I have been asked to write a regular column for Evangelicals Now. My first one is in the current June edition. I will post the articles here once they have been published.
The film Sister Act had an interesting quote that has stuck with me. In the film a lounge singer called Deloris, played by Whoopi Goldberg, must join a convent as part of a witness protection programme. 1990s larks ensue as this singer teaches the convent to lighten up a bit while continually butting heads with the conservative Mother Superior, played by Maggie Smith. Having told Deloris to help the tone-deaf choir, the Mother Superior is frequently aghast as unbecoming worldly tactics are employed to jazz up the church service. During one such altercation, Deloris asserts: ‘See, people like going to theatres, and they like going to casinos. But they don’t like coming to church. Why? Because it’s a drag.’ The sad truth is, she has a point.
The average person may not come to church very often. No doubt they have a somewhat jaundiced view of what goes on. But what of those who do come to church week on week? They have no such prejudice. Indeed, they are inclined to come and frequently see exactly what goes on in our building. But it’s hardly an uncommon accusation that church is boring, even among believers. And we are far too quick to wave it away without considering the possibility that, maybe it’s true; we are exceedingly dull.
Much of what lies behind this problem is a failure to connect what we are doing to the lives of those attending. People are interested in things that are relevant to them. If they see no purpose or value in sitting there, they will switch off.
If all the songs are of a style a few centuries removed from ours, the immediate relevance of them may not be obvious. If the guy leading the service speaks in such a way that sounds like he’s from that same century, it will be hard to see how he is relevant to this century. If there is no participation from the congregation, it is not always immediately clear what role they are supposed to play in the service. But worst of all, the preaching – the central point of the service – frequently fails to apply the truths of Scripture. We may come away with a general understanding of what a passage means, but it often bears no relevance to our lives and thus fails to keep our attention. We understandably want to know, ‘what’s the point of this?’
A clear solution
The answer isn’t to pander to what people think they need. Nor is it to simply offer some low-grade entertainment to try and hook folks in. The key is to make clear why and how what you are doing at your meetings is fiercely relevant to the people coming in.
In practical terms, it means being clear why singing matters and then making sure that the songs you sing serve that purpose. Be clear why praying matters and how people are involved in a way that differs from sitting at home and praying on their own. Be clear why the Bible passage you are reading from two millennia ago has real-world implications for the 21st-century context you find yourself in. Connect everything you say from the front to a statement of how this is relevant and important for the people listening.
Plenty of us have sat in lectures, meetings, voluntary groups or whatever, as somebody drones on and on. All the while you sit there wondering, ‘what is the point of this?’ We’ve all sat in plenty of church services where it has been hard to avoid that same question. Even seasoned believers, who know in abstract why being in church matters, struggle to see the purpose of sitting in this particular service because, as we endure it, no answer arrives as to just what the point of listening to this really is.
That is why we must work hard to show how all elements of the service are relevant to those listening. Be clear why people should listen to you. Be clear why they should participate in whatever you are doing. Make clear how every element impacts on the lives of those in front of you. If we just commit to being better on this one thing, we might find fewer of our services are the drag-fest they are so often accused of being.