By Mark Wingfield
Here’s an underreported factoid: Throwing out tradition and trying to “go contemporary” has failed in as many or more established churches as it has succeeded.
That’s right, contemporary worship hasn’t saved every church that has given it a spin.
These silent failures, I believe, come from pastors leaving their core congregations behind in the change and from congregations attempting to be something they do not have the resources to become.
As a 50-year-old man, I could try to wear a pair of the oh-so-hip skinny jeans, but I’d look stupid doing it. I simply don’t have the physical resources to pull it off. That has been the fate of many a church that has tried to put on the garb of praise bands and screens without realizing they don’t have a critical mass of people who can play the instruments and sing the songs.
Sometimes these churches were failing at traditional worship because they didn’t have the resources to do that well either. Trading one weakness for another doesn’t solve anything.
The old model of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches assumed a particular style of church could be executed in nearly any setting, whether rural or urban, wealthy or poor. In this cookie-cutter world, if Trinity Baptist Church of Central City didn’t have the strongest choir to pull off a Christmas cantata, everyone understood that, credited them some handicap points and commended them for the noble effort.
Those days are gone—not only for churches but for all institutions in American life. Television and the Internet have leveled the field of expectations in American culture — not to the lowest common denominator but to the highest.
If by “traditional” we mean the franchise model of church, then traditional won’t cut it any longer. My own former denomination, the Southern Baptist Church, had a classic franchise model for years, with churches supplied by a central provider for curriculum, music and even furniture and architectural services. There are several styles of Southern Baptist starter church buildings I can identify even driving 60 miles an hour down the highway.
Along with television and the Internet, Baby Boomers are partly to blame for the demise of cookie-cutter churches, according to church researcher George Barna in his book “Revolution.” Baby Boomers’ desire to have only the best in everything has shifted culture, just as the Japan earthquake in 2011 shifted the spin of the earth’s axis.
The result, Barna said, is more “niche” churches.
“Whether you consider the changes in broadcasting, clothing, music, investing or automobiles, producers of such consumables realize Americans want control over their lives. The result has been the ‘niching’ of America —creating highly refined categories that serve smaller numbers of people but can command greater loyalty.”
He applies this trend to churches: “The church landscape now offers these boutique churches alongside the something-for-everybody megachurches. In the religious marketplace, the churches that have suffered most are those who stuck with the one-size-fits-all approach, typically proving that one-size-fits-nobody.”
Congregations today need to innovate but they can only innovate within the range of their available resources.
For example, South Main Baptist Church in Houston was told by a consultant, “Unless you start a contemporary worship service, your church is going to die.”
The only problem was that South Main’s congregation was filled with people who had the skills for traditional worship, for choral music, for liturgy. The church simply did not have the resources within itself to do contemporary well. And in time, that lack of resources won out as the effort to run a separate contemporary service died.
This should not be perceived as failure on the church’s part as much as an acknowledgement of a social science reality. This is explained beautifully by Steven Johnson in “Where Good Ideas Come From,” a business book that also provides salient advice for church innovators.
The “adjacent possible” is a term applied to the limits of innovation. Consider, for example, if someone attempted to start YouTube in 1995 rather than 2005. It would have been a complete flop, Johnson explains, because the infrastructure did not yet exist to support either the transport or viewing of video over the Internet. Only with a more intelligent backbone to the Internet and the advance of home computers could YouTube work. The parts had to be available before the machine could be built. That’s the adjacent possible.
Johnson shows us yet another way to see this principle. Consider the problem faced by NASA mission control during the Apollo 13 flight. Sitting around a conference table in Houston, engineers had to figure out a way to keep the space-borne astronauts from dying for lack of a carbon dioxide filter. Having moved from the damaged spacecraft to the lunar module as an improvised escape pod, the astronauts had parts available but not the right parts.
“In the movie, Deke Slayton, head of Flight Crew Operations, tosses a jumbled pile of gear on a conference table: suit hoses, canisters, stowage bags, duct tape, and other assorted gadgets. He holds up the carbon scrubbers. ‘We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this,’ he says, and then points to the spare parts on the table, ‘using nothing but that.’”
Mission control had to create a survival plan using only the available parts—the adjacent possible.
Driven by fear of being left behind, pastors in recent years have sat around their own conference tables desperate to find a way to do something new—but have failed to understand the limitations of the available parts laid out before them.
You can set out to do traditional worship or contemporary worship or jazz worship or Taizé worship or gospel worship. In the end, the style you choose doesn’t matter as much as understanding what resources you have to draw upon.
Shakespeare said it succinctly: “To thine own self be true.” That’s one of the secrets of healthy traditional churches today.
Adapted from “Staying Alive: Why the Conventional Wisdom About Traditional Churches is Wrong,” by Mark Wingfield, published in collaboration with The Columbia Partnership.