The Church is Changing

Wisdom doesn’t automatically come with old age.
Nothing does - except wrinkles.
—Abigail Van Buren

What did God have in mind when He began His church? Just maybe a generation of Christians has arrived that will reconsider this question and be prepared to make bold steps in redefining the church’s role in society. In short, today’s young church could be ready to correct a number of mistakes that has characterized Christianity over the centuries.

If there is any truth to this, we must be careful not to understand this generation in terms of the last. Take a look at the more evident differences. We attended always in Sunday, go-to-meeting clothes. It was not as today, where everyone comes in jeans during the colder seasons and in shorts when it’s hot out. We promoted the idea, nowhere found in the Bible, that cleanliness is next to Godliness. Wearing a tie was a spiritually revealing thing to do. We had suits only for Sunday service. They went along with the ties. How refreshing to remember Shorty. Most Sundays, he came to service in a tee shirt. There is really nothing wrong with that. Today, people attend in very casual wear (sometimes even the preacher), and they may even be carrying a cup of java or something else to sip during the sermon.

Today’s church is different. We tended to turn people away, and not just because their beliefs differed from ours. We informed one young woman, who wanted to come to church, that she couldn’t attend unless she wore a dress. But the only dress she owned was very short, and she was too self-conscious wearing it. So she stayed home. Today, women come to church in denim.

We cringed when, one Sunday, in walked a young woman wearing a hooker outfit. She was invited, and that was the only dress she owned. We made an issue out of long hair for men, never mind earrings and tattoos. We got bent out of shape over a cigarette butt discovered on the front church steps, or something spilled on the carpet in the basement. We were offended by poor folk whose dress and sometimes fragrance was not up to code. Remember, “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” We were simply overwhelmed with disinterest when someone came in smelling of alcohol. Some inner city ministries were trained to deal with that sort of thing. We moved to the suburbs and small towns to get away from it.

I can’t see these things happening in today’s church, where people hold coffee cups in seats—not pews, where they wear shorts, where preachers put on simple but life-relevant PowerPoint presentations and song leaders sing simple songs—and sometimes not so simple—played with guitars and drums (loud drums). We sing to electric guitars, and the organ is gone. The grand piano in some churches has also been replaced with electronic synthesizers. And there is frequently a small choir of voices, each with their own microphone, instead of a single song leader.

The Bible belt might be the last bastion for hymnbooks, and yesteryear’s songs about the blood of Christ, and other once popular topics that have been replaced by choruses about worship and faith. It probably was a natural progression since today’s singer probably doesn’t want to strain their vocal chords in four sharps and do it for four or five stanzas. In fact, I don’t think today’s songs come in four stanzas. Do they?

The biggest change that has taken place is acceptance. You are not given to feel unwelcome anymore because of your looks or fragrance. It seems they want you there. The larger churches have developed a number of different groups, one of which will probably accommodate you as a visitor. They have categorized you by age and sex and whatever else warrants another group. They maintain support groups for addictions and even a ministry for the homeless in some cases. The smaller churches simply provide a friendlier environment because they want you there.

The most dynamic change I see is the lack of fighting over doctrine. Some of the older debates have simply faded away. I must admit that I do not know anymore what label a Christian wears, if he wears one at all. The Pentecostals have toned it down, and the Baptists are clapping their hands these days, so the war might be coming to an end.

Thank God!

And what about science and evolution? The last sermon I heard on the subject, the preacher endorsed theistic evolution. He maintained that evolution is real and that God is behind it. I wonder how popular that idea is. I think it is safe to at least suggest that the war between science and the church is also coming to an end. And I am grateful for that, too. There never really was any conflict between the church’s message and scientific inquiry and research.

Don’t tell the IRS, but generally I have observed in recent years that trustee boards serve a lesser role than they once did. They still pay the bills, but they don’t own the checkbooks. Pastors are defining their interests in ministry and congregations are rallying behind the vision they represent, so that trustees have no choice but to sign the checks and go home.

But the biggest change seen with today’s generation of Christians is their spontaneous interest in the simple Bible message and their total lack of interest in arguing theological minutiae. This is a marked difference from yesterday’s believer. If we profile this modern-day Christian, we start to notice a trend toward unity, since the distinctives embodied in those minutiae, which defined the denominations these minutiae represented, are no longer important. Pastors are even legally changing the corporate name or title of the churches they pastor, in order to remove any denominational connection. More churches are simply labeled “community” churches to underscore this trend.

And what about scholarship? What about Greek and Hebrew? What about the King James Bible or the Rheims-Douay translation? It is my opinion that since the Biblical Greek and Classical Hebrew were the unwilling servants of religious difference, it has also been relegated to a lesser role. Perhaps such scholarship is a dying interest. Its survival now, I believe, depends on the ability of today’s scholar to employ it in an open and honest interest in understanding the message of Scripture which was written for one church, united.

Bible translations? Today’s pastor uses a number of them, depending on his audience, in an effort to simply explain the message inherent in Scripture.

So I see a movement toward the simplicity and emphasis of the Biblical message, which was always God’s intention. I see people gathering in small groups, wearing comfortable clothes, and if they choose, bringing with them something to eat or drink. I see more dialog and happier times, because I see fewer fights and fewer board meetings of any consequence. Even congregational meetings are mostly an excuse to gather for fellowship. I even see the money serving a wiser end, because the focus is less and less denominational and more and more community-oriented.

Do I like these changes? Not all of them. I miss the organ music and some of the old hymns. I miss that certain old-fashioned atmosphere that came along with a nineteenth-century building and pews and stained glass. I personally miss some of the people with whom I once worshiped, some of them still living, and some of those, not that far from me. I am not especially impressed with some of the newness, some of the new choruses which I cannot harmonize to. And everyone wants to greet me with coffee and donuts. What’s that all about? I especially miss an in-depth Bible study. I like the Greek and Hebrew stuff. PowerPoint is a very new thing, and it doesn’t really do anything for me. But I admit this is my age talking. This is a cultural discomfort that has no relevance when one considers what church is really all about.

I know I am now the old grouch, the crotchety, gray-haired codger who calls “wrong” anything he doesn’t like.

Please, Lord, not me! I prefer to recognize that today’s generation has a right to their style of worship as much as I had mine. The main point worth noting here is that some of the changes just might be a providential design at work to unite people who could not hold hands before. When things are said and done, we might witness the greatest and most irrefutable proof that God is real, one Church.