On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 2: why winning the worship war is a pyrrhic victory

In my previous post, I mentioned that my wife and I have recently left Churches of Christ, a heritage where we both grew up, and lived for many years. During our time in Churches of Christ, I was frequently asked about “why young people are leaving the church”, and what could be done to stop the bleeding.

Often these questions come in the form of surveys, which are distributed, collected, and never seen again. My personal favorite from one of these surveys was a well-intentioned question that asked, “How can we empower these brethren to feel a sense of belonging in our church?” My first response? We can start by not calling them brethren.

On one level, of course, that is a straightforward technological change (stop using a specific phrase). But the use of the term in the first place implies something about our culture that isn’t changed quite so easily. In a best case scenario, 18-35’s will roll their eyes and see the use of the term “brethren” as being old-fashioned, but not much more noteworthy than someone saying “thee” and “thou” in a prayer. But for an increasing number of 18-35’s – particularly females – the term “brethren” resonates not as old-fashioned, but patriarchal, offensive, and insulting.

To highlight the point I tried to make at the end of the last post, we can successfully address the technological change (don’t use the term “brethren”), and incorrectly think that doing so solves the deeper cultural issue (sending messages to females that they aren’t valued). Again, it’s easier to stop using a word than it is to grow a culture that truly values the talents and abilities of women (more on this in a later post). It isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make the technological change – in this case, we absolutely should, especially since it costs us nothing – but changing the technology without addressing the deeper cultural issue (i.e. “Why does the term ‘brethren’ offend some 18-35’s? And what does our use of the term (and the fact we don’t understand why it is problematic) say about the gap between our culture and theirs?”) may result in an iPad controlled locomotive.

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, the psychologist Daniel Gilbert explores why “most of us spend so much of our lives turning rudders and hoisting sails, only to find out that Shangri-la isn’t what and where we thought it would be.” Gilbert’s details a variety of reasons why people make decisions they think will lead to a certain outcome (in his case, happiness), but for a variety of reasons, cause them to end up in a very different place. “We insist on steering our boats,” Gilbert says, “because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears [to us now].” In this post, I’d like to take some time to describe one particular technical issue – and the ways churches have responded to it – where I believe the future looks fundamentally different than many church leaders imagine, and then sketch out an alternate paradigm that hopefully reframes the challenge in a more hopeful light.

On the positive side, I think that most people in church leadership desire to make changes which will retain younger church members, at least conceptually. Unfortunately, my experience is that these same people a) often don’t understand the types of changes required, or the cost of implementing them and b) aren’t operating from a leadership model that equips them to make those changes, even if they do understand them. And so, what results is that many church leaderships make the changes they want, in the name of “what young people want” – which in many cases results in a proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.

It’s not (really) about the worship.

“If we don’t change our worship style to be more progressive…
if we don’t have a praise team…
if we don’t add instrumental music…
then our young people are going to go somewhere else.”

If I had a dollar for every time I’d heard this from a boomer in a leadership position, I’d be shopping for some new toys on Amazon.com right now.

Let me start by trying to be fair. I realize this was a huge issue forty to fifty years ago. I’ve been to places that still operate their worship service like it’s the 1950’s, and I’ll agree, there needed to be some changes. I also understand that, even more so than most technological changes, altering worship styles is a programmatic, straightforward adjustment (if the political will exists) that brings immediate, tangible “results.” Things look/sound/feel different!

I’ll also grant that as people of God, we need to constantly be evaluating and reevaluating our “technology” of worship. If our worship services are functionally places where we intersect with culture (aside: I think it’s worth thinking about whether they should be), then we need to ask ourselves whether, we are communicating in a medium outsiders can understand (and if so, what we are communicating). If our worship services are a reflection of ourselves and, in some sense, a way in which we communicate with the divine, then trying to slow change by saying, “This is the way we’ve always done things,” is not just bad justification, it is no justification at all.

But here’s the bottom line: moving to more progressive services or adding instrumental music doesn’t do a lot to retain the 18-35 demographic. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I can’t list them all, but here are a few:

  • Anyone for whom this is a serious, deal-breaker issue in the 18-35 age group is already gone. The lack of institutional loyalty among my age group means that we are not tied to a name as much as previous generations. And if we’re less tied to a name, then we’re more willing to leave and go somewhere else. And if progressive worship / praise team / instrumental music is a real issue for someone, they will have already left, because there are plenty of options (read: everyone else) that offer it. Jumping on the bandwagon simply means we are choosing to compete alongside and against everyone else in the “Christian marketplace”. Which means…
  • If we go instrumental (or simply try to imitate it), we won’t be good at it. Most Churches of Christ, no matter their size, simply don’t have the talent base, at least at first, to pull off a good instrumental worship service on a consistent basis, nor are they willing to pay professional musicians like other churches. And so, if we want to compete against everyone else in a common sphere, we virtually guarantee that we will become the lowest quality provider of religious goods and services. Which means…
  • If we are trying to compete in what amounts to a consumer-driven market, where people are searching for the best worship experience, and simultaneously we are the lowest quality provider of spiritual goods and services, not only will we not attract people, we actually may lose people because we no longer offer a distinctive worship experience – a market niche if you will. And we haven’t even started talking about how well that sort of thing goes over with the traditionalists. It is a situation with literally no upside.
  • And at the end of the day, after we’ve gone through all that pain, what we will likely find is that many – maybe most – people who remain in churches of Christ in the 18-35 age demographic don’t actually care that much about the style of worship. It simply isn’t the major driving issue for them. Case in point: the church we attend now worships using instrumental music. This really isn’t my preference – it’s not the way I would do things if I were choosing how things were done. In the grand scheme of things, though, it’s a pretty small issue. I can live with it. I’ll remain in a place where the worship style really isn’t really what I want. And that’s exactly the point. Most people in this demographic find worship style as one of the first places they are willing to compromise – not one of the last.

I will acknowledge that there are people within churches of Christ who do care a lot about worship styles – but my observation is that most of those people tend to be 45 and 55, rather than 25 and 35, which is really a problematic dynamic underlying the worship wars and how they often play out in our churches. “We are losing young people because we don’t have progressive worship / praise teams / instrumental music” really becomes a cipher for church leaders to say, “We wanted progressive worship / praise teams / instrumental music when we were 25 or 35, and come to think of it we still do, so that must be the problem. Fixing it will keep our young people here.”

It isn’t, and it won’t.

Defining ourselves by worship styles – an activity which has consumed Churches of Christ for at least a couple of decades now – has not been a terribly productive enterprise. We have focused so much attention on changing or maintaining a particular worship technology that we have made external expressions of worship an end in itself. Even if you win the worship war, you really lose.

Here’s why.

It’s not a lack of innovation; it’s a lack of identity.

And because of our traditions,
every one of us knows who he is,
and what God expects him to do.
-Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof

Even in a song about tradition,
it’s not about tradition.
It’s about identity.
-Mark Nelson

I’m not opposed to innovation. I think all of our “ways of doing things” ought to be up for debate, and in places where we can change, update, and modernize while remaining true to our core beliefs (who God is, what God is doing, how we participate), we ought to do that. I’m a fan of things like electricity, sound systems, and most importantly where I live, air conditioning. Sitting in the sweltering heat because, “We’ve always done things this way,” or “They didn’t have air conditioning in the New Testament,” sounds laughable. And it should. As the saying goes, the world changes, and we change with it.

But here’s the thing: most churches do a pretty decent job, technologically speaking, of innovating. Put a different way, if you look at most Churches of Christ out there, across the entire ideological spectrum, they are, generally speaking, doing church better than they’ve ever done it before. They’ve got great programs, great worship services, great multimedia presentations, and great children’s activities. The “technology” is better than it’s ever been.

And people are still walking out the door.

And churches don’t know why.

I’d like to propose one idea: innovative programs and “technology” may attract people to churches, but they don’t keep them there. For an increasing number of people my age, churches are not measured by their ability to innovate, but by their identity, and more importantly their ability to be identity-forming. In other words, people are less concerned with questions like “Does this church have a well-executed worship service and exciting, high-quality programs for me and my children?” and are more concerned with questions like “If I stay at this church for five, ten, or fifteen years, and if I take the beliefs and values of this church to be my own, what kind of person will I be at the end of that time?”

The trouble for many churches, as I see it, is that innovation is largely identity agnostic. In other words, you can be hip, cool, and high-quality in your programming, and at the same time have an incoherent and disconnected set of core beliefs and values. A church that finds itself in this situation will indeed attract members on the basis of its programs, but those people will, at best, always be susceptible to jumping ship for the next place that comes along with better worship, better preaching, better kid’s ministries, etc. Moreover, for an increasing number of 18-35’s, a church which appears lively and dynamic based on its innovative programs, but whose core identity is hollow or missing entirely is unattractive and unappealing. Put differently, if I go to the place in town that has the best worship and children’s programs, but staying there 10 years turns me into a shallow, uncaring person, is that really a place I want to be?

Tying these points together, I’d like to close this post with words I wrote almost three years ago, at the height of a worship-war crisis in the congregation I was attending at the time.

Our strongest belief, however, is that our external observance of worship is not an end in itself. We firmly believe that external changes in our worship patterns do not cause internal changes in our hearts. Singing contemporary songs about love does not make us more loving. Singing “Amazing Grace” does not make us more gracious. With or without instruments, singing “Jesus is Lord” does not necessarily make it so, nor does singing about Christ make us more Christ‐like. Instead of focusing on external observances, we believe our effort and energy should be focused first on individual and communal transformation. People whose lives are ruled by graciousness worship differently than those who simply know about grace. People whose lives are witness to God’s peace worship differently than those who subordinate peace to their own power or desires. We believe that as people continue to be transformed into the perfect image of Christ, both their attitudes about and practice of worship necessarily change. Worship becomes a practice in service of a larger end, and its ultimate success is determined only by its service to that end, rather than evaluated in a vacuum. We believe God’s desire for us is not that our worship be more contemporary or more traditional, but that our lives and actions would be more loving, more humble, more patient, more joyous, more faithful, more gentle, more kind. In that spirit, while we understand the strongly held views of those involved on both sides, we mourn the realities of suspicion, fear, pride, greed, disrespect, and lack of consideration for the other which have caused tension and conflict, and brought us to this point. We pray first and foremost for God’s mercy on our church as we move forward.

In my next post in this series, I’d like to talk about some specific cultural (as opposed to technological) areas Churches of Christ have largely tended to ignore, and why they matter, and why they have the potential to drive 18-35’s away.

Next: Part 3: A road to nowhere

13 Replies to “On becoming a statistic – Leaving “The Church” Part 2: why winning the worship war is a pyrrhic victory”

  1. As a 34 year old that recently left the Church of Christ and is now a member of a more progressive non denominational Church, I have to disagree with you. I grew up in large “progressive Churches of Christ ” my whole life and left. The reason we left our and why many people have left was the lack of deep and meaningful relationships. With a few exceptions the other families at our previous Church were all acquaintances. They were people that we saw frequently and were polite to, but never really got to know deeper than a hi how are you.

    On the topic of worship and people my age leaving, you are partly right. The worship had nothing to do with why we left, but it is a major reason why I would never go back! The worship experience we have now with out a doubt fills our auditorium with a contagious energy that welcomes the Holy Spirit like nowhere I have ever been. Imagine going to Church Camp every sunday morning. I have personally experienced and encountered God, and have heard him speak to me personally more in the past six months than any other time in my life.

    1. Brian –

      Thanks for your comment. I didn’t intend to imply in any way that my experience was universal. I certainly appreciate that each person leaves for different reasons, and I would, in many ways affirm the reasons you left as being true for us as well – which I will touch on some in my next post.

      My main intent in this post was to note that many Churches see instrumental music as a “silver bullet” fix, which, if remedied, would keep young people in “the Church.” I think you would agree with me that this is not the case.

      I appreciate your candid response, and look forward to your thoughts on future posts.



  2. Jeff, your assessment of the “all downside risk” of Churches of Christ trying to adopt instrumental music is a good one. Another way of saying this is “the artists have left the building.” This is a problem for many denominations across the US, but I find it to be more acute in the CofC. And losing our artists is a much bigger problem for the CofC than what type of music is sung or played.

    1. Russ –

      Thanks for your comment. I think you’re absolutely correct, and I will touch on one particular aspect of that in my next post. The talent drain from our churches (and again, as you note, not just a CofC problem) is, or should be alarming. There is difficulty in retaining artists (musical or otherwise) when their talents and viewpoints are largely unappreciated, or devalued.

  3. Our congregation is wrestling with this right now. We are in the midst of some fundamental changes in how we view ministry. As a result of a recent leadership retreat, we established that the “Win” (an Andy Stanley/Northpointe Church concept) for our congregation is transformed lives that are fostered and encouraged through relationships inside the local church. We have made some worship style change, but nothing radical. I agree that environment is important, but the main environmental change needed is within hearts. Loving, gracious and caring hearts will worship in a manner that will attract others, with few other modifications necessary.

    1. Thanks for sharing your congregation’s story Robin. I pray that whatever changes you decide to make result in that win for your community.

  4. Jeff, I have to know. When you posted the amazon link for the camera lens, was there a small part of you that thought, “What if someone reads this blog and decides to buy this lens for me…”?

  5. Jeff,

    How do you think personality influences what is important to people? For instance, someone who is highly intellectual may connect with sermons and teaching but not worship, and the opposite as well. I agree with what you are saying. At deeper levels, people need to find something worth staying for, and a great worship service doesn’t necessarily provide that.

    Also, do you think that most people feel the way you do about the identity of a place? While that is more important to me, I have met so many people that are just interested in the kids’ program, worship, etc. I think it’s a general issue in the American church. A lot of people do not want more than that, which may be a reason they go to large, non-denom churches where they can get lost and not be accountable.

    1. Clint –

      Great questions.

      Obviously personality is big here, but I think in a different way than we might be tempted to think. I think it goes without saying that some people connect with different parts of what is going on in a church. I think one way of thinking about things would be to translate “traditional” and “progressive” worship styles into sermons – the point isn’t that sermons be “intellectual” or “touchy-feely”, but that they be speak rightly about God. Sermons and worship are important, in a sense, because they do help form the identity of a congregation and can’t be completely separated from a congregation’s identity. However, I would still argue that it’s the identity that really matters, more than the sermon or worship. And in some sense, that comes down to personality too. A church that is humble, generous, and service-oriented is going to be more healthy than one that is perpetually concerned about how many members it has or whether the worship service is the right style. It is a posture, more than a program.

      I’m not sure how broadly people think the way we do about identity. I also agree that there are plenty of people who don’t, and who are more or less in a consumerist mindset when it comes to finding a church. My personal observation is that the number of people in that category is on the decline, but there are still lots of them out there. I agree with you that a lot of these people end up at large, non-denominational churches where they seem to be passive spectators as opposed to active participants.

      I suppose generally speaking, I would throw a couple of other ideas here. First, all churches – even ones that are trying not to be “attractional” – have members because people are attracted to what’s going on there. At the same time, my sense is that churches which really try to head down this road of attracting members with the best technologies (worship, preaching, programs) are sort of like the girl who wears a low cut blouse and short skirt, hangs out in bars, and then complains about how guys are only interested in her for her body. I don’t want to poo poo these churches altogether, because there are some good things that go on there, but in the long run my opinion is that these churches will likely fall into the secularization trap I talk about in my next post, in their desire to attract/maintain members.

      Finally, one idea along these lines that I read last night in going through some old notes was that, in a broadly “Christianized” world, “Christian” behavior was reduced to the behavior you could expect from everyone – in other words, “What if everyone turned the other cheek?” as a way of saying “This is impractical.” I think the churches that are going to succeed, in the Gen-Y age group, are the churches who say, “What if we acted like Christ, even if nobody else does.”

      At least that’s my hope.

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