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Contemporary or Not Contemporary, that is the Question

30 October 2014

ContemporaryIn the last few weeks I have stumbled across a couple of interesting references to Saddleback Church in America, well known as one of the “mega-churches” with c 45,000 members. The first is an article in the Guardian (22/01/10) and the second is a chapter in Robert Putnam’s book, “Restoring the American Community (2003)” which is all about – yes you’ve guessed it – community building. Both got me asking the question what exactly is church and is it necessary to be “contemporary?” These are questions that have been asked many times and I may not come up with any astoundingly profound new insights, but it is important for us to ask what exactly is this thing called church we “are” or “do” and how should we “practise” our gathered worship.

Starting with the Guardian article the author was very negative; whereas Putnam’s chapter was a more objective assessment, without particularly making any judgement. What was interesting was that both picked up on some common themes such as church architecture. The Guardian described Saddleback’s worship centre as “an immense auditorium shell” noting that Saddleback “assiduously avoided traditional church architecture, costume and decor. Its campus was relentlessly quotidian, designed to suggest the shopping malls and office parks where members spent their time during the week.” Putnam similarly noted that the worship centre looks more like a convention hall or concert hall than a traditional church and that looking at the worship band “there are no choir robes, no matching outfits of any kind, they look like a bunch of young musicians rehearsing.”

A number of things stood out to me. Firstly that the church is the people, not the building. Secondly that substance is more important than style; the substance of any church is whether it is ministering to the world in the way that Isaiah notes in Isaiah 61:1-3 and Jesus notes in Luke 4:18-19. In other words the church building is not the big deal. But at the same time it makes me wonder what our building communicates about us to visitors, guests, people exploring. If the church is the only organisation in the world that exists primarily for the benefit of its non-members, should not the building and the format of our services be welcoming, accessible, comfortable? If the building speaks of a Gothic or perpendicular architecture long gone with a style of worship from the Victorian period, how helpful is that for new people joining the community of faith? If we think that the church is only for us, that doesn’t matter, but if we take the Great Commission seriously and want to welcome new people to the church it matters a lot.

The Guardian article goes on to criticise Saddleback for superficiality and pandering to secularism “…it seemed the butt-end of Christianity, stripped of history and iconography, wholly immersed in its secular surroundings, constructed to a business model and prompted by motivational speakers-bland, cheerful, dull.” Putnam similarly notes services as contemporary and “consumer friendly.” He states:

“There are at least two ways to look at this phenomenon, as an extreme version of the consumer society co-opting religion, or as religion infused into daily life.”

Many debate whether the church should be “contemporary.” This is not a simple debate – if all we do is dress “normal” with worship music that is “current style”, but do not put God at the centre, seek to follow and have a heart for the lost, the poor, the marginalised then it is worth nothing. If we have not love, we are resounding cymbal or a clanging gong (1 Corinthians 13:1). Yet at the same time if we perpetuate old styles and old ways simply because “that the way we’ve always done it” or “that’s how we like it” we can become self-indulgent and not focussed on our faith being relevant to real people in the real world. Don’t get me wrong, there is value and depth to be found in all forms of Christian spirituality; reflective meditation, marvelling at the majesty of God through the majesty of a building like York Minster; even worshiping God from pictures or icons (no I’m not becoming Catholic). But if we cannot relate to our culture, if we cannot reach into our culture and speak its language then our message, God’s message, gets lost.

I would like to suggest that God remains the same, the gospel remains the same, the message remains the same. But the methods must change so they apply to our context, in our place and in our time. How might that affect how we do gathered worship at MBC? How we structure our services? How we decorate the building? I’m not here to provide answers. But it makes you think.

Pete Jorysz

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