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Pushing, Pushing, Pushing: Why Church Keeps on Changing

One day we will worship differently than we do now. And that’s how it should be.

In 1559 the Spanish Conquistadors tore down the Incan temple known as Kiswarkancha in the city of Cusco, Peru, and began building the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin—a massive, Gothic-Renaissance building in the heart of the ancient Incan Empire.

The cathedral has the usual sorts of Catholic icons—crucifixes and saints and ornate altars. But if you look closely, all around you’ll find the unmistakable imprint of the Inca people. There’s a painting of Jesus riding into Jerusalem—but instead of camels in the background, the artist has painted llamas. The crucified Christ is wearing an Incan warrior’s skirt.

Try as they might, the Spanish never really erased the Incan civilization. Instead, Roman Catholicism and Incan culture joined together to form something unique to the central highlands of Peru. Echoes of Incan civilization—though not its gods—remain a part of worship.

From the age of the apostles through today, worship has always been a complex expression of the interplay between the Christian community and the surrounding community—and a reflection of the worshipers’ time and culture.

When I was a kid in the early 1980s, church was serious business. My church was in a farming community in southern Ontario. The people in the pews were Dutch immigrants who had arrived just a couple of decades before. Their Canadian-born kids sat beside them.

We walked up the broad front steps in our Sunday suits slowly and somberly, putting our coats in the cloakroom on the right-hand side of the foyer. You could see the organist’s bald head shining just behind the pulpit, bobbing along to interludes based on hymns from the Psalter. The litany was sparse—a few announcements and a congregational prayer, some enthusiastic singing. The sermon had three points and was punctuated by the discreet crunching of King peppermints.

There was no evening service. Instead we had an afternoon service at 2:30. That’s because an evening service would have interfered with the cows’ milking schedule. So we would drive home, have soup and buns for lunch, argue about the finer points of the sermon, and return before the oak pews had a chance to cool off.
This was brutal for a teenager. Especially in the summer when there were pools to swim in and baseball games to be played—neither of which was allowed. Swimming was out because you had to pay to get into the pool, and that meant making someone work on Sunday. Baseball was out because that was competition, and competition counted as work. I found these distinctions legalistic, arbitrary, and dumb.

I remember asking my dad if I could buy a Coke from a vending machine because it would have been filled days before. I also pointed out that if he bought the Monday paper, he was making someone work on Sunday. He replied with some choice words in Amsterdam street slang that don’t bear repeating.

Over time, all this changed. It had to. What made sense in Holland in the 1950s didn’t make sense in Canada in the 80s and 90s. As kids left the farms and the economy forced farms to change, it mattered less what time the cows thought we should worship. Gradually guitars and microphones and even drums made their way into the church. I remember the organist standing up in a huff one Sunday, annoyed that we were singing faster than he was playing. He yelled, “You people are always pushing, pushing, pushing!”

The point is that our ideas about worship—and even our ideas about what it means to be a community of believers—change over time. The world doesn’t end at the top of the church steps. It flows through the sanctuary like a swirling, invisible mist surrounding worshipers who come through the doors with doubts, fears, and thoughts informed by their experiences on the other six days.

These days, getting a congregation to sit still and listen to a 20-minute sermon requires a feat of oratorical skill most pastors never trained for. In a world where people—not just young people —multitask on their smartphones while watching a movie, we are no longer a captive audience.  Our world is social and interactive. We want to participate in a conversation, not sit still for a lecture. The days of church as a place where an expert dispenses knowledge about theology and families debate it afterwards over soup and buns is over. As social media guru Don Tapscott points out, we are “bathed in bits”; how we receive and process knowledge has been forever changed.

Many churches have realized this. They have become a social hub—a kind of flesh-and-blood Facebook where people come together to find out what’s going on in their community. Sermons have gotten shorter; announcements are longer. Church bulletins are filled with reminders to attend church and community events. When the youth group comes back from a service project, we expect to see a video with an appropriate contemporary Christian music soundtrack the following Sunday. If someone bikes across Canada for charity or participates in a run for the local homeless shelter or has a new idea for an outreach program, we want to hear about it. I know of one church where members Tweet questions to the pastor during the service, and he answers them at the end of his message. It’s no longer the pastor who “owns” the pulpit—it’s a time-share arrangement.

This makes some folks uneasy. There are always some who think church should not evolve, people who feel that the community they grew up in is the best—and only—expression of how worship ought to be. And then there are those who feel the church is never doing enough: the more bake sales and community events we organize, the more active we are, the more “Christian” we are. Even if that means events and activities overlap and compete with each other. If we’re not reaching out, they fear, we are not doing our job.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” Our intentions—whether to preserve a community or take it in a new direction—need to be more than well-intentioned. They need to be purposeful.

Some feel church needs to change to attract new followers. But if we’re honest, that’s not really the point. Church needs to change—as it has in this and in every generation—to remain relevant to the people who are already in the pews. Our worship communities need to feel like a living part of our week, not something altogether different from our everyday lives. Otherwise, the act of worship feels alien and false.

When the Spanish built the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, they wanted to destroy the Inca culture and rebuild Spain in the highlands of Peru. Instead, they were spiritually and physically transformed by the experience.
Today, 80 percent of all Peruvians share a mixed Incan and Spanish heritage. Their worship is syncretic—mixing the ancient Quechua and 16th-century Spanish traditions together with a dash of the modern.

In the Christian church, we bring our world into our worship so that we can make sense of it together through our shared faith. These days, instead of spending our time in the pew worrying about how the herd of dairy cows is feeding, we may be thinking about an argument we had on our Facebook wall. And over the course of that hour spent as a community, we hope to hear God speaking to us about those very real concerns.

And when we leave the church afterward, we are also transformed. Instead of heading home for soup and serious theological debate, we may get together with some church friends to pick up litter in the park.

Both are a response to what we have learned about God and our relationship to him in the time we have spent together. Neither is forever. One day we will worship differently than we do now. And that’s how it should be. Pursuing our relationship as a community is the point of Christian community—and doing so with love and understanding for one another should always be our goal.

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