Lifeway published a study at the end of 2015 where the results showed only 18% of people attending new church plants had zero previous church background (SOURCE). I am not a statistician and I don’t put an unreasonable amount of hope in various studies, but I do think this affirms something I’ve thought for a while now: Novelty in churches today isn’t really reaching new people as much as it is ‘disgruntled’ people. It’s true that this study was nearly two years ago, but it’s my guess that things haven’t really changed, unless they’ve actually gotten worse.
Here’s a few problems with novelty:
Novelty exchanges one problem for another –
I once did ministry in a place where a church had split basically over novelty vs. tradition. One group of people wanted to do things ‘same old same old’ while the other wanted to introduce new music, new dress styles, and an overall new approach. The result was a split and a new church.
But here’s the issue. While one church is idolizing tradition, the other is now idolizing novelty! Where one church thinks people are liberal for using a guitar in worship, the other thinks people are Pharisees for only using hymnals. Novelty didn’t fix anything. It just trades one problem for another, which at the root is the same problem, just with fancier (or less fancy?) clothing.
Novelty uses novelty to attract people
Like the church situation mentioned above, and similar situations I’ve witnessed over the last 10+ years of ministry, one major problem with many new churches is that the draw is not Christ, but novelty.
“Oh, I can go there and wear jeans!?” “I can go there and drink a latte!?” “We can go there and experience this awesome new youth ministry!?” And the list goes on… Many people are looking for something to fill their souls. They know (intellectually) that it’s only Jesus who can satisfy but experientially they’ve ‘tried Church’ and have found it lacking. Novelty comes along and says “What you need to try now is this.”
People are drawn to novelty. We live in a society of constant change. There is always something new and better and more innovative coming down the line, and this has affected the church ‘industry’. The more creative we can get in church plants, the better, because it works! But I want to push back on this line of thinking. How does it work? Is it actually working?
If 82% of the people already have some sort of church background, what are we really doing? Swapping sheep?
It’s a grave possibility that many are coming because they love novelty more than Christ.* For a while they actually feel that a void in their life has been filled, when in reality they are still missing Christ. It’s like eating candy when your hungry. Sure, it may offer a momentary relief, but eventually you will feel more hungry than before you ate the junk food!
I know there are many gospel believing, faithful preaching brothers out there in a ‘novel’ church who may not even recognize this danger! But to attract people to a Lord’s Day worship gathering based on music style, coffee variety, or affinity, is missing the heart of the New Testament teaching, that the draw and focus of our gathering is Christ and Him crucified for sinners and uniting with other blood bought rebels who have sworn fealty to Christ the King.
*(It’s not that ‘traditional church’ is the answer. Many are attending those churches and refuse to move in a healthy direction because they love the 1950s era more than Christ.)
Novelty doesn’t get to the heart of the issue
In trading one sin for another, the heart of the problem remains unaddressed. The real truth is that a lot of times it’s not sheep being swapped. We are swapping goats. We think people won’t come to church just because we are doing it wrong. If we can just change the music, the lighting, or the ambiance then we’ll get more people to attend. And so we plant new churches where 82% of the people are basically already on someone else’s church roll.
But the truth is, most people who don’t come to church are absent for this one main reason: they aren’t converted, and they don’t want to come to church. The heart of the issue is that many people, particularly in the Bible Belt, love religious formality and not Christ. And where novelty has been particularly troubling is in the fact that it has masqueraded as though it is not ‘religious’.
Religion has been categorized as hymnals and suits at church. But lattes, guitars, media overload, cowboy hats, biker get up, and hunting apparel is just as religious. It just goes by a different name. The heart of the issue is that people need to be confronted with their sin through the preaching of the Law and told how they can find forgiveness for their sin through the preaching of the Gospel.
I don’t think the danger here is ‘what if this novel stuff doesn’t work in 20 years?’ I think the danger is ‘What if it does?’
Because then in 20 years you’ll have a bunch of novel churches that are now ‘traditional’ in their novelty and then you’ll have the same problem all over again! I hear the call for more relationships, and reaching the lost, and I get all that. And I’m on 100% agreement with those needs in the church today. But we won’t get to the heart of these issues by doing anything ‘new.’
So what is the way forward?
As I said in the title, it is backward.
Let me clarify a few things:
1. I am NOT against Church Planting (In fact, as an example, I personally know some faithful church planters in Kansas City who are doing a ‘novel’ thing: house church! But as we consider that, it’s really not new at all is it? cf. 1 Cor. 16:19. Also, our local association is currently working to plant a church in a Nebraska town where there is currently no Southern Baptist presence)
2. I am NOT against technology
3. I am NOT against contemporary music (well, not all contemporary music anyway)
4. I am NOT trying to go back to the 1950s
5. I am NOT against novelty just because it’s ‘novel’ (For example, I preach from the ESV, a new translation!, I enjoy heating and air in our sanctuary, we use electricity!, etc.)
The way forward is not back to the Heavenly Highway Hymnal. It’s not back to Cantatas, or same old same old just for the sake of nostalgia.
The way forward is back much further than those things. Back to Scripture. I know, I know, it sounds so dumb and ‘too easy’ to say something like that. But listen, it really is the truth! Scripture is sufficient for what the Church ought to be and what She ought to do! And Scripture is sufficient for a clear recovery of the gospel. Not an assumed gospel, but the blood red saving gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I maintain that we are not in need of novelty today as much as we are in need of reformation. We look at the traditional church and we (rightly) say “Something needs to change!” And so, our effort has been as of late, to bring more fun, bring more ‘relevance’, bring a better atmosphere, be more ‘organic’ (whatever that really means). But I maintain, that though we’ve rightly seen the need for change, we’ve reached the wrong conclusion. The way forward is not forward (novelty). The way forward is backward.
You won’t find a clearer picture of relationships and a heart for the lost than in the pages of the New Testament.
It’s time to go backward! A recovery of the authority, necessity, and sufficiency of Scripture. A recovery of the gospel. A recovery of who God is. A recovery of what a Christian is. A recovery of the truth there are only two types of people: Those recognizing and rejoicing in the reign of Christ, and those who don’t. A recovery of that truth once delivered for all the saints.
I am grateful to see many brothers and sisters committed to going backward today. We see a recovery of the great creeds in many churches. We see a commitment to faithful men preaching expository sermons. We see a true heart for the lost which results in sharing the gospel and calling on all persons to repent and believe it. But let us ever be wary of exchanging the timeless truth of Scripture for something flashy in order to remain relevant in the eyes of the world.
Backward Christian Soldier! So that we may go onward…
Only God can bring the reformation we need. Let’s seek Him in His Word today.