In many years of visiting local churches, I’ve experienced a wide variety of services. A characteristic of churches I do not seek to revisit is represented by those with quirky services. This can be exhibited in many ways, but often as follows.
- Service time commitment not followed
- Runaway musical productions
- Off-the-cuff lengthy sharing moments
- Lengthy and verbose offering appeals
- Interminable altar calls
Earlier this year, I attended a Sunday service at a new church. The music was brief and to the point. The pastor repeatedly elicited responses from all present such as asking people to stand for the reading of scripture; asking people to say “amen” on many occasions; after a prayer he said, “and everyone that agreed with that prayer shouted…” to which a muted shout of “amen” rang out. Disrespectfully, a chorus of cell phones rang during the entire service. During a lengthy testimony time, many gave individual testimonies or asked for prayers of support. This was the first time I’d experienced this in all my church visits here. An emotional time consuming a significant amount of the service, it might have been more effective in a mid-week service. In fact, an entire hour went by before the preaching by a guest speaker started. The service lasted just shy of two hours. I had attended this church one other time and found them similarly unpredictable. Significantly fewer people were present at this recent service, versus to previous one noted leading me to assume their church growth strategy was not working.
With over 50 churches closing every week across the U.S., there has to come a time when churches need to recognize their ministry is just not being effective.
One local church I’ve attended has offering sermons prior to the offering collection. They last longer than most homilies offered by local pastors. Their services last a couple of hours as well. Another local church has members bring their offerings up front to staffed offering plates. I fail to see the value of this practice which I consider to be offensive to first-time guests and possibly regulars.
Many churches think that a rich musical entertainment format will attract and hold millennials. However, church consultant Thom Rainer says they’re looking for three things: content, authenticity, and quality. In a recent article (http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2017/april/the-real-reason-why-millennials-arent-going-to-church-and-its-not-because-they-hate-jesus) Rainer said, “They desire to sing those songs that reflect deep biblical and theological truths,Millennials speak less and less about worship style. Their focus is on theologically rich music.” They are looking for rich spiritual truth in the message, and in the lives of the members. They will quickly see through inauthentic congregations. Too many churches still offer half-hour or longer music sessions at earsplitting levels. That’s not what these future church members and potential leaders seek.
Altar calls are a standard in evangelicalism. Many times they last 15 minutes or more. I consider them to be unscriptural, psychological blackmail, and an artifact of the second great awakening in the early 1800’s but honed by evangelicals to produce “decisions” by which effectiveness of ministry is measured. By and large I do not think God works on the human heart through emotional altar calls. Quite often they are accompanied by pleading songs and instrumental music to shape attendees emotions to a desired response. Studies indicate few people make life-giving changes during altar calls and repeating the sinner’s prayer. One lengthy altar call I recently witnessed saw the pastor searching the crowd. He finally admitted the person(s) he’d hoped to come forward wasn’t even there that morning. God works on the heart, asking individuals to “rend your hearts, not your garments.”
Finally, pastors should build expectations in every member/guest regarding service times and stick to them. Sermons can be overdone and overly long. As a professional presenter, I learned early that to be effective, I had to do three things: say in advance what I was going to cover, then say it, and finish by repeating what I’d said. This practice makes the information memorable and unforgettable. I love to hear Redeemer Presbyterian’s Tim Keller do exactly that. In no small part it’s why his unfolding of scriptural truth is so compelling. I rarely hear local pastors use the same tried and true technique. Peoples attention spans are very brief these days. Some of the most effective sermons I’ve heard locally were only 10-15 minutes long.
We should strive to give our guests and members unforgettable experiences in worship.
Happy church-going during this beautiful Alaskan summer!