Church Style vs. Church Substance: Style Wins!

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.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “Church Style vs. Church Substance: Style Wins!

  1. Zephyr,
    I think that the thing we must always be attentive to is gospel proclamation (content). Simply put, are we proclaiming the gospel in the church and in the world? Not only that, but are we proclaiming the gospel in the language that the people understand. Proclamating is always translation into the language of the people. (That’s not to say we can’t also teach people the ‘language’ of the church, but you usually can’t start there.) If, for example, in the mission field, the culture speaks an unusual dialect of an unusual native South American language, the missionary learns the language in order to share the gospel story. If, in the mission field, the culture speaks and understands in sound-bites, multi-media and understands music with drums, ought not the missionary at least learn to speak the language? We need to always walk carefully, to faithfully proclaim the gospel, and to do so in a way that is understandable. To restate an old dilemma: If a preacher preaches in the church, but no one understands her, has she preached at all?

  2. I can’t disagree with anything you are saying. Somehow, having churches within the same denomination having radically different styles sounds just like what people are advocating about school choice: competition. Apparently the results of that are mixed, depending on the researcher.
    But in a sense churches already compete.
    But if a pastor’s preaching includes the gospel and the “what next” ie radical changes in life style and politics, for example, then the crowds may thin out.
    Is a full church necessarily a “successful” church?

  3. I just changed congregations in an area where there were a number of other ELCA congregations to choose from. The congregation I was leaving did offer _part_ of what you are advocating. It had three services each with a noticably different style, from formal liturgical to hand-waving contemprary. (I take it you are suggesting variation among congregations, but this was variety within one congregation.) The reason I left was that I felt the substance was missing, and at the risk of sounding like a stick in the mud, I suspect a certain degree of catering to the non-Lutheran masses is behind that.
    But, more to the point of your post, when sampling the other ELCA congregations in the area, I did experience the sort of sameness you describe in terms of style. There was variation in how well it was done (a matter of taste, I suppose), but it was the same basic offering. Lucky for me, I like that offering.

  4. Amen. It only makes sense that people are drawn to a style first. People new to faith are going to be pulled by an inner stirring of the Spirit, but that usually doesn’t come with a whole lot of theology or dogma — the appreciation of theology comes as one grows in faith. And de-churched people are likely focused on avoiding what wounded them. The substance, important as it is, only attracts the churched and relocated (or shopping).
    In Christendom we could expect people to come with a predisposition for a certain flavor of substance. In post-Christendom, we have to earn the right to talk substance with people, and that comes through our contextual engagement with their lives, including the style of worship/discussion/etc.
    There’s nothing wrong with “traditional” worship or a century old style of education if it works for some people, and it does, for *some*. The lack of diversity that you describe, and that I have experienced, says pretty clearly that others need not apply, that we’re not interested in them enough to be with them where they are…we want them to be like us first. How unlike how God comes along side us in Jesus!
    You’re right — we’ve got a problem! We seem happy to let people who don’t like “our” style wander off into other places, where if they hang out they will be formed by other theologies and practices. If this keeps happening, will Lutheran theology be anything more than an historical footnote? I hope this never happens, but we’re going to have to explore contextual styles if we’re going to avoid it!

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