I have to admit something: I love TV; I always have. I grew up in what many consider the “Golden Age of Television” and go back far enough to remember “Sky King” and “Roy Rodgers,” not to mention “Howdy Doody” and the original “Mickey Mouse Club.” (I was a precocious infant!)
I saw a commercial recently announcing that “How I Met Your Mother,” a show that I watched once and didn’t much care for, is in its final season. I thought that the episode I saw was a pretty poor rehashing of a show that I did like, “Friends.” Well, “How I Met” has been on for eight seasons and is going into number nine …Amazing! I predicted it wouldn’t last through its first season—shows what I know.
The success of this sitcom got me thinking about patterns of success, and two phrases came to my mind: “Nothing succeeds like success,” and “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” There’s been a real history of successful large “ensemble” TV shows about friends in the workplace: friends whose lives intertwine with others in a (hopefully) humorous way. Let’s think backwards from “How I Met…”, to “Friends,” to “Seinfeld,” to “Frasier,” to “Cheers,” to “Bob Newhart,” to “Mary Tyler Moore,” to “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Even leaving out a lot of other great ensemble shows, we can see that there is a pattern of successful shows modeled on other successful shows.
The questions I’d like to pose today are these: On what do we model our church and ministry, locally and synod-wide? Are we building on a successful model – and is that model still relevant to our culture? The answers to these questions have far reaching implications for the future of denominational church bodies everywhere.
I believe that the mainline denominations of North America, including the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, have been modeling their concept of church and ministry on a “golden age” of 20th century worship—a church culture that no longer exists. I think that many of us continue to see the function of church as being pretty much unchanged since the late 1950s – 1960s. In those far-off times, the Sunday morning expectation was to roll out of bed, get the kids cleaned up and piled into the Oldsmobile, and head off to worship in a mainline denominational church: Sunday School for the kids, and then the whole smiling family together in the front pew of the church, hymnals in hand (In my mental picture, mom and little sister are wearing hats and white gloves, while dad and the two boys are in a suit and tie. The family dog is there, too, though I doubt that was the usual practice). Real Norman Rockwell stuff!
In addition, we have a hazy recollection of being served by a single Pastor, spiritually all knowing, but still personable enough to have over for Sunday dinner (the big, early afternoon Sunday dinner…When did we abandon that formal affair? Ah, those were the days, my friend…)
Sad to say, it has become more and more apparent that this model for church has lost its relevancy in our culture. For the most part, Mr. and Mrs. Joe America don’t leap out of bed on Sunday morning thinking, “Oh my Gosh! We’re late for worship!” And their kids aren’t standing by the side of the bed tearfully pleading, “Please wake up, mommy and daddy… we’re going to be late for Sunday School!” …not hardly.
When it comes to going to church, the culture of North America has said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” But, make no mistake: The search for spirituality is at an all-time high. Isn’t this a contradiction?
No…People continue to seek, but they are not finding what they are looking for in the denominations of mainline Christianity. “Well,” we can say in our own defense, “they must be looking for the wrong things, because what we have to offer, Christianity, is exactly what they need.” No argument here. But we don’t have to worry about Christianity; it is alive and well. God sees to that. What has died is “Churchianity,” the outside world’s perception of what goes on Sunday mornings in churches across North America. Our problem is that we continue to confuse the two.
“Church people” are often viewed by those on the outside as being “club members.” They see us, the local church, as a group that concentrates on keeping our clubhouse looking nice and providing member services to those who attend our club meetings. To our credit, they also see that we extend those same club privileges to members that haven’t been to one of our club meetings in years! And they see that the requirements for membership are far from easy: all we ask of our club members is that they be like us: believe as we believe, fit in and act like us, enjoy the same style of worship, and take pride in our common heritage, whether it’s their heritage or not. And, don’t forget about the membership dues: we call them “tithes.” This is club membership Christianity; this is Churchianity.
Is it any wonder that the unchurched, the unsaved, are not breaking down our doors? The club member mentality is quickly disappearing from our culture. If what I read is true, membership is down not only in churches, but also in almost all other club-type organizations (Elks, Moose, Lions, Rotary, etc.).
Let’s be blunt: when it comes to the church and modern culture, what we have, they don’t want. “Programs” are not fixing the situation, nor is working harder and harder to perfect what we have. The world is traveling by jet, yet many mainline denominations in North America are still polishing their wagon wheels. Yes, they are wonderful wagon wheels, beautiful wagon wheels, and they got us where we are. But they are still wagon wheels. And token changes will not suffice either; contemporary songs or worship language, even a “praise band” and words projected on a screen are merely patches on a piece of clothing that is falling apart.
We stand at our church door and say: “Come on in here,” while the world stands in the street and says, “No. You come out here.”
Next time: Some possibilities…