For several years, the fastest growing churches in America have been nondenominational evangelical. These churches sprang up claiming to be the “Christ-centered” and “Bible-based” alternatives to mainline denominations. In fact, the term “denomination” itself was seen as a bad word. Non-denominational churches arose as an attempt to return to a more authentic faith experience and belief. But while the style of music and worship seemed new (praise music, multimedia, PowerPoint, and auditorium seating), the theology was also new, not ancient – that is from the late 1800 Holiness movements, not 2000 years ago. And that new theology was simply packaged within a slick presentation.
These churches may offer a worship experience that is upbeat and full of energy, but the people don’t really sing, they listen to a “worship leader” who is a soloist and try to follow along, though they may have an emotional experience listening. I read an article recently on how many church people do not sing anymore at all. And singing is the only part of worship that seems to be considered “worshipful” in those settings with no liturgical or historic connections to the faith.
I often think of these churches as “doorways” to the faith as many are attracted to the lively worship (mainline church has the reputation of being dull and boring!) And yet, while these churches seem to have no problem attracting new members, their retention rate is not as good as you might think. What often happens is that as people begin to grow in the faith, they begin longing for something deeper – spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. They begin longing for a bigger God.
If you wander the few bookstores that are left, or surf through religious books online, you may have noticed a new genre of books for the Contemporary, Emerging, or Post-Modern Church – the name changes almost as fast as we change our clothing. While there are numerous definitions for this movement, it all represents two significant shifts away from the “nondenominational” church. First, theology is becoming broader (this is a reaction to public perception that churches are about guilt, judgment, and hypocrisy). The second is a shift back to more ancient styles of worship. Ancient music, classic settings (like a real church!), and the more candles the better!
This is good news. Public perceptions are forcing the evangelical church to wrestle with being called “judgmental” and “mean-spirited.” The Emerging Church Movement was an example of churches seeking to find “the love they had at first” (Rev. 2:4) and offer a gospel that is both relevant and lifechanging. It also reveals a longing for a deeper faith and a desire to step into the divine mystery. A long time ago J.B. Philips wrote a book entitled, Your God is Too Small. People are longing today for a God who is too big to fit on the PowerPoint screen!
Chehalis UMC seems well positioned as a church with a broad theology and both new and ancient styles of worship, hopefully not fitting the “dull and boring” stereotype, and yet we seek to share our faith experience on a deeper level with others, there is much still to learn about the balance of using new media and also retaining the ancient faith.