The question stared up at me from the computer screen, the blinking cursor was begging for a response. It was not the first time I had been asked the question, nor was it the last, but for some reason, this time I carefully pondered my response. I had been ‘chatting’ with a friend from Bible college days on-line. We had swapped some war-stories, updated each other on family life, and talked about our current ministry challenges. That’s when he posted a query, that while it was familiar, it struck me that I had never fully answered it.
“Why are you at a ‘traditional’ church?”
To be honest, it’s a fair question. For starters, I was under 35 years old. Most of the guys I graduated Bible College with are in ‘non-traditional’ ministries. Whether it is church-planting, leading house churches, serving as associates in mega-churches or youth ministers in churches with a more modern flair in their worship service, most guys my age don’t find themselves as ‘the’ minister in a traditional, hymn-singing, wear-a-tie-every-Sunday church. That, and I am much more comfortable in a T-shirt than a polo, and I will choose blue-jeans over khakis on any day. I prefer David Crowder and Chris Tomlin over Augustus Toplady and Fannie Crosby. I think organ music should be relegated to funerals and weddings and I love a good drum solo. My Bible college buddy knew this about me. So why am I at a traditional church?
I grew up in a traditional church. Our pattern of worship was the exact same every Sunday, and to be honest, it bored me to tears. I still have to fight the urge to not stand and sing the ‘Doxology’ after offering is collected. But there were some important lessons I learned along the way. Lessons that shaped who I am and lessons I want my children to learn. Granted, these lessons can be taught in any church or model, but I think they are most prevalent in the ‘traditional’ church.
Lesson One: Old People Matter
I don’t consider my parents old. I never have. Their open-mindedness and fun-loving personalities have always kept them young in my eyes. My mom is more technologically advanced than I am. She got an i-pod before me, a laptop before me, a smart-phone before me and she learned to Skype before I did. Yet, when I go to their church, a plant in the West End of Richmond, they are among the oldest in the congregation. While I love that their church is phenomenal at reaching young adults for Christ, it is missing that older, wiser generation that can mentor and advise the younger generation of believers. It is far too easy for the younger generation to dismiss the older generation as ‘out-of-touch’ or ‘stodgy,’ but the Bible teaches us that we are to ‘rise up before the gray-headed, and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God…’ (Leviticus 19:32).
Growing up I had nearly a dozen adoptive ‘grandmothers’. Graced with a high metabolism as a teenager, I had a perpetual appetite, yet my waist never expanded beyond 30 inches (oh how I long for those days!) These wonderful, elderly saints were convinced that I wasn’t eating enough, so nearly every week I was coming home with a pie, or brownies, or cookies that they made just for me. But what they were really giving me was an example. Their faithful attendance and loving example bore witness to their commitment to the church, Jesus and future generations. I had much to learn from their years of experience, and I am grateful for all that they taught me.
Paul told Timothy to remember the faith of not only his mother, but his grandmother as well. That’s three generations of Christ-followers. I know that my parents were by far the most influential in my faith development. But, the second most influential were my grandparents. I want my children to see that faith is a multi-generational trait. I want them to sit at a meal and hear the stories of previous generations who had enough faith to start a church; who had enough work ethic to build the building with their own hands; who had enough influence to pass their faith from one generation to the next and beyond. We have much to learn from our older saints. How are we to do that if they are absent from our assemblies?
Lesson Two: Music and Theology can Mix
Admittedly, I am a fan of modernizing our music services. I think my generation identifies with music a great deal more than any generation previous. We were raised on M-TV, Vh-1, walk-man and portable CD-players. As we have gotten older, the CD-collection has been replaced with an i-tunes account that holds not dozens, but hundreds, if not thousands, of albums. I truly believe that if a church is going to be effective at reaching the younger generation for Christ, we must speak to them in their music language. However, I don’t think that involves throwing away the hymns.
The hymnal is ingrained into my psyche. I have a collection of hymnals on a shelf in my office. There is one from every church I ever ministered to, as well as some older, out of print ones. I even have a 100+ year-old hymnal that was compiled and published by Alexander Campbell. Most Sundays I don’t even need to open the hymnal, for the words are indelibly etched in my mind. While I am a huge fan of praise choruses and modern praise songs, my favorite songs are hymns. The theology of songs like ‘It is Well’ (verse three corresponds beautifully with Colossians 2:13-15) and ‘Rock of Ages’ (whose first stanza includes the great piece of theology, ‘be of sin the double-cure’) is timeless. While I believe these songs can be re-orchestrated, I don’t believe we should dismiss them. They are classics for a reason.
Yes the objection can be raised that if you sing the same songs every Sunday, they can lose their meaning. I agree. Yet that can be said about singing the same praise choruses every week. I can still hear my father telling me, ‘read the lyrics before you sing the lyrics.’ While modern praise songs have made great leaps in recent years, there is still a theology gap between them and the hymns. Some of the most popular praise songs have ‘inch-deep, mile-wide’ sentiments. I want my children to enjoy worship, but at the same time, I want them to worship with all their mind as well as all their heart.
Lesson Three: Reverence and Joy Go Hand-in-hand
Yes, I have been in joyless churches. I have heard feeble hearts croak out a song three beats slower than it is written. I have preached before congregations whose expressions look as if they were baptized in lemon juice. Unfortunately, for many, this is the picture that comes to mind when someone refers to ‘traditional church.’ While there are several churches that fit this description, not all do. I have been in vibrant, joy-filled churches that happen to be ‘traditional’ in their approach. It’s not about model, it’s about mind-set.
But there’s also something to be said for a reverential approach to worship. I think we are guilty at times of being too glib in how we approach the throne of God. A growing trend among ‘seeker-friendly’ models is to open with a popular, secular song that is loosely associated with the topic of the day. This is a far cry from the Psalms of ascent that marked the opening worship of the Old Testament Temple. Solomon, in his God-given wisdom, warns us not to be hasty or careless when we approach God in worship and in prayer (see Ecclesiastes 5:1-2). What we see in both the Old and New Testament is a people who take the worship of God seriously and treat corporate worship as a profoundly spiritual experience. I have found in the traditional church, there are many who still take the worship of God seriously and are careful not to bring offense to God in any way. While sometimes their actions can be overly formal, I value the heart that says, ‘God deserves the very best I can give Him today and every day.’
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that reverential means joylessness, or that you can’t be joyful and reverent at the same time. There are parts of our service where we need to celebrate. Baptisms deserve applause and ovations. Songs of praise should be sung with a smile on the face. Fellowship with one another should be marked with laughter. But there are times when worship requires a solemnity that is quickly evaporating from a culture that refuses to mature. While there should be tears of joy during worship, there should also be tears of repentance. While the Lord’s Supper is a time of celebration, it is also a time of remembrance and self-examination. Again, it’s not the model, but the mindset. All of these things can be experienced in any church, but we must be intentional in applying the proper mindset.
All of the above are some reasons I serve the traditional church, but the reason I serve the traditional church is because that is where God has called me to minister. My background, experiences and knowledge are all well-suited to this calling. I know how a country church thinks. I know the resource limitations of a traditional church. I know how to go about discovering which sacred cows need to be sacrificed and which ones need to be allowed to graze for a while longer. This doesn’t mean I am not trying to change or challenge the congregation I serve; it just means I have learned how to challenge them to change more effectively.
There are some who may view serving the traditional church as ‘routine’ or ‘status quo.’ They may even view it as a lost cause. I can remember, when I was working with a church-planting organization in Kentucky, someone asked why they planted so many churches in comparison to the number of established churches they had given financial assistance to. His answer was at once both humorous and appropriate, ‘It is easier to give birth than to raise the dead.’ But there are some of us who have been called to cemeteries just as there are those who are called to nurseries, and the last I checked, we serve a God who breathes life into dead things. So I, like Ezekiel, may be ‘preaching to the bones,’ but within those bones lies a mighty army.
I can remember thinking that God wanted me to be ‘successful’ in ministry, and I defined success the way I was taught to in Bible College: the lead minister in a suburban setting that was large enough to support multiple staff. Perhaps this is why I shot myself in the foot so many times during my first ministry. I was trying to force a small, country church into a model that it just wasn’t ready to fit into yet. However, over time, my definition of success has changed, and having children has changed my outlook as I look at the heritage of faith in which I want them to grow and mature. Don’t get me wrong, it took me several years and many a lost argument with God to accept His calling, but now that I have, I have never been more content with where God has placed me.