For Those Who Are Struggling With How the Church Is Changing

arrowThe church is changing.

For many church leaders, that change isn’t happening fast enough. For others, the changes are happening too fast. For yet another group, the pace isn’t the problem – they believe the church is changing in all the wrong ways.

Last Sunday I read a blog post by an author who would probably place himself in the third group. His article was well-written and passionate. It was Why I’m Struggling With Church, by Bishop Bob Hellmann. In it, he introduced the subject this way:

“I’ve tried. I really have! In fact, I’ve tried hard! I’ve tried to wrap my mind around so many things the modern church is doing and I’ve tried to bring myself into agreement with it. I don’t enjoy swimming against the current, and swimming alone, at that. I’ve wanted to change and fit in! I wish I could change and fit in. I’ve seen others change. Why can’t I?

So I’m going to tell you what I am struggling with. Maybe you can help me!”

He then lists nine problems he has with the way a lot of churches do church today, including the casual clothes, the music, the youth emphasis… you know the list. He ends the article with, “So, I guess I’m destined to keep swimming against the current. Anyone want to swim with me?”

His article has been passed around a lot. And the comments he’s received on it are filled with “amens”, “preach its” and even one “Yessssssssssssssir”.

I wish I could be one of those agreeable commenters. I like being agreeable. But I can’t on this one. Here’s why.

Six of the nine problems he sees with the church today, look a lot like my church.

Yep. Six of nine. So, obviously I don’t see the same problems with the church that he does.

Usually, I’d let this ride. I’ve never met Bishop Hellmann. And I’ve read a lot of bloggers with similar complaints. So far, I’ve let all of them go by without comment. But this one is different.

First, since he described our church so closely, it hit a bit of a nerve with me.

Second, Bishop Hellmann stated that he’s still struggling with this and he openly asked his readers, “maybe you can help me.” So I’m going to try.

Third, he wrote his post with passion, even frustration, but without any of the name-calling that’s often associated with such blog posts. This gives me hope that his concerns are sincere and that my responses will be taken seriously.

Maybe this can open up a dialog. Old school meets new school. Without anyone getting beat up at recess.

So I step into this potential landmine of misunderstanding. Where angels fear to tread… 

 


(Bishop Hellman’s original blog post is too long to reprint here. If you click on the title above, it will take you to his Facebook page, where he wrote it. But if you can’t find it there, I’ve also reprinted it on a page where it can always be accessed. Click here to read it on that page, unedited, just as he originally wrote it.)


 

UPDATE: Click here to read Bishop Hellmann’s gracious response to this post in the comment section, below. Old church and new church can get along!

 

My Response to Bishop Hellmanns’s “Maybe You Can Help Me” Request

Hi, Bishop Hellmann. I read your blog post from Sunday, August 31, 2014. We’ve never met, so it seems strange that our first interaction will be on a blog post that everyone can read. But you asked for help in understanding the way people do church today. Since you made your request in a public forum (your blog), I’ll write my response in a public forum, too (my blog).

First, a little about me. I’m not a young, naive, hipster, megachurch pastor. I’m a third-generation minister in my mid-fifties, pastoring a Small Church in Orange County, California. I saw God do amazing things in my childhood, at a time when people dressed up for church, prayed for revival and saw their prayers answered. So I understand your frustration with the changes the church is undergoing today.

I understand it, but I don’t share it.

My primary frustration isn’t with how we do church today. It’s with church leaders of my generation and yours who complain about how we do church today.

But it’s frustration mixed with sympathy.

So here goes. I’ll address each of your nine issues, one at a time, starting with the ones that describe my church, then ending with the ones that don’t.

 

This Is My Church

1. Dark sanctuaries. In my church, we sometimes worship in a relatively dark sanctuary. I’ve never heard anyone say it’s because people “don’t want to be seen in church” as your blog post states. In fact it’s hard to believe that someone would ever say that. How did they get from their car into the church on a Sunday morning? Were they rushed in by the secret service?

When our church lowers the lights while we’re singing, it’s to reduce exterior distractions and draw people into a more contemplative place. At other times, the lights stay on for more celebrative worship. But they always go up for the message so people can follow along in their bibles and take notes. And because I like seeing their faces when I share the Word with them.

 

2. Sloppy dress. Yep, that’s us too. But what you call sloppy, we call casual – and comfortable. And no, I don’t buy the argument in your blog post that “dressing up was mandatory for meeting the king” or that “dressing up itself is an act of worship”.

First, I don’t go to church to meet with the king. I spend every moment of my life in the presence of the king. I don’t enter his presence when I go to church or leave his presence when I exit the building.

Second, I don’t dress up as an act of worship. If so, I’d have to declare my morning shower a prayer-free zone. How we dress (aside from the issues of immodesty and pride) has nothing to do with what God expects of us in worship. The bible tells us a lot about the attitude of our hearts in worship, but nothing about “proper dress”.

If you’re more comfortable in a suit and tie, go for it. But don’t tell me I look like I “just changed the oil in my car” because I’m wearing clean jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and sneakers when I preach. When I go to church I’m not entering the royal chambers, I’m spending time with my spiritual family – including my heavenly father. So that’s the occasion I dress for – hanging out with my family.

 

3. (See below)

 

4. Too much emphasis on music. Yes, we sing in our church – a lot. And mostly new music, too. With drums and guitars. But no one is “being paid large sums of money” to lead in worship. (We’re a Small Church – we don’t have large sums of money). And yes, we also emphasize, as you wrote, that “true worship is a lifestyle and happens every day of the week for the believer.”

 

5. Children and youth overemphasis. Ironically, just a few hours before your blog post was put up, I talked about this very issue in our church. Over half the people in our church last Sunday were under 30. The first two rows are always filled with teens and twenty-somethings.

Why? Because we pray and work very hard to bring them in and keep them. By all accounts, the most dangerous time in a person’s spiritual life are the years between high school graduation and college graduation. Up to 70% of church kids leave our churches during those years. We’re trying to stop the bleeding!

And no, we don’t reach them or keep them by putting on a show for them. We teach them the Word, we lead them into worship, we put them to work and we train them in leadership. And yes, they do all that with great enthusiasm because we don’t require them to worship like we did when we were their age. We celebrate what God is doing today.

 

6. Bass fishing. No, we don’t do bass fishing. But we would if there were more lakes in Southern California. Instead, we do beach bonfires, church picnics and other fun outings. It wasn’t clear to me, reading your post, why you have a problem with churches scheduling times of fellowship together, so I’ll leave this one at that.

 

7. Hamburgers and hot dogs. In your post, you wrote that, “in the early church when they fished for souls they fished with Holy Spirit power, signs, wonders, and miracles. Today’s church fishes for souls with hamburgers and hotdogs. Or, fixing up someone’s house, or cutting someone’s grass…”

What’s wrong with doing both? In our church, we have prayer gatherings and we do community service days on which we fix people’s houses and feed the hungry. We also have a skateboard park in our parking lot. People have come to our church as a result of those events and have given their lives to Christ. They’ve had their marriages and families restored, been physically healed and have been called into ministry all over the world.

The early apostles didn’t just see signs and wonders happen among them. In Acts 2:42-47, where the Holy Spirit first started performing signs and wonders in the church, the church also sold their possessions and “gave to anyone as he had need.” As a result of miracles and benevolence, the church enjoyed “the favor of all the people.”

What’s wrong with starting ministry using hamburgers and hot dogs, as long as the ministry isn’t just hamburgers and hot dogs?

 

8 & 9. (See below)

 

This Is NOT My Church

3. The anti charismatic, charismatic church. According to your post, “charismatic churches now don’t pray for the sick and suffering at all or if they do, it’s in a dark corner somewhere where no one will see it.” That’s just not true. Not in my church. I assume not in your church. Not in many churches.

Plus, there are a lot of churches that would not classify themselves as charismatic, that are very God-honoring and prayerful – including prayer for the sick and suffering.

Are there some churches that have relegated prayer into a back room, if at all? Sure. Always have been. Always will be. That’s not a new thing. Four of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 had lost some or all of their spiritual zeal. And that was a long time before casual clothes and stage lighting.

Don’t get mad at the modern church, pray for the prayerless church. It’s not a generational thing.

 

8. The absence of strong, biblical discipleship teaching. There are SO MANY good churches doing solid, biblical discipleship. Including mine. As I write this, I’m heading into a three month series through 1 Corinthians. There have always been churches who abandon biblical teaching and “gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Including the church in Corinth, as my church will hear about soon.

Again, this is not a new thing. We have to stop acting like every church taught the bible properly 40 years ago, but none of them do now. It’s just not true.

 

9. Satellite churches where one basically goes and watches television from the home church. No, my church doesn’t do that. But I don’t have a problem with churches that do, it’s just not my cup of tea. Why can’t we agree that what works in some churches doesn’t work in others, instead of acting like everything I don’t like is automatically bad?

 

The Gospel Is All that Matters

So there you have it. A response post that was longer than the original post.

What it may all come down to, is this simple set of truths:

  • New church isn’t better
  • Old church isn’t better
  • Only better church is better

Methods that work in one setting won’t work in another. What worked then doesn’t work now. And what works now won’t work in the future.

What does work is the Gospel of Jesus, preached and lived through the power of the Holy Spirit. In dark or bright rooms, wearing suits or casual clothes, singing hymns or choruses… maybe even over hot dogs and hamburgers on a bass fishing trip.

 

So what do you think? Does this help answer some of the questions you’ve been struggling with? Or is there an angry crowd with pitchforks and torches in my future?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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(Street Arrow photo from Phil Whitehouse • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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22 thoughts on “For Those Who Are Struggling With How the Church Is Changing”

  1. Very gracious reply Karl. I am not sure of the Bishops denominational affiliation, but it sounds like all toomany evangelical/pentecostal churches in my own area. One item I might add, is I am surprised he did not mention Churches holding services on Saturdays or midweek. I ahve been contemplating this idea as I have been speaking with people who have mentioned to me ( these are non church going people), that if church were on another day than Sunday they might consider it. Are we so stuck with sunday morning at 10;00 that we could be missing a whole demographic of people who might be open to fellowship and the gospel if we were to alter one day or evening?

  2. I guess we have the perfect church. The pastor and leaders dress with ties, we sing hymnbook songs with a gentle keyboard only, we don’t look like a night club, the pastor preaches verse by verse through the Bible and we pray for healing in almost every service and permit time for other gifts. And we are a HEALTHY small church.

    We’re perfect unless you’re under 40. And we don’t have anyone under 40…or even under 50. But we do serve a need and a niche. Most of our growth over the past few years have come from seniors who feel they are being pushed out of their church. If they complain about the changes they are made to feel as if they are somehow not being spiritual.

    I commend the larger churches that are providing traditional and contemporary services. However…since this a blog for SMALL churches, we can’t usually provide that kind of specialization…unless the whole church stays that way. I think this is a harder challenge for smaller churches with seniors who are continuing to feel pushed out of the mainstream. Some can accommodate, some can’t. Maybe most can’t.

    So WHY are not more churches focusing on a seniors church? It’s the largest segment of the population, they come to your church as tithers, they seldom miss a service and they’ll probably die in your church and you’ll be the last pastor they ever have. That’s a ministry and a gift.

    For the right church and the right pastor…this is one of the best times ever to develop/maintain the traditional church.

    1. Great point, Mike. We need to provide better alternatives for seniors. It’s not that new ways are wrong, or that old ways are wrong. It’s that each situation needs to do what works. We need both/and, not either/or. Your church is a great example of a church that’s so traditional, it’s now “alternative”.

    2. Pardon my sarcasm here but I think we should all go back to the way that we ‘did church’ from the 1700s to just before things started changing in the last 30-40 years because we did such a good job of winning souls to Christ and changing the culture of America and the world for the better. Oh wait, we didn’t change the world. Things in the culture of America and the world have gotten worse. Christianity is under attack in the US by our government and the popular media and one need look no farther than Isis to see Christian Kurds being killed in other parts of the world. The church is not a country club where we cater to our own desires. Until we can get past our selfishness, and that is what all of this boils down to, we will never have the impact on US and world culture that we should.

      1. Hey Dave…no problem with the sarcasm. I agree with your salient points and don’t want to go back to the 1700’s. However, would you want my congregation of 60 to 90 year olds be forced into something new just because it’s new?

        The truth is we are a vibrant active seniors small church of about 100. 60% of our church will stop at least one stranger a week and pray for them. Half of our growth comes from this prayer outreach. But I also lose 10-15% of my church each year as they graduate to heaven.

        We are admittedly a unique church. And in my first reply to Karl I was using a little of my own sarcasm. A lot of our current growth is from older baby boomers. I expect we’ll see some changes soon but the core of our ministry will stay the same which is:

        • Every person I see has a need.
        • Every person with a need needs prayer.
        • Today God will show me which ones to stop and pray with/for.

        Mike

  3. Only one of the issues brought up (biblical teaching) deal with what is in the heart or put in the heart. The rest are all differences on how people gather to worship and express their faith. In the words of Sarah Palin…you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig. How I dress doesn’t change my standing with my King. The status of my heart does. If we confuse the 2 as church leaders, the flock will confuse it as well.

  4. Wasn’t it Paul who said “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
    We get too wrapped up in the means (not long ago churches didn’t have air condition, sound systems, chairs, computers….) and overlook the goal of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

  5. Karl, thank you for answering the Bishop’s blog post with such grace, professionalism and truth. To say that one way of doing things should be the same for everyone is to misunderstand what the church looks like in the scripture. The pattern in the Bible is clear; the methods change while the message never does.

    Personal note: As a middle-aged pastor of a newly planted small church, I so much appreciate your wisdom and encouragement. Thanks again.

  6. I am in the middle of this situation with recognizing a need for changes and find myself frustrated when things don’t change. Still I believe in strong traditions of faith, worship, scripture, prayer…but “the methods are not sacred, the message is.” (Tommy Barnett) I think it is hard for some people to let go of something they find so meaningful. Jack Hayford also has said, “Most traditions started for good reasons.” But all traditions do not remain effective. One day even skateboarding may not work (haha) – that;s just for humor! But seriously someone may one day think “how come we don’t have a skate park like we used to!” Sometimes we just need to do simple things right – love, worship, fellowship, outreach, discipleship – it should not be so complicated, but it can be really frustrating. Thanks for making us think deeper!

  7. I’m old enough to remember when the churches I attended were the way the good bishop describes. (Such churches still exist, y’know.) I also remember them as a lot more boring and a lot less gracious.

    I was a big hypocrite back then, and the church’s setup — where you dressed for the occasion, behaved a certain way, and were quite another person outside it — accommodated my hypocritical lifestyle really well. I could never imagine bass fishing with fellow Christians. Not with all our pious facades in place.

    He may complain about the music, but I remember when nobody listened to church music outside of church. Not so true anymore. He may complain about catering to youth too much, but I remember when the very last thing young people wanted to do Sunday was church. (Ever read Tom Sawyer?) Again, not so true anymore.

    The myth that things are always getting worse (rather than, as the scriptures teach, that things grow worse or better depending on how close or far we are from God) often leaks into our personal recollections, and colors them wrongly. It makes us nostalgic for a “better” past that wasn’t so great, and even makes us dismiss current moves of the Spirit because he doesn’t fit in our worldview. But like Ecclesiastes has it, “Don’t ask why things were better in the past; this question doesn’t come from wisdom.” (7.10)

  8. Thank you kind sir for caring enough and seeing my heart to answer my blog. All of my 40 yr ministry has taken place in the Bible Belt so my experiences may be a bit different from yours. I’m going to re-read your blog several more times. In writing my blog I came to realize that my chief complaint was the lack of true discipleship teaching in the churches that practice the things I wrote about. In my neck of the woods we have churches who emphasis the children’s ministries and music ministries, while having no meaty teaching for the adults. I appreciate your heart and spirit. God bless. Bishop Bob Hellmann

    1. Thank you, Bishop Hellmann, for your kind and thoughtful response. I hope that more Christians, and especially church leaders, can do what you and I are trying to do here. State our case, respond strongly and lovingly, learn with humility and keep reaching people for Jesus. We can do more together than separately.

  9. Great Word Karl, I agree with your take on “can’t we do both” all around in the church, with our young and old and in-betweens. With outreach, worship music, and fellowship opportunities. Every ones church is unique and should bend and grow together in how we meet the changing times we live in.

    Of course I realize that their are some that will never agree to any change in church methodology, at any cost, and that is sad. Nevertheless those folk seem to be on the outside margins and fading fast. At the same time we can help the past generations that are still part of our fellowships with the grace of allowing some familiarity, by not totally banishing anything that resembles yesterday.

    We ought to be able to maintain some amount of flexibility as people of grace. After all would we not be hypocrites if we would answer inflexibility in others with rigid progressivism of our own. Just saying, we are in this thing together and the grace of the Lord is truly our greatest drawing card for all generations.

  10. Thanks Karl for your gracious reply. I also pastor a small church. A small Pentecostal church. I wear a dress pants, shirt and tie, not a full suit, because that is who I am. I am the only one who dresses this way. All of the other men in church dress casual, which is fine. I thank you for acknowledging it is okay to do church effectively in your respective area of ministry and not become a cookie cutter church. I have just found your blog and I thank you for caring about small churches.

    1. I’m glad you’re here too, Wendell. I love it when churches present the Gospel in a way that suits their culture, instead of transporting a church culture from somewhere else. Keep up the good work.

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