Pushing, Pushing, Pushing: Why Church Keeps on Changing

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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.

About the Author

Lloyd Rang is the Communications Director at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto and a member of Rehoboth CRC in Bowmanville.

See comments (3)


I agree with this article where is says,

"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."

On the other hand, I quite disagree with the article's implied suggestion that all churches have changed over the years in some sort of uniform pattern.  For example, I know plenty of congregations where a 20 minute (or longer) sermon is common and the congregation handles it just fine (contrary to this author's impression).  For some congregations in some places, it is indeed dramatically true that "how we receive and process knowledge has been forever changed."  For some congregations in other places, not so much.

I really have no idea how much things have changed over the decades in Toronto, Canada, nor in Vancouver, Canada, nor in Grand Rapids, Michigan (seriously, I don't), nor in many other places.  But I do have an idea how much -- or how little -- things have changed in other places.  My church has always been quite different from that of the home town of my youth (NW Iowa).  I moved to Salem, Oregon 38 years ago. Has my church in Salem changed in those 38 years?  Sure, but really not all that much; certainly not as much as this author describes the changes he's seen in his part of the world.

Generally, large cities change more and more rapidly, smaller cities and towns in rural areas change less and less rapidly.  And all churches change, and their immediate cultural environments change, at different paces and in different ways.  The lesson to draw from that we should avoid the seemingly irrisistable urge to project one's own experience, in one's own place on the planet, upon all others in all other churches in all other places on the planet.  Salem, Oregon is not Toronto, Canada, which is not Sioux Center, Iowa, which is not Manhattan, Montana, etc.  For that matter, Salem, Oregon, is a world apart from Portland, Oregon, even if only separated by 50 miles of physical geography.

This author's childhood home was a southern Ontario farming community.  He now works at the University of Toronto.  Hmmm.  I wonder if his own move from the farm to Toronto is in any way associated with the change he has observed about how worship is done these days?

Finally, this author says, "There are always some who think church should not evolve."  Really?  I'm not sure I know any even one of those people.  I know plenty of people who think there are good ways and bad ways to evolve, that some parts of the changing culture around us should be accomodated and some parts not, and that certain principles of "doing church" shouldn't evolve at all, but I think the people who purportedly don't think doing church should ever evolve at all are just useful caricatures to argue against, not real people.

Right now, it seems to me that most of those in the CRCNA entrusted with leading the denomination and its churches in "restructuring" (check out the lastest, final SPACT report for all of the adaptive thinking we supposedly all need to do -- http://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/SPACTFinalReport.pdf) regard big city culture as the culture that CRCNA churches much "adapt" to exist in.  To an extent, they are correct.  On the other hand, to an extent, they couldn't be any more incorrect.  And then there are the all of the in between places.

Let's fully realize the true diversity that exists within our own churches and the local cultures they exist in.  Let's recognize and regard as equally important those churches that minister to those cultures that may not have "evolved" so much other churches in other cultures.  At least some of "what made sense in Holland in the 1950s " still does, at least to some or many of us, whether ot not we've already adapted those things in some ways.  Let's avoid one-size-fits-all thinking about how to "do church."  In my church and many others, there are still some who sit in the pews every Sunday that "worry[] about how the herd of dairy cows is feeding," or such other kinds of "rural things," even if not necessarily during the sermon.  Their adaptation already made: the herds are larger than 30 years ago. :-)

Thanks for this article, Mr. Rang. As a pastor, I have had to make the case many times that the music which edified the ancient Byzantinian congregations would have been squarely rejected by many a Dutch milkman! Change happens. Put a smiley face or a frowny face after that depending on your outlook, I suppose.

But as a pastor, I would love for you to flush out the question, “why?” Why change? Why is some change better than other change? Why are we quick in this day and continent to assume that our culture must inform the Church more than the other way around? As with our politics, our entertainment and our business and home practices, if “change” is not guided by the Word and Spirit, we may be awash in popular consensus but seriously lack in holiness and righteousness.

Howdy folks:

Thanks for taking the time to respond to the article. For clarification, I'm still a member of a rural-ish church: i work in Toronto but live in the town of Bowmanville.  

Doug: I absolutely agree that churches haven't changed in the same ways. It very much depends on context. I tried to hint at that in the article, but there's only so much you can write in the space the editors give you. :-) I was speaking from my own experience but i don't pretend it's universal.

Michael: I thik churches are always changing, but he reasons WHY they are changing are diverse. Again, i tried to hint at that in the article. Sometimes it's because theology changes, sometimes the religious or economic context around the church changes (like the move away from strictsabbatarianism in the article, or the changing economics of farm communities). Still, i think the BEST changes are the ones we make intentionally and, to that end, i think churches MUST change to speak to the wounds and the needs of people in the community (whether in the pews or not yet in the pews).

If we look at the spiritual needs of people today, it seems to me that what we're most in need of is REST. I don't know about you, but i'm plugged into the web and social media from the moment i get up to the time i go to bed. I love information culture, but it's overwhelming and exhausting. Overwhelming because the volume of information coming at us and the speed is more than we can handle and exhausting (just think of all the recent news of racial unrest in the US) because it feels there's so little that any of us can do to about it (paradoxically it seems to me that the more information we have, the more powerless we feel).

I think communites of faith have a duty and a unique ability to speak to that need for "rest" in a restless world. Faith offers us a chance to "be stiil, and know that i am God" in a way that few other institutions can. Ironicaly, i think our efforts to make church "relevant" by adding MORE activities, MORE music MORE social media interaction may be the exact wrong thing to do. People don't need more of the same, they need something different -- rest for the soul. I'm not sure what that looks like or how to provide it, but it seems to me that the real strength of worship is mindfullness and reflection, both in very short suppy in this world of ours.

Anyway, if the article could be longer, that's the direction i think i would have pointed it in. Hope that helps.