Unwrapping the church

Questions about identity and calling in a congregation are rarely answered with the application of prepackaged strategies.

By Amy Butler

Let’s be honest: at the start of my pastorate I had no idea what I was doing. Combined with my glaring inexperience, that first year of pastoral ministry also carried a heavy weight of congregational expectation: “Finally our new pastor has arrived! If she does her job right, our church will grow, lots of young people will flock to worship, and Sunday morning will start to look like it did in 1954.”

There are, of course, many traps for the novice in this dynamic, and I’m pretty sure I fell into every one of them at one point or another. But one particular mistake I’ll long remember.

A long-time church member was just convinced that the key to growing the church was starting a contemporary worship service. And so we started a Saturday night service with all the bells and whistles you’d expect in contemporary Christian worship.

To understand the pressure I felt you’d have to know how I feel about contemporary Christian music. Contemporary worship was in large part the church culture with which I grew up, so I knew it well.

But as I grew into adulthood and began to claim my own faith, I started to feel uncomfortable singing “I’m desperate for you” over and over again during worship. I decided contemporary Christian music was not for me, and I planted myself firmly in the camp of traditional and high-church liturgy and music.

Still, with age and a bit of maturity I’d managed to acknowledge that some people do get spiritual sustenance from singing worship songs with vaguely sexual lyrics, and I wondered during my first year as pastor whether it was in fact my responsibility to set aside my own discomfort and do the one thing that everybody thought would solve all the church’s problems.

Thus the Saturday evening contemporary worship service experiment began, an experiment with an end result best summed up with the phrase “abysmal failure.”

It wasn’t just that the hoped-for result of countless young people swarming the church didn’t materialize. Hardly anyone came at all, and those who did gritted their teeth through what can only be described as a painful experience.

Perhaps my own nagging discomfort was why it failed, but I think it’s more likely because starting a contemporary worship service was a programmatic strategy applied from outside our community.

It did not reflect the gifts of our leadership. We did not have the resources to do it well. Its application was tinged with an air of desperation, like acting out the message: “Please, please come to our church. We’ll do anything to make you happy, even pretend that we know how to play more than three chords on the guitar.”

Leadership failures are often the best ways to learn good, hard lessons, and one of the biggest and most important lessons I learned from this experience is that questions about identity and calling in a congregation can rarely be answered with the application of prepackaged, external strategies.

Transforming answers to congregational questions of identity and calling are found within — in the struggle to live in honest and healthy relationship with each other and in turn, in faithful response to God.

The industry of church, along with the constant attraction to quick fixes that comes with being human, resists this kind of uncertainty-filled change. We’d all just prefer to download a five-step program for engaging worship or run to the nearest Christian bookstore and pick up a shiny curriculum sure to entice young families.

But vision and direction, the impetus for faithful living in Christian community, always come from within. As a church, we know our next steps and we figure out how to take them in our own context by doing the hard work of discernment together. We listen for the voice and direction of God, we trust each other, we apply grace and forgiveness to failure and we have courage. Together.

Communal discernment, future dreaming for what our church can be, hardly ever looks neatly prepackaged or predictable. Why? Because when we make room in our life together for God’s Spirit to work, we’ll less often experience instantaneous success that looks exactly like what we imagined, and more often find ourselves hanging on tight for the ride and watching with astonishment as God takes us places we could never have imagined we’d go.

Some of these places could very well be rife with discomfort. They may even be scored with repeated strains of “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music. But wherever it is that we, the church, discover opportunities for bold expression of God’s call in the world, we can be sure: there is nothing at all prepackaged or predictable about following Jesus together.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.