culturally relevant worship

 

The New Normal
by Ted Schroder

The world has changed drastically in the last twelve months. The collapse of Lehman Brothers, the government takeovers of GM, Chrysler, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the failures of many banks, the drop in real estate values and stock prices, has altered the financial scene and brought about a change in how we view institutions, and the future. A new federal administration is proposing massive changes in financial regulation, health insurance, energy policy and social priorities. This has impacted all of us. Unemployment has reached new highs, affecting many of our children and grandchildren. Plans for retirement have been put on hold. Houses cannot be sold. The conference and resort business has suffered. Bankruptcy faces many businesses and individuals. Churches and charities have seen a drop in contributions and an increase in requests for services. Here, at the Chapel, we have been blessed with solid financial support. However we are challenged by fewer than usual new members, due to the stagnant real state market, and lack of movement into the area. Is this, what is called today, the new normal? 

We are creatures of our environment. We have an aging population. Due to death and moving away it is possible (worse case scenario) that our attendance and membership could fall drastically over the next ten years! That poses a challenge to us. We do not know what the future may hold. It is possible that the economy may bounce back and the present stagnation will be succeeded by an influx of many new people into our area. If this is so, and we pray that it will be so for all our sakes, then we must be ready for them. We believe that God adds to the church. It is his work that we are doing. What should we do to be positioned to serve the people God may send us? 

James Grant, writing in the WSJ (September 19, 2009) argues that “The very best investors don’t even try to forecast the future. Rather, they seize such opportunities as the present affords them. Henry Singleton, chief executive officer of Teledyne Inc. from the 1960s through the 1980s, was one of these enlightened opportunists. The best plan, he believed, was no plan. Better to approach an uncertain world with an open mind. ‘I know a lot of people have very strong and definite plans that they’ve worked out on all kinds of things,’ Singleton once remarked at a Teledyne annual meeting, ‘but we’re subject to a tremendous number of outside influences and the vast majority of them cannot be predicted. So my idea is to stay flexible.’” 

The world in which we live is incredibly diverse. It is impossible for us to appeal to everybody. We have limitations on our skills and resources. It is necessary for us to concentrate on our strengths and to improve our delivery of the mission to which we are uniquely called as a congregation of the people of God. I know my own personal limitations. Yet I am called to adapt myself to new sets of circumstances in order to respond effectively to the needs of the people to whom I am called to minister. I take St. Paul’s admonition seriously, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself are not under the law), so as to win those under the law….To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) 

Paul adapted himself to diverse cultural situations. He did not want any obstacle to hinder people from coming to Christ. Neither should we. We have to be aware that the world is changing rapidly and so is church life. The way worship is presented on Sunday mornings varies from congregation to congregation. If we are to serve the people whom God may be sending us in the future, we must provide an environment welcoming and attractive to them. For the sake of the gospel, we must provide services that meet people where they are, not where we would like them to be. We cannot insist on a take it or leave it attitude to others. Our goal must be to use all possible means to save some. We are sent by Christ into the world to witness to and to serve others. We are not here for our own entertainment, or for our own edification only. We must not be an obstacle, or a hindrance to others coming to Christ. I must examine myself to discover how much I am an effective conduit to communicating Christ to others, or how much I m an obstacle that blocks communication of Christ to others. How much am I becoming all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some? Is the Chapel becoming all things to all people, so that by all possible means we might save some?

This issue was a problem in the early church. Some Christians were teaching that new believers had to be circumcised and required to obey the ceremonial and dietary laws of Moses in order to be saved and become baptized members of the church. (Acts 15:1,5) These Christians had been trained by the Pharisees, who were sticklers for keeping the laws and traditions that were handed down to them. Those of us who have been trained in the old ways, think of them as superior to others, and necessary if we are take the faith seriously. We would be offended if contemporary versions of the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed were to replace the traditional versions in the liturgy. Some of us prefer the KJV of the scriptures to more modern translations. What we were raised on, and are familiar with, such as hymns, or choral anthems, are our bread and butter, our comfort food. Change the menu and we choke over the offerings. We want others to adapt to us and not we to them. Why should we change? If they want to fellowship with us then they should accept what is offered. But what should be offered in the 21st century?

In the first century the church leaders had to answer the challenge. “The apostles and prophets met to consider this question. After much discussion [it didn’t happen quickly – many people had to be persuaded in their own minds what was appropriate], Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:6-11) 

“God made no distinction between us and them.” We must not prevent others from coming to Christ by requiring them to meet certain cultural conditions. We are all saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus. How we package the delivery of the Gospel in our worship or outreach, should not be a barrier to those who want to receive it. We must lay aside our own prejudices or preferences if we are to genuinely and authentically convey the gospel to others. Our own experience will not be theirs. We must listen to their questions and their doubts, we must empathize with their pain, and we must understand their cultural conditioning as well as our own, so that we can be clear and compassionate in our witness.

The new normal challenges us to be innovative, and enthusiastic about being relevant and effective as the church of Jesus Christ. The new normal provides opportunities for growth that require wisdom and discernment. The new normal does not permit us to continue to do business as usual. The new normal should not threaten us or put us on the defensive. Instead, it should cause us to fall on our knees and seek new ways in which to serve the Savior. The future is upon us. It is in his hands. Let us seize such opportunities as the present affords us to share the Gospel of Jesus with others. Let us approach an uncertain world with an open mind. You never know, the Holy Spirit may be leading us to an exciting future.

(c) October 4, 2009

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