The Price of Progress
If we're going to weather a tempest, let it be because we're sailing in a mighty ocean rather than in a teapot.
— Stuart Briscoe
Fifteen years ago Elmbrook Church constructed a larger building on a new site. Everyone was excited about it — well, almost everyone.
One leader and his wife, both of whom had worked hard in the church for years, were especially troubled. At one board meeting during the planning stages, the man said, "When my board term is up at the end of this year, my wife and I will be leaving the church. We will not have any part in building a monument to Stuart Briscoe."
His comment stung, especially since I had spent a lot of time helping his wife develop a ministry in our church. But the building project had to proceed. Our old, cramped facilities severely stifled our ability to minister. Our only choices were to stay put and plateau or build and reach out.
"For everything you gain," said Emerson, "you lose something." The board member and his wife did leave the church. I felt the weight of Emerson's dictum.
When a church undertakes a building program, adds another service, or changes the style of worship music, it often loses something in the process. Just as store owners who expand their facilities pay the price in construction costs, dust, and inconvenience (as well as temporary decline in sales), so progressive churches face the possibility of lost members, lost money, and lost momentum.
Sometimes the potential gain doesn't justify the loss; other times it virtually demands it. By what criteria should we weigh the decision to venture forward? What personal temptations lurk in the process?
Personal Potholes in the Road to Progress
For many years, the music program was not a priority at Elmbrook. Eventually, people started commenting, "Why don't you get a good music pastor and build up the program here?"
When we finally hired someone, we explored together a philosophy of music ministry. Early on we realized music provided an opportunity to teach one of our fundamental values: unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Consequently, we felt the church's music should express a variety of musical tastes and styles.
In a survey, we asked the congregation what styles of music were appropriate for worship, giving various categories to choose from, as well as the all inclusive, "all of the above." In terms of broad categories, it turned out that roughly 20 percent preferred only traditional music, 20 percent only contemporary, and 60 percent "all of the above."
I showed these numbers to my daughter, Judy, who was at the time working on her Ph.D., doing statistical analysis among other things. She took one look at the numbers and said, "You've got problems."
"What do you mean?" I replied. "We've got 60 percent who want 'all of the above.' The majority will be pleased with anything we do."
"The majority doesn't matter," she said. "You won't hear from that big middle group. But you've got two groups of 20 percent opposed to each other — you're going to hear from them."
Recognizing the price we might have to pay, we still hired a keyboard player, a phenomenal talent who can perform flawlessly a stately Bach fugue or contemporary rock. We began using a synthesizer three times a month and the organ once a month.
The organist, who is talented but can play only one style well, wasn't happy and eventually left the church.
That change became the focus of controversy. People began to take sides with either the organist or keyboardist. So we called a special congregational meeting. We answered heated questions like "How come we never sing hymns anymore?" The music pastor read from a computer printout of song services in recent months, listing in detail every hymn we had sung. And once again we explained our philosophy of ministry and of music, that we are committed to unity in diversity and diversity in unity.
In the end we had to say, "We're going to continue with the approach we've taken." As a result, some people, primarily traditionalists, left the church, though we didn't suffer serious losses.
I have found that situations like this abound with temptations. Here are four.
- To put progress over people. We can be so committed to our vision that we lose sight of individuals. We were concerned about the organist, and we tried to find ways of including her in our expanding music ministry. But unfortunately she was hurt and did not wish to continue under the revised arrangement.
- To have an infallibility complex. During the music controversy, someone asked me, "Why do we Christians argue about music so much and theology so rarely?"
"Because we have a Bible for theology," I replied, "but we don't have a Bible for music. There is nothing to turn to as the final, infallible authority on music. Music is in many ways a matter of taste, which can be learned and unlearned."
And yet how tempting it is to become dogmatic about our conclusions. It's even more tempting when you're the leader and you've made a decision that isn't popular; as criticism mounts, we're tempted to see even the choice of music styles as the fault line between good and evil.
So I remind myself that on issues like music — and on any matter about which the Bible is ambiguous — that my opinion is just that. Furthermore, in virtually every change we have tried to implement at Elmbrook, people are encouraged to give feedback and suggestions so that my ideas get needed correction and balance.
- To hide behind principle. In several church controversies, I've heard someone claim they must follow a certain course because "It's a matter of principle!"
"Tell me," I respond, "what exactly is the principle?"
Quite often, they cannot say. So I point out, "I don't think that's a principle. I think it's a preference." A few times I've been so bold as to gently say that it's not a principle, it's a prejudice, something they've prejudged. We've all been guilty of that from time to time.
- To seek peace at the expense of priority. If pastors have a weakness, it is this: we're anxious to please — it's a trait that goes hand in hand with caring for people. Sometimes we're so committed to peace, we back away from new programs, even if we know they are essential for the future ministry of the church.
Knowing that the dialogue over music styles might occasionally prove as harmonious as tomcats howling at midnight, I was tempted to leave things be, stick with the traditional organ and choir, and try to make them the best possible. I'm thankful now that I didn't let this natural hesitancy rule the day.
Good questions posed before beginning a new program are inexpensive insurance. I ask myself at least three cost questions before I venture forth.
- Will this distract us from our primary mission? I came to Elmbrook Church fresh from ministry in Europe to countercultural youth. I was making a transition from parachurch ministry to the unchurched to pastoral ministry to the thoroughly churched. It didn't take long for the two worlds to collide.
Shortly after my arrival, I discovered that one hundred young people, most of whom had dropped out of "organized religion," were meeting at the home of one of our members. The prospect of working with them was irresistible, so I promptly went over and introduced myself. I felt at home with them immediately.
After we had gotten acquainted, I asked them, "Why aren't you in our church?"
"We've gotten the message we're not welcome," one young man replied.
"Well, you're absolutely welcome," I said. "Not only are you welcome, it's imperative you come at once. You need to belong to a fellowship of believers, and we need your drive and enthusiasm."
It took two weeks to talk them into a test ride, but they showed up one Sunday morning, adorned in tee-shirts and blue jeans. One had an American flag sewed to the seat pocket of her pants. Others wore oversized crosses that looked as if they had been pilfered from an archbishop.
The congregation reacted, to put it mildly, with consternation. A leading member of the congregation soon visited me.
"Stuart, we know that it is at your invitation these young people have come into our church," he said. "That's certainly commendable. But there's something you have to understand."
He paused momentarily, as if to gather the courage to make his main point. "Many of us have worked hard to get our own teenagers away from the influence of such kids. If you insist on bringing them here, they must be kept totally separate from our young people. Do you understand?"
"Of course, I understand," I replied. "The policy you're suggesting is similar to the one they have in South Africa. It's called apartheid." The man blinked at me in surprise.
"And it's based on fear and prejudice," I continued. "I understand those emotions because I struggle with them myself. But they have absolutely no place in the community of believers. I'm committed in this church to this kind of diversity."
An animated discussion took place between us for the next several minutes. To his credit, he listened as I explained why I had left itinerant ministry for local church ministry. "Only the church," I emphasized, "can bring together the most unlikely people into one group with other unlikely people. God is building an alternate society in a fractured world. While contemporary society builds barricades, the church ought to be building bridges. If we can achieve that, we gain a credibility no other group in society possesses."
The man then said, "I can see I'm not going to change your mind."
"No, you're not," I replied.
"Well then, let's do something about it," he said. "I propose we begin a special Sunday school class entitled 'The Generation Bridge.' Many parents like myself are struggling with a generation gap. Let's address this problem in a positive way. Let's put together a special class by invitation only and invite people from across the spectrum. We'll study the Book of James together, dividing the teaching responsibility between one older and one younger person."
I stood there astonished. It was a marvelous idea. I readily agreed, and he walked away determined to get started on the class at once.
In only a few weeks, the class began and was so successful that by the second quarter we had a waiting list to join the class.
Later in the year, I was surprised when several members of the group said, "You don't need to continue this class."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because the issues have been resolved."
The young people from outside the church had begun asking the adults to help them understand their parents. And many of the adults had begun seeking the advice of the young people on how they might become reconciled to their estranged teenagers.
This situation could have been very costly during what was still a young pastorate. I was willing to pay those costs (potential lost members and lost credibility) for the counter-culture youth because they were, in fact, central to my mission at Elmbrook.
- How much turmoil will this cause? The lower the priority of the issue, the more important this question becomes, not because we lack conviction but because we "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). If we're going to weather a tempest, let it be because we're sailing in a mighty ocean rather than in a teapot. Turmoil can jeopardize everything we are striving toward, but sometimes it's worth it.
Many years ago, as the church grew rapidly, we needed to create small group opportunities. But people said they couldn't give another weekday evening in addition to Wednesday, the traditional evening for our prayer meeting. We looked at the numbers attending the Wednesday meeting, evaluated what they were doing, and decided to substitute small groups on Wednesday evening for this traditional service.
Some people, who never attended the Wednesday evening service, were horrified and said, "We've always had a Wednesday evening service."
I told them, "I didn't realize you knew!"
They vowed to leave the church, but in the end never did. Our groups have prospered so much that six new churches have been born, thanks to them.
- Who are we choosing to lose? With every decision we make, we lose someone, either someone now in the church or someone who might have joined in the future. The question isn't whether we will lose people, but who.
In our music controversy, I felt that if we didn't broaden the music styles, we would lose unchurched people: they might visit our church once and not return because the music was too alien. By broadening our musical styles, we implicitly "chose" to lose those adamantly committed to traditional organ and hymns, although in fact few actually departed — a credit to their grace and the quality of our music ministry.
When the Price Is Too High
Our church constitution requires that our council of elders be comprised of at least twelve male members. One by one, several younger women discovering that bylaw told me, "I won't attend a church that holds such a chauvinistic position."
The pastoral staff decided to study the issue, and after several months of research and discussion, they concluded that women could serve as members of the elder board.
The pastoral staff then presented their findings to the elder board, asking them to vote on proposing to the congregation that the congregation study the issue.
As always, we informed the congregation what the elder board was discussing. Before the elder board was to vote, we invited people to share their opinions at two meetings. Fifty people came to voice their opinions, nearly all of them opposed to the idea. Many were heated up about it and threatened, "If you make this change, we will leave the church, and we know others who will as well."
I went to some church stalwarts who were threatening to leave and said, "If you choose to leave, I'll be sorry to see you go, but I won't worry about it too much. You'll be all right, and you'll be an asset wherever you go. I'm more concerned about the women we won't reach because of our policy. They're not going to church anywhere."
When the elder council voted, seven were for a congregational study of the matter, and six were opposed. Though the measure had passed, the council was essentially divided.
In the days following the vote, I talked to the women who would be obvious choices for elder, if the measure ever went that far. Each said, "It's not worth pursuing. We've got more than enough to do already. We don't want to see people getting all upset over it." In addition, they felt good about our church's including women on the pastoral staff and the board of deacons.
In the end, even though the board had voted to pursue the study, those who had submitted the idea decided to drop it. Though we knew younger women would continue to balk, the congregational price was too high to continue. Besides, the majority of our women were satisfied.
Just as aircraft crews follow safety guidelines to minimize the risk of air travel, we do several things at Elmbrook Church to keep volatile issues from sending us into a tailspin.
- Teach people to handle tension. Someone has said that tension is the balance between equally valid points of view, and conflict is what comes from losing that balance. I encourage people to maintain the tension, to seek balance. I remind people that, especially in a church that values unity in diversity, there's give and take.
That isn't natural for people. There is a strong pull toward simple black-and-white, right-and-wrong answers. I have to coach the congregation every time a controversial issue arises.
- Work with a plurality of leaders. Decisions about controversial issues are best made within the safety of a group's wisdom.
I am the senior pastor of a multiple staff, and I'm an elder working with other elders. I would not want to be in a situation where a team atmosphere didn't exist. While working with others can be frustrating, I find comfort and safety in it. A proposal has much more credibility when presented to the congregation by a group of leaders than by one leader.
Our council of elders operates by consensus, though not unanimity. On some issues we don't take a formal vote. After discussion, the chairman may say, "My reading is that we should go ahead with this. Is that a problem for anybody?" If everyone is quiet, we do it.
- Keep communication going both ways. One man recently came to my office concerned about our church's stance toward Operation Rescue.
"Pastor, I heard that you and most of the elders are prochoice."
"That's news to me," I responded. And then I assured him that none of us would commit to a position accepting abortion on demand. "In fact, we've led the church in active pro-life ministries for at least fifteen years."
By the time our meeting was over, we were laughing about the whole thing.
I assume information will get twisted. I can't say something just once and presume everyone has got it. I have to repeat important information over and over, listen to how people are hearing me, and then correct the misinformation.
One system in our church that helps us stay in touch with people's perceptions is our annual membership renewal. Each year people are asked to sign a card indicating their willingness to be committed to our church. If a member does not renew, a church leader visits them to find out why. These meetings often turn up misinformation and misunderstandings so that problems don't fester.
- Give people time to mull it over. A congregation may need a year to digest a major undertaking. The first reaction most people have to change is as negative as the evening news. Then after they've had time to process an idea emotionally, they may convert to a positive attitude.
When we built our new sanctuary about seventeen years ago, we completely overlooked the possibility of putting a cross at the front. After the inaugural service, a woman said she thought the lack of a cross was "disgusting." Without suggesting an oversight on our part, I simply pointed out that Jesus was not on the cross but risen.
"If you look behind the platform," I added, "you will see the baptistery, which looks like an empty tomb."
She thought that was wonderful and went away happy. I went away feeling just a tad guilty!
Not all controversy can or should be handled that easily. No matter how committed or excited we are about an idea, we shouldn't rush in where angels fear to tread. We need to count the cost, anticipate the temptations, and set up safety systems for decision making. When that has been done, and a new venture seems the way to go, boldness is the order of the day, and may the angels go with us!
Copyright © 1993 by Christianity Today