through you. Three times is plenty of repetition for healthy communication. “Setting a mood” by changing the lighting, inviting weeping testimonials on stage or playing them in a video, or delivering prayers that are disguised instructions to the congregation (“God, we know that many in the room want to come forward right now…”) are blatantly manipulative. I’m not talking about spontaneous response to the Holy Spirit — I’m talking about staged, planned activities designed to induce an emotional response. These are inappropriate.
Instead, allow God to deal with matters of the heart — what I feel is not your responsibility. Instead, pour over the Word, earnestly seek what God would have you share, and communicate that clearly and intelligently. Prepare your message with multiple levels of depth so that you can speak to everyone, no matter where they’re at in their maturity or life. By all means, use anecdotes or testimonials to help me understand or apply the message, but if you find yourself trying to create a feeling, or appeal to an emotion, just stop. That’s not teaching, its manipulating, and its wrong.
You didn’t create an on-ramp
Unfortunately, most of the churches who get the above things wrong are the ones who get this right. The inverse is also often true. You can get everything wrong, and keep people who came for the wrong reasons. You can get everything else right, but if you don’t have a way for me to fit in, you fail too.
And really it doesn’t take much. I’ve been a “professional church lay person” for 20 years — I’ve been a dedicated volunteer in many ministries, a part of church leadership, and I even have a seminary certificate. I’m ready to plug-in… if I can figure out how! We once attended an (almost everything right) church for a year, including signing up for a small group, going to kids activities, and trying to get ourselves invited to other events. After a year, no one knew our names except for the people we knew before we started going, and the people in our small group wouldn’t make eye contact when we saw them outside the group. One time I went as a new-comer to a dad-and-son event at this church, and I was the only one identifying and greeting other new-comers.
Here’s another hint: an on-ramp isn’t inviting new comers to identify themselves to the entire congregation, or participate in a large group activity that makes them stand out. Its a “Getting Started” class facilitated by a few members of the congregation who are gifted in hospitality, or a “Welcome Lunch” with the elders or pastor.
If your church can’t engage a mature Christian that’s ready and willing to get involved, then how will you ever reach the lost?
Getting it right
There’s lots of books out there, and lots of “mega church” patterns to try to follow. But despite all the church strategy, I suspect its much easier than you think. From all the churches we’ve seen over the years, I think the formula is pretty simple:
- Pastors: study the Word, communicate as clearly as you can, trust God to speak to the heart.
- Music leaders: don’t put on a show, don’t try to create a mood. Just lead music that everyone can sing and try to be invisible, so people can focus on God instead of you. If that means there’s less people on stage, and less technology involved, so be it.
- Church body: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
We won’t all get these things right all the time, but if you’d at least try, it’d be a lot easier to stick with you through the tough spots.