1 Corinthians 9:19-20,22 – For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (NKJV)
In the summer of 2010, the Daily Devotional sponsored a tour of central Europe, featuring the Oberammergau Passion Play. Within city after city, we visited the "old city", with narrow cobblestone streets and buildings that dated back to the Middle Ages. Usually, these areas were restricted to pedestrian traffic, as they did not permit use by modern vehicles. Some cities had huge fortresses or castles built on hills, which used to provide a safe haven for the peasants in case of attack. In one city, the guide told of a battle outside the city, which was fought and lost against Napoleon. I asked why the people didn't retreat to the fortress instead. The answer was that the fortresses no longer protected against cannonballs and other new warfare tactics. Nowadays, these fortresses and castles serve only as museums.
My thoughts turned by way of analogy to the ways in which our North American churches, which were built much more recently than the Middle Ages, can so quickly become museums, as worship styles change, no longer attracting young people, and as our supporting constituency ages and our numbers decrease.
Thirty years ago, during the push to "Double in the Eighties", I distinctly remember Rev. Ed McKinlay warning a Presbyterian Men's conference, "All growth involves change, and all change involves pain." Because people have a natural tendency to avoid pain, we also normally tend to avoid change, unless we are forced to.
Some time ago, I had a conversation with a minister who told me about the conversation he had with the leaders of a church who were interested in calling him to their church, which had dropped in numbers to the point where it had to make serious choices to avoid closing. His first question was, "If you could make changes so that your children would want to return to church, would you be willing to make them?" After their positive answer, he continued, "If you could make even more changes, so that your grandchildren would want to come to church, would you be willing to make them?" After some consideration, their response was "Yes." Then came the clincher: "If your grandchildren couldn't come, but other people's grandchildren would come, would you still be willing to make the same changes?" That posed the same question, but with a view to outreach. The leaders' positive response resulted in changes being made that increased attendance, to the point that they were able to build a larger, modern facility nearby.
I have watched as a presbytery rented a closed church to a group that was able to fill it with a thriving, worshipping congregation. Why can't we do the same? The conundrum facing many congregations is, "Why should we change what we like to do in order to favour the young people, when we're the ones who are paying the bills?" Change is painful, but it's going to become increasingly painful for churches and their members to remain the same. Unfortunately, churches can't survive into the next generation if they don't include young people now. Besides, the church exists for the sake of those who are not yet in it, not just for those who are in it already. Times change, and so does what attracts people to churches. The message of the gospel does not change, and we have no license to change it, but we need to present it in a way that addresses the needs of those of this and the next generation. These days, young people are attracted to what is casual and up-to-date, not necessarily to what has 150 years of tradition behind it.
We need to ask ourselves, "Is my attitude towards change preventing the church from becoming what it needs to be, 'that I might by all means save some'?"
Prayer: Lord God, grant us Your grace to be open to what You want to do in Your church, for the sake of those who are not yet in Your kingdom. Amen.
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Listen while you read: "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing" (Lyrics)