by Katie Adelman (November / December 2004 — Volume 20, Number 6)
Discovering what makes today’s congregations tick is the greatest challenge of my 30-year passion for energizing people to love and serve God. Music, worship, and spiritual formation are the primary tools of my training. Yet, like most other workers in the church, I often feel the sting of inadequate experience or skill to meet the changing character of the institutional church in society.
What is clear is that the comfortable patterns and familiar rituals of the church past are no longer the common language of the people. The creative witness of the present and future church will look and sound different. Younger generations are urging the Christian community to face and embrace the world in which they are called to live out the gospel — a society whose values and goals have changed from previous generations.
When we pause to listen to interpreters of current culture, or take time to listen to those in the emerging church, the vocabulary includes words and actions that demonstrate authenticity, truth, relevance, freedom, genuine listening, integrity, relationship, risk, convenience, and opportunity. Those who enter the door of the emerging church are not looking for pat answers to age-old questions, theological or otherwise. They are searching for a safe community where trusted guides help them to interpret life experiences as and where they occur. They are not searching for familiar liturgy or frequent Bible studies. They will invest their time and money where people walk the talk.
Young Christians are connecting to faith communities where their values and experiences are recognized and shared. Most importantly, they desire to discover the truth about God in honest conversation centered in real-life issues.
Music was my entry point into professional work in the church. Each week was filled with rehearsals and preparation for Sunday worship experiences. I remember hearing my colleagues talk about what constituted a “successful” music program — well-tutored choirs spanning multiple age groups, musical literature from certain composers and style periods, and, of course, the larger the numbers, the better. There existed congregations of stature that every musician hoped to serve one day. Accomplishment was measured in the depth and consistency of the pattern mapped out by professional leaders. The mark of achievement was the growing size of both the membership and the building. At staff meetings we would discuss how to implement our ideas or expand our programs. I don’t remember asking questions about what was needed, or what was missing, or who we were excluding.
Over the years the stronghold of the pattern began to be challenged by outside forces. Families, including my own, became more mobile. Soon our life experience outpaced the language and scope of our printed materials. Lofty three-point sermons, though eloquent and theologically strong, were deemed too long, or not relevant. Technology became the language of our youth. Holes in ministry programs became apparent. Music preferences in the culture began to effect appreciation of the church music tradition. Young people became restless and older people became fearful.
We all wish for solutions to our challenges that will guarantee our success in the future. At Ascension where I work, our pastor reminds us to investigate two questions that are essential to a faith-filled journey. What in the world is God doing? And, how can I (we) participate?
Our assumption is that people — or generations—do a new thing. Maybe it is God doing the new thing. What might that be and how will we participate?
Our worship planning team has expanded to include a videographer, the sound/light operator, and persons skilled in visual aesthetics, movement, and dance. Not only has this changed the content of our worship, but it has also spread the preparation and leadership far deeper into the congregation and community. Our best technology operators are our youngest participants. Teachers, musicians, dancers, or artists from the community may play a major role in our worship celebration. Ideas abound, more people are involved, and a new, mid-week opportunity for learning and growing has taken root.
Paragraphs could be written about the numerous ideas that are emerging. The short list follows:
- Incorporate rotation-style Sunday School, providing intergenerational participation and the flexibility young families need.
- Organize seasonal choirs, musicals, and community choirs that participate in worship.
- Create small groups focused on topics like parenting, singles, end-of-life issues, and loss and grief. Open these groups to the outside community. Some groups may meet in places outside the church facilities or in homes.
- Open the church building to outside organizations, music teachers, or community support groups.
- Host concerts, art shows, cultural events, and parties both at the church and at local cultural centers, art galleries, etc. Invite the public.
- Send weekly e-mail newsletters to parents with children.
- Connect families to Augsburg Fortress’ ReadyClickGrow, Home-Grown Faith, and other online resources.
- Build a Web site that provides Bible study resources and interactive participation.
- Provide brief worship guides for families to share when traveling.
- Meet people where they are. Attend student concerts, school activities, and sports events.
- Ask to participate as an accompanist or duet partner with students at school-sponsored concerts and recitals.
- Provide financial support and planning assistance for families to host parties, game night, confirmation overnight, or other related activities in their homes.
- Travel with congregational members to local, regional, national, or international sites where they can experience what God is doing in the world.
- Include prayer or elements of worship as regular, expected components of all activities.
- Survey your entire congregation by phone or personal contact. Discover their highest priorities for ministry on and off campus.
- Discover what communication tools work best. E-mail, hard-copy newsletter, phone, Web site. Provide different resources for different age groups.
- Explore and incorporate the good ideas brought forward in the Renewing Worship resources.
What’s really different about these ideas of church? Maybe nothing — other than point of view. Past leadership models interpreted God’s purpose by building structures, teaching and equipping through top-down established programs, and pre-determined missionary causes. The new point of view interprets God’s purpose as an open-ended journey of discovery, guided by worship and instruction sensitive to the situation, truth-telling about global issues that effect modern families, and words and practices that define a mission consistent with lived experience.
Better to be active than stuck. At Ascension, we have tried things that didn’t work and invested time and money in good ideas that didn’t connect well with those we were reaching out to. We have stepped out of patterns of the past in order to create the common ground of mutuality. The journey has helped us to see that we are not giving up our common tradition and vision. We are just changing the modality. We are not giving up missionary opportunities. We are simply re-defining the boundaries of the mission field. We focus on assisting others to create a faith community defined by authentic expression of the people and on a willingness to take seriously our personal and corporate strengths and weaknesses, where integrity of relationship is paramount, where real life truth is told, and where the systems of accountability are rooted in the people — and not in the staff.
Change is a good thing!
Katie Adelman is an associate in ministry and Director of Spiritual Formation, Worship and Music at Ascension Lutheran Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Questions and comments can be directed to K1adelman@aol.com.