THE BLOG
09/29/2015 01:07 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

Two Crucial Quandaries for the Mainstream Churches

Over the past several years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to visit a variety of Protestant churches: Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, UCC, and Covenant, among others. As many of these denominations struggle with dwindling numbers, I have seen a common pair of conflicts within individual churches: the choice between a traditional or contemporary liturgy, and the tension between social activist clergy and social traditionalists who fund church activities. While my travels have made me a witness to some painful moments, I have also been encouraged by the creative ways some churches have surmounted these twin challenges.

The liturgical dilemma is often easy to observe, even as a casual visitor. Many mainline congregations are torn between two very different worship styles. The first is traditional, filled with ancient hymns and familiar readings. The second style, which is more contemporary, includes upbeat praise music, bands rather than an organ, and a much less formal set of readings and prayers centered on a video presentation. This second style was developed in non-denominational mega-churches, but has now spread even to some staid Episcopal congregations.

Some churches have simply stuck to tradition. Others have switched to the newer style of service. Finally, a significant number have split the difference by offering a service in each style or by trying to introduce contemporary elements into a traditional service. Each has a drawback, of course. When a congregation sticks to traditional services it may accelerate the loss of youth membership; the slow-moving liturgy bores them. If they switch to a contemporary style, they may alienate older members. Finally, and often most painfully, churches that try to do both at once end up doing neither very well. This is especially true in smaller churches with dwindling resources, which end up with a bad band and confused congregants. Others thrive; incorporating new elements into worship adds new energy to the church.

The second quandary is spiritual. A significant part of our new clergy, including many of those who are most promising, have a heart for social justice. They were drawn to the vocation by a Christ that changed hearts and the world by caring for the poor and the marginalized. Yet, in the pulpit their hearts are bound up by new realities. They may look out into the congregation at a same-sex couple and yearn to celebrate their union, or feel driven to participate in the Black Lives Matter movement. Quickly, though, they learn that if they do so publicly there will be older parishioners--the ones who give the most money to support the church--who will defect. These new clergy would love to serve the poor and talk about justice, but it turns out that much of their work is comforting the comfortable in affluent suburbs. In the end, they avoid talking about things that may offend, and neither the servant nor the served end up very satisfied. Passion is gone, and soon the new clergy is, too.

These conflicts are not an abstraction. Too often, one or both are part of a death spiral in congregations strained by attrition.

I don't claim comprehensive knowledge or training--just the experience of attending dozens of different churches. Based on that limited experience, it seems that the solution to these quandaries may lie in some measure of imagination and risk taking. Some churches are exceptional at following tradition, and continue to grow by perfecting their ancient craft. They are a joy to attend, and the best of them are imaginative within the parameters of their traditional liturgy. However, many churches cannot afford to be simply what they always were; the aging congregation will simply die out. This experiment has already been tried, hundreds of times. It saddens me to pass the abandoned churches that have suffered this fate.

Where does imagination take us? Surprisingly, the search for relevance may in fact lead to the time before our elders were born. It is surprising how few of our deeper, forgotten traditions have been mined for contemporary use, as we tend to limit ourselves to merely what the last generation or two have known. Dig deeper, and find what animated your church a hundred or two hundred years ago; what you find might surprise you. Presbyterians used to practice "continuous singing" and "lining out," where a cantor-type figure sang each line before the congregation followed. The practice was necessitated by the illiteracy of some congregants, but today would serve the function of drawing people into an active worship. Today, it can be a fascinating and invigorating way to broaden participation in a service.

Other times, it may be something wholly new. For example, the Minister who worries about talking openly about racial justice could switch pulpits (or congregations) with a racially or culturally different church. That bump of newness may open hearts and minds. Musically, there are options other than lite rock and organ-backed hymns. There are two hundred television channels with distinct programming; shouldn't there be just as many worship styles rather than just two?

Traditional and Contemporary are not the only options. If Protestant Christianity is to thrive in mainline churches, we must create things that are new and worthwhile and fully worthy of the God we worship. The only guaranteed outcome is what results when we refuse to engage these questions.