Timeless or timely…which would you rather be?
It was the mid 1990’s and my friend was in her first semester of seminary. She went to the library to find a book. She looked around expecting to find a computer to help her perform a search but didn’t find one. “Where are the computers,” she asked. “I need to find some books for a paper I’m writing.” “Oh, we don’t use computers here. You’ll have to use the card catalog.” Incredulous, my friend asked a very predictable question “why not?!?” “Because computers are just a passing fad,” answered the librarian with disdain. For years, every time I saw my friend, I’d think of that story and laugh…but then I started consulting with churches, and now it’s not quite as funny.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably a minister. Many of us work in church buildings that are among the oldest buildings in our communities. In my last congregation I was the pastor of a church whose sanctuary was built on top of a foundation that included the ballast stones of 18th and 19th century transatlantic sailing ships. And it’s not just our buildings. Some of us sing songs on Sunday that were written before Abraham Lincoln was President. And even if you’re at a church plant that’s brand new or lead worship with songs that were written last year, every single one of us reads and teaches from a book that was written thousands of years ago.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining about that. There is an inescapable timeless quality to what we do in the Church, and despite the snarky, antediluvian tendencies of some theological librarians, I think that’s a good thing. My colleague Doug Haney has written a wonderful piece on worship that accompanies this article. Rather than planning a time of worship based on the latest trends, Doug talks about planning worship based in Trinitarian theology. He quotes Jaroslav Pelikan. “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” There is nothing wrong and much that is right about the living faith that has and continues to be passed down through time from generation to generation.
But on the other hand, it is also good for churches to occasionally be on the leading edge. Every Sunday, I walked past those ballast stones on my way to a worship service where the musicians used modern instruments and the latest technology to lead a portion of our congregation in worship. A few months ago, I watched as an eighty-year-old woman worshipped with her congregation as they live streamed worship for the first time. Before the service began, she typed into the Facebook Live chat feature that it was the first time in two years that she’d been able to worship on Sunday morning with her congregation. She was so happy she was crying.
Timeless or timely? Which would you rather be?
You probably knew this but it’s kind of a trick question. All but the tiniest percentage of American congregations would acknowledge the need for change from time to time, and every congregation I know would happily agree that they proclaim timeless truths (even if they might disagree with the congregation down the street over which timeless truths were most of in need of proclaiming). That’s fairly easy to figure out. What’s more challenging but, perhaps, more rewarding for American congregations is learning how to see those two things less as two opposite ends of a spectrum but as two inter-related and mutually dependent aspects of the Church’s mission.
One of the more interesting initial findings of the work the Center for Healthy Churches is doing with Belmont University on 21st Century thriving is that, by itself, where a congregation lands on the spectrum of valuing history to valuing cultural relevance tends to make slight difference on whether a congregation is thriving. Instead, what we found is that thriving churches tend to have robust mechanisms for teaching and communicating timeless truths in timely ways. In other words, thriving churches find ways to make timeless practices relevant.
Stop and think about the methods your congregation has utilized over the years to help people worship and grow in the faith, methods like prayer, Bible study, liturgy, the sacraments, etc. Some churches mindlessly renovate, always seeking to stay ahead of the latest trend. Other congregations mindlessly maintain their existing methods. How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer – “Change? What do you mean, change?!?” Thriving congregations do not seem to get as caught up in these ways of thinking, nor do they always fall in the middle of the spectrum.
Take worship for example. For decades American congregations fought the worship wars over questions of style. Many congregations were convinced that changing their worship style would help them grow and for some it did work, quite well in fact. But now the trend is old enough for us to recognize that many congregations who made that same shift never did grow, especially the congregations who weren’t among the early adopters. The difference is a question of intentionality. If intentionality leads a congregation to ask the “why” question that leads to innovation, it stands to reason that they’ll apply that same intentionality to the “how” questions. But if mindlessly following a trend is what leads a congregation to innovate then there’s a good chance that the congregation will be just as mindless when it comes to capitalizing on the ways those changes might actually impact the congregation’s ability to carry out its mission.
Bible study is another example, though in this case it tends to impact the opposite end of the ideological spectrum of American congregations. Some progressive congregations have sought ways to bring newer approaches to biblical scholarship to bear on Bible study and faith formation, with special attention being given to a more inclusive array of scholars. Given recent trends, one might expect this would be a welcome trend for outreach to a younger generation. According to Pew Research, the Millennial Generation and Generation Z are among the most progressive generations in American history at this point in their development (2018 Pew Survey – The Generation Gap in American Politics). And yet in Barna’s State of the Church survey, it was revealed that the single largest reason why people below the age of forty do not attend church is because they see it as irrelevant to their daily lives (Barna – The State of the Church 2020). Is it possible that the problem isn’t with the content of biblical scholarship but with the delivery system? In other words, can progressive congregations not only bring good scholarship to bear but find ways to relate that content to the lived experience of a younger generation?
The most important question for congregations who are trying to thrive in a 21st Century context will be only tangentially connected to issues of either trends or traditions, and it will have little to nothing to do with questions of style or methodological preference. The question that thriving congregations will ask is how we can take the forms of worship and faith development that are particular to your congregation and practice them in such a way that they meaningfully equip people to engage their faith across the breadth of their own day to day experience.