In my last post I was reflecting on the theological shifts I have seen take place (mostly in my own tribe – the Baptists) over the 31 years I have been in pastoral leadership.
Today I thought I’d do the same with the practical or ‘functional’ changes I have seen take place in the church during my time as a pastor.
Now you’d think that these would all be reflections of our theology but let’s be frank – that’s not always going to be the case. Pragmatism wins the day in many cases and we sometimes end up doing what is practical, convenient and maybe even cost efficient rather than what aligns theologically.
So here are some observations as to what has changed in the way churches operate and faith is implemented since the mid 90’s when I started my pastoral work.
The Evening Service has gone…
I remember the days of the morning service being for teaching the ‘meat of the word’ or whatever you like to call it and the evening was the ‘gospel service’ (with the ‘song service’ held 15 minutes before the main gig where you could sing from the brown book without people debating whether choruses belonged in the actual service!).
Then the ‘evening service’ morphed somewhat into the ‘youth service’, however even these are few and far between these days – certainly for your garden variety Baptist churches.
Why? Well I guess it’s a reflection of the cultural landscape. If people are coming to faith then it generally isn’t via the ‘gospel service’ at 7pm on a Sunday evening. It was also a resource drain for many churches and very hard to sustain.
I must admit one of the downsides of the evening service being abandoned is the loss of room for experimentation. Crudely put the morning service is the stock standard meat and potatoes Baptist gig where some experimentation occurs, but generally within very safe bounds and definitely in tiny doses (or the fickle flock may just seek safer pastures).
I have memories of some quite outrageous experimentation in my youth pastor days at Lesmurdie Baptist – and the church community as a whole was richer for it. Perhaps we need to embrace some of that ‘what if?’ spirit into the regular 3×3 with sermon and teach our people to embrace change a little more. I would not advocate for the return of the ‘evening service’ unless it is easily resourced and meets a definite need. Otherwise we end up focusing more of our resources inward and towards the gathering. I can confidently say we do enough of that already…
Let’s Pay Someone to Do That – if ever there was a theological conviction we have done an appallingly poor job of, it would be practicing the priesthood of all believers.
When I began in ministry, churches were in the early days of realising that one sole (male) pastor supported by a dedicated and often over-burdened tribe of volunteers was running out of puff. An increasingly busy world was demanding more time from people so the days of volunteers giving large chunks of time to the church were in steady decline. As we grappled with that reality we resolved the issue by appointing pastors or ministry overseers to do what the volunteers used to do.
We created youth pastors, worship pastors, kids pastors, admin staff, executive pastors, community pastors and so the list goes on. If there was a significant activity that needed someone to drive it then we increasingly moved to paid staff. This wasn’t a bad thing per se so long as the role of the paid staff was oversight and development of those within the ministry. But at times we just paid people to do jobs that we couldn’t find volunteer for. I am guessing it’s a reflection of the shifts in culture that increased demands on people and pulled time away from what they may have given to church service.
I believe the appointment of part time staff members to lead and give oversight has been a positive move by the church, but its always a balancing act between paying people to ‘do’ the ministry or paying people to lead and develop others.
We Play Nicely Together – One of the best initiatives in my whole time as a pastor were the Church Together events, where there was a genuine effort made to bring together the Perth churches for an evening of worship and celebration of simply being the people of God in this place. Alongside these were the prayer summits that ran for a few years and brought together a diverse group of people together around one focus we could mostly agree on – prayer.
As the years have gone on it seems we have done much better at cross denominational initiatives and this has probably occurred as we have allowed some of our overly strict theological boundaries to blur. I grew up believing Anglicans and Catholics were all ‘liberals’ and Pentecostals were all a bit wacky.
We were right. Not at all arrogant…
During the 3 or 4 years I spent as a full time pastor I made every effort to go to cross denominational gathering and nowadays I would have little reservation about being in a room with all manner of Christian leaders. However being a part time pastor, all of the networking stuff basically falls to the bottom of my pile of things to do. So while I believe in the value of the networking I sometimes fear that we can spend more time in this mode than we need to.
Celebritism – one of the truly awful consequences of the ‘professionalisation’ of ministry usually with a view to building a larger church has been the emergence of celebrity pastors. I don’t remember any of this ilk back in the 80’s. (Maybe they were there but I was oblivious.)
Now there are names in church circles that are revered and esteemed more highly than others for their achievements in leading and building larger churches. Bill Hybels was one of the first ‘celebrity’ pastors I remember being awed by (and later deeply disappointed by). Australia seemed to have fewer who could fit this bill, but there were still a few names that would have fitted this definition. Brian Houston is the obvious one but there are some other names that became known in Christian circles – if not wider.
As far as I am aware I have never held this status and I have probably sought to avoid any semblance of it in the last 15 years or so, but I do remember during the days of leading Forge, sitting down to have lunch with the participants in our seminars and having some of that adulation directed at me – their gratitude that a person such as me would choose to sit with them for lunch… Oh dear…
It was one of the things I liked about the culture at Forge – there were no people who hustled off to a better lunch in a nicer room while the plebs all ate Subway. That said there is no denying that someone like Alan Hirsch is in that league these days. I have always appreciated Al’s earthy spirit so I have no doubt he manages the fame well – and if he doesn’t then Deb would tell him to get his hand off it.
Let’s Get Missional… This initiative started with some fairly ragey prophetic stuff that chastised the church for its’ loss of missional focus and pointed to ways we could do church and mission differently. It wasn’t gentle.
I was part of the more acidic tone that characterised the early days of the missional movement in Australia so I have to accept some of the blame for the sometimes unforgiving tone that was part of the language. That said, I’m not sure a tamer, gentler voice would have been heard or paid attention to. Legend has it that one of the first Forge seminars (Forge being a missional training network for the first world) opened with video footage of Hillsong set to the theme music from Titanic. I have it from a reliable source that this didn’t actually happen – but having been around in that time I would suggest it was very believable.
Fortunately the harsh tone mellowed and the important message that the western world was a secular mission field and that the church needed to adjust its’ posture managed to get thru. But, this message came on the tail end of the church growth movement so at times the message of ‘mission’ got conflated with the more pragmatic ‘Field of Dreams’ – if we build it they will come understanding. As a result the ‘sending’ aspect of mission got lost in the easier and more comfortable strategy of trying to tart the church up so more people might attend.
My great fear for the missional movement is that we have adopted the language broadly across denominations, but we have not actually embraced the practice of mission. Everyone is ‘missional’ now – even if they’re not.
And that is a problem…
It’s a problem that courageous leadership may address, but I think we will always struggle to be truly missional while the bulk of our energy is focused on the Sunday event.
Remember the Crusades?! – No – not those ones…
Think Bill Newman and the like – the large evangelistic gatherings where you brought a friend so they could ‘hear the gospel’.
I am fairly sure the day of the preaching evangelist may have gone in the west – again a reflection of a culture that is less easily swayed, but I sense it may also speak to an understanding of the gospel that is broader than a ‘heaven v hell’ moment. It’s not to say there isn’t truth there, but it’s not a methodology I sense bodes well with our culture. I am guessing that some of our larger churches still employ the evangelistic sermon and the altar call, but probably less so than before.
I still remember the Billy Graham satellite crusade around 1992 where churches sought to hire buildings and set up screens so we could watch Billy do his thing. I know the 1959 crusade was incredibly significant to many people, but personally I felt this was largely a waste of time and an insight into how distant we had actually become from our culture.
Of course we could go on to speak of the Impact World Tour that came to Perth around 2003 and was something of an bait and switch evangelistic freak show. I know our local newspaper wrote an extremely negative report in regards to the methodology employed by this crew – but I think it was simply a real clash of of cultures. American hype met Australian disinterest and skepticism and it didn’t end well.
Sexual ethics – You just can’t write a post on significant shifts without commenting on sexual ethics! They have changed. There… that’s it…
Because to write more is to veer into highly contentious territory.
While the most feisty issues seems to relate to LGBQT etc I am curious about what sexual ethics are at play among young hetero unmarrieds. I’m not sure if someone has shifted the goal-posts without me being aware, but is it now considered ok for unmarried Christian singles to share a bed – and have sex – not sleep?…
And if it is then how did that happen?
I feel like this was not an issue of debate when I was a youth pastor. Sex outside of marriage was considered wrong – plain and simple. That said I am sure many of us were ‘technical virgins’. There is a lot that can happen before a penis penetrates a vagina.
So – I sense a shift – but I’m not sure if I am reading that correctly.
When it comes to gender / transgender / LGBT etc stuff I genuinely imagine we will all wonder what the fuss was about in 20-30 years, but for now those of us who read the Bible conservatively can only see what we can see.
I think the challenge will be to hold those views graciously rather than combatively. I don’t really want to get into a fight over this stuff as I find it more complex than can be easily summarised in a blog post.
Online church – so this is now a real thing and another pathway we need to navigate. Of course it’s only been the impact of COVID that has forced our hand on this.
I don’t think there is any question that anyone in our churches could go online right now and find 10 better preachers than the guy who stands up there on Sunday. Podcasts have seen this happening already but now we have whole church services online.
During the 12 week COVID break I did check into other church’s services occasionally but it felt odd – like sitting in someone else’s lounge room uninvited. I imagine online church is here to stay and we have to give some thought to how we navigate this.
There’s no question it helps the isolated, or those who work away, but let’s be honest that it potentially also fosters laziness. Ole mate Andrew Jones is currently exploring all things ‘metaverse’ so no doubt he will be a font of wisdom on this issue when next he lands in Perth.
The Morphing of Youth Ministry? – Ok, I really don’t know what is happening here… but I observe fewer youth pastors emerging and fewer ‘youth groups’ as I used to know it.
I wonder if the larger churches are pulling the crowds and the smaller ones just feel boring by comparison? I wonder if we are seeing young people seeking more interaction with older people and vice versa.
Maybe it’s just my own tribe where the shift is showing, but I get the impression that the ‘youth stream’ once offered by Bible Colleges and seminaries is smaller – if it exists at all.
So this is more of a hunch than a certain observation.
Ok so I’m just gonna finish this post… There are probably another 10 significant shifts I could add or write about but this post is already too long for most people’s 2022 attention span 🙂
If you have read this far then I’d love to hear your own comments and reflections on the shifts and changes that you have observed too.