Three years ago I was leading a weeknight Bible study for a group of friends. We had a lot of discussion about starting a new church. We live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a town that is frequently referred to as the “City of Churches.” There are about 500 churches in Grand Rapids now! Was there really a need for another church? Did we really want to go to the trouble of a church start up? What would make our church different?
Ultimately, we answered these questions with an unqualified “Yes!” We envisioned a church that would be different from every other church we knew.
What would our new church look like? What would the worship services be like? What would the music be like? Let’s go back to the late ‘80s for a minute.
I was pastoring a very traditional church in Southwest Michigan. I was laboring with all my energy to try to reach other young couples and families and bring them into our fellowship. Finally, the Lord blessed us with a handful of such families and I was really excited! One Sunday one of the most promising of the younger men came to me and said, “Pastor Dave, we really love your preaching and teaching but we just can’t relate to the rest of what is going on in the service. We think we need to find something that we understand and can participate in.” My response was, “Oh no you don’t!” I hadn’t worked so hard just to lose these younger people because of our traditions. I went to the church leadership that very week and told them we needed to start a second service that had a contemporary flavor to it, more casual, more participatory. When they balked I simply told them I would go and pastor these young families because they were the ones who were really growing in their faith. We started the “early service” (8:30 am!) a few weeks later. That’s when our church really began to grow.
What’s the point of that story? Traditions are not sacred. In fact, we all know that the traditions of men can get in the way of the law of God! What should the church do? Should we insist that young, new Christians learn our traditions? Should we insist that they learn to speak Shakespearean English in order to read the Bible? Should we insist that they learn to sing songs they don’t understand just because they are sacred to the memory of our forefathers? Or will we learn to speak their language and relate to them within their culture?
Are traditions wrong? Just because the church has done something for several hundred years should it be jettisoned? Do we begin to cater to young people just because they threaten to find something more interesting? We answered this with a resounding “NO!”
In our discussions we recognized that if a church fails to effectively communicate with young people then that church will die along with its last members. There is a congregation nearby that has not changed ANYTHING since the 1950s. They have about 20 people left but they won’t change. They just keep hoping people will come in and stay.
The contemporary churches we knew were also missing the boat. They were just churches that played contemporary music instead of hymns and wore shorts instead of suits. Different music, different clothes, but the same old thing.
The megachurches we knew had pretty much sold out to the culture instead of addressing it. The giant mall church had transformed the gospel instead of transforming the culture.
So the first thing we understood about our new church was that it would not hold to any traditions that erected unnecessary barriers to the next generations. We would not sacrifice any part of the Bible or the gospel to attract people. We would keep some traditions that would help communicate God’s word effectively and teach people what they mean and why we do them.
With fear and trepidation we were preparing to take the first step!