Preface: I know that what you’re about to read sounds absolutely nuts. And yes, I’ve overstated my argument for the sake of discussion . . . but sadly, it’s basically true.
I’m convinced that style is more important than substance to most church attendees. The substance can’t be utter crap, but given a modicum of substance I think that most of us will choose our church community based upon cultural/style factors rather than theological, biblical or ecclesiological factors. If this is how many/most people choose their church, shouldn’t church leaders be concerned with issues of style, presentation, and appeal of their worship, education and fellowship ministries?
Well, we already are, in many respects. Our "traditional" worship services, the services that have broadest appeal and draw the largest number of people, are generally bound by the non-theological 1 hour rule. Go over the alotted hour and the market, ahem, the people of God, will revolt and insist on convenience over content.
Or look at the music. For our holiday services we advertise the brass ensembles and the string quartets that will perform at, ahem, that will contribute to the festival worship. We bring out Handel’s Messiah, knowing that this cultural favorite will likely draw more than a few people into the pews.
From hymns to worship style to the church’s Sunday morning schedule to the personality (not theology!) of the pastor to the quality of the childcare to the availability of parking to the various fellowship groups to whether I was warmly greeted when I walked into your church, style and stuff are generally more significant than substance and sacraments (for better or for worse!).
(And style is not just the concern of so-called contemporary services or emergent ministries. Traditional ministry has stylistic concerns too, but we just don’t ususally admit it!)
Now, let’s take a minute and look at the churches in your denomination (for me, the ELCA). Overall, there is probably little variety in the "style" of the 80-90% of congregations. They probably worship using one of the primary liturgies from the denominational worship book (and accompanied by an organ), Sunday school according to the hundred-plus year-old pattern, occassional opportunities to serve the needy, an invitation to sit on one of several committees, choirs and youth groups for fellowship, perhaps a midweek Bible study with people my age – overall a straight forward, comfortable religous experience.
If what I’ve just described is vaguely on target, then we’ve got problems – not the least of which is this: why are we dressing up the substance of our tradition in only one style? Style is what catches the eye of many potential churchgoers, but our denominations are overwhelmingly offering only one way of ministry.
If you believe (like me) that the substance of our tradition can be authentically expressed, experienced, portrayed and conveyed in a variety of ways, then the unholy, monogamous marriage of our tradition to one particular style of ministry is simiply unevangelical, artificial and lacking vision. Our denominations need variety – not necessarily within individual congregations – but within the denomination, between parishes. Not only will this variety draw in people of different backgrounds, interests and walks of life, but this variety will more greatly contribute to our experience of God, the church’s mission in the world, and our relevance in this new century.