From banners that read, “Old-Time Tent Meeting” to animated marquees that flash, “New and Improved Worship Service” how church work should be done is often conceived in at least two different ways. Some believe that what is old is best because twenty years ago their attendance was double. On the other side of the spectrum, some congregations believe that they must change in order to reach the lost.
Amos 5:19 says, “It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him.” May we not swing too far to the old or to the new, but see the lost through the eyes of a loving Savior so that they may be saved from a dying world. Otherwise, if we leave the old for the new, or vice versa, we may be fleeing a lion only to meet a bear.
WHAT ELSE IS NEW?
Just because something is new doesn’t mean that it is better. “Everything new is good. Let’s make a change. That will fix things.” These concepts are just as irrational as the thinking that says, “It’s the way we’ve always done it.”
There is a psychological force that can throw a congregation into a whirlwind of decision making toward the new. It is called diagnostic bias. Ori and Rom Brafman discuss this in their book, Sway: The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior. After considering a potential or current plan of action, if it is dubbed “old-fashioned,” many congregations would reject it because they have “diagnosed” it as out of date.
Sunday school, Bible-based sermons, and familiar songs are main stays of church work and should not be written off simply because they seem to be old. Christians need to love the Word and they can only do this through consistent Bible study. Preachers need to speak on more than what is popular and their lessons must have substance if they are expected to really change lives. Finally, many “old” songs are beautiful and teach a great deal.
WHY THE NEW MAY NOT WORK TODAY
Maybe a portion of the congregation feels that the worship service could use a little change. Certainly, there is merit in suggesting new songs, doing things in a different order, or even changing the times of service. Doing these small things can be an easy way to shake people out of their “going through the motions” attitude. To go a little deeper, some may have changes in mind that are more pervasive and raise a lot of questions. In any case, doing something new is not the ultimate answer because complacency with three songs from an old song book at 6pm can eventually become complacency with five songs from a new song book at 5pm.
You see, the problem is not the order of worship, the pews, or the stained glass windows; the problem in both scenarios I am discussing here is the heart. We must not focus on how we think things should be done, but rather on the Gospel’s ability to change lives. There is a place for considering how we do things, but it must not consume our focus.
In our effort to bring in new people, we may forget that we are primarily in the business of bringing people to Christ, not just filling our services. Jesus and the apostles reached people in the streets with their words and actions. When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he spoke the message to her and she believed along with the others who heard him. We must realize that efforts like a new youth program or new songs may get people in the door, but only the Word really change them.
WHY DO WE HOLD ON TO THE OLD?
Humans often think in irrational ways by not considering the validity of a certain point. We often call it stubbornness, but it can be a bit more complicated than that. The desire to hold on to what is old can be addressed by another psychological force. Brafman and Brafman call it “value attribution.” Value attribution means that once someone becomes committed to an idea that they have placed a certain value on, it becomes very difficult to help them see the value of anything other than what they have conceived in their minds.
If you look in your parents’ medicine cabinet, you might find that they are still using the same product they were using when you were a child. They have placed a certain value on that item and can’t be easily swayed into thinking that something else works better. In Acts 10, when Peter met with Cornelius, Peter references the fact that he should not even be in the company of Gentiles. Because of Peter’s faith in God, however, he changed his ways and accepted them. The old idea of considering others as unclean had been done away with. Peter accepted this new teaching and applied it to his ministry.
The concept of value attribution can be seen in today’s church work. Take vacation Bible school programs for example. They once lasted a week and now many have gone to one big event on a Saturday. They have also changed from morning to evening which allows more adults to attend. Your congregation may have tried different ways of conducting your VBS and the changes were probably met with considerable opposition. “What? A Saturday VBS?” Even with pertinent information of your idea’s validity, you probably had a lot of convincing to do. This can be blamed on value attribution because it causes people to lose objectivity. They strongly value the past and become resistant to new ideas even when they are good for the congregation and compatible with scripture.
During my full-time work as a youth minister, I acquired a powerpoint projector to show my sermon outlines and announcements. We did a few test runs and I soon learned that our seventh graders were taking notes and listening intently. I was overjoyed. Some of our older members said, “If I wanted to see a movie, I’d go to the theater.” Because they had little experience with powerpoint (it was new) this was all some members needed in order to protest. Evenutally, the projector and laptop were accepted as people saw the value.
WHY THE OLD MAY NOT WORK TODAY
Our teens struggle everyday with issues that previous generations could not have imagined, and telling them the story of Jonah for the twentieth time is not going to help. They need Bible study, but they also need bible answers to today’s most pressing questions. Also, our adults struggle with a world that beats on their doors with materialism, hedonism, and skepticism. How can they battle these forces unless the ministry at their local congregation addresses them? Presenting lessons on sin in a general way may not work. A failure to address specific life issues is a lot like living in an abusive home where no one acknowledges what is really happening. Family members just keep going as though everything is fine when it is not. God’s Word needs to be applied to specific life circumstances so Christians will be equipped in handling them.
May we not focus on how things used to be but rather look at how they can be, using the inspired Word as our guide.
LET THE MESSAGE, NOT OUR PHILOSOPHIES, CHANGE US
I am not proposing that we change the message, but I am suggesting that we take a deep look at how we formulate our ministries. Our direction should not be driven by the past, nor should it come from a desire to be the most innovative congregation in town. Neither will hold out over time because they are not grounded in Christ.
Jesus is not found in old song books or digital projectors, but rather he is found in those who are seeking to know him deeper every day. Whether it is through tried and true methods or with state of the art technology, I hope we all will work to remain true to scripture.
Value attribution and diagnostic bias can ruin congregations as they keep people from considering scripture in a balanced and biblical fashion. So, as we long for the “old paths,” I hope it is the teachings of the New Testament that we seek because they alone can change the world. With this foundation, we can then work to reach the lost in new and practical ways.