Imperfect Church, part 3

Continuing a commentary on Steve Sjogren’s The Perfectly Imperfect Church….

The second path for struggling churches (see Sjogren’s definition in my first post in this series) involves worship – he calls it Upward. This chapter has some of his best points so far – as well as some I’d most like to argue with. He says, “It is absolutely essential to do worship well from the beginning of the church’s existence. It’s what people experience first when they come to your celebration.”

If worship is about honoring God, then we clearly need to start there. If worship is a primary context in which people experience and come to know God, then we need to start there. But I’m still not sure what to do with his statement. First, my congregation is almost 150 years old. It’s a little late to be considering what we can do form the “beginning of the church’s existence.” Second, because we are an old established congregation (we still have several regular attenders who joined in the 1920s), our people have an entrenched notion of what worship really is and what it should look and feel like. Third, as Sjogren knows, worship isn’t about us – or about our visitors. It’s about God. If so, when we evaluate whether we are doing worship well the response of visitors – or even our regulars – cannot be of first importance.

He goes on – and this statment causes the most trouble:

Here’s a caution for smaller churches: You have to get past acting like a small family during worship. The natural tendency for small, struggling churches is to do what they call family-friendly worship, which means that children are present with the adults during the singing portion of the service. I don’t recommend including the children. They don’t get much out of worship, in spite of what we adults would like to think. It just isn’t fair to the children; they are bored being with the adults, and they are not learning to worship. They would be far better off in another room with children their own age…. I have never seen a church do worship well when the children are present.

As a preacher I have sympathy with this point of view. Some of the messages I need to preach are PG-13 and are not appropriate for children. Also, as a communicator, I’m aware of the great difficulty of speaking in a way that meets the needs and hold the attention of the wide age span present in our normal worship services. I can do good children’s messages – or so the children tell me from time to time. I can do messages that grab the adult’s attention and challenge them – or so they tell me from time to time. But doing both at the same time? That’s tough, if not impossible to do on a regular basis. I know there is a price to pay – my youngest daughter is a great one for inviting her friends to church. She explained the other night that she invites them to church to make it less boring. Ouch.

I’ve seen churches that do age-segregated worship. Northpoint Church in Alpharetta, Georgia appears to do both really well. When I visited Steve Sjogren’s church I didn’t have a chance to examine what they did with children (and that was about 10 years ago). They may do equally as well. But I notice that these churches have more than 10 times as many in attendance as we do. We take our kids out for Children’s Church most Sundays – even that challenges our available leadership. Most of the older people are “retired” from children’s ministry (“we did that when our kids came up, now it’s your turn”), so the burden falls on the parents who then miss the worship services. We also don’t have the financial & technological resources to do what churches like Northpoint do.

Notice, however, that what I’ve said about the communication gap and children’s church misses Sjogren’s point. He’s not talking about taking kids out for the message – he’s talking about taking them out of the “worship” time – by worship he seems to mean the singing time. Doubtless, there are plenty of children who “get nothing out of worship,” and demonstrate this by their lack of participation. But why should this be an argument for exclusion? On the same basis I can think of a bunch of men (mostly men – but a few ladies) who should be excluded from worship. All they do is stand there and stare when we sing. What about the autistic and mentally handicapped? It would seem then that the goal is not exclusion of non-worshiping worshipers, but doing the hard work of engaging the non- (and proto) worshipers of all ages. As for his final statement: I know what he’s getting at, but his judgment is irrelevant. I have troubel seeing Jesus say to the church, “Oh well, you included children in your worship today. Your worship just isn’t good enough.)

But he has much more to say on worship beyond Exclude the children.

He says that we ned to focus on helping peopel encounter God in worship. The starting point for this is identifying and eliminating the things (like doing goofy, gimmicky things) that keep this from happening. Applying his first path (Simple) with the second (Upward) he says we need to avoid complicated worship. In this section he explains how to build a band to lead worship. (Of course in traditional churches we already have institutions of worship leadership in place, so his advice is best for starting new services and forms of outreach.)

Skipping a few points (this series is not a substitute for reading the book), he claims that style is irrelevant. While some styles clearly are detrimental to worship in certain settings, I have to agree. Talking about style he concludes: “Your style isn’t what causes God’s presence to come into your midst. [I’d say, “Steve, remember that including children in worship is just as much a style as differences in music.”] Style is almost irrelevant. God comes into your midst because hearts are hungry for the presence of God.”

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