23 October 2010

Do whatever it takes to fill the pews.... What?


The desire to fill the pews and get more people into the church is often the well-meaning justification for changes that shouldn't be made, or at least not without due and careful consideration. And, it is often the justification used by those who wish to make radical reforms or have the church "keep up with the times." There exists the potential for long term problems and negative results. Short term gains must not be sought at the cost of long term problems.

Whatever the intentions or justification, changes to liturgy, procedures, and policies must be carefully thought out, preferably over time and after consultation with many experienced members of the clergy. The key questions are:

1. Am I really doing this for the good of the Church and of the faithful, or am I simply trying to have a church as big as the rock and roll pastor down the street?
2. Can these changes be made in accordance with doctrine and canon law?
3. Will the long term benefits warrant making the changes?
4. Has the change been approved by my Bishop, or am I trying to do an "end run" around him under the heading of "local use?"

If one cannot truthfully answer "yes" to each of these questions, then the change definitely ought not to be made.

Let me illustrate with an example. I recall a church many years ago that was protestant, but quite formal and high church in style, right down to the gold processional cross. People came in suits and ties. The organ accompanied hymns, and they had a wonderful choir. They thought, however, that they could get more people in by starting a contemporary, quasi-rock style service. "We can reach more people," they said, "and then once they get 'churched,' they will naturally transition to the formal service." So, that's what they did. A hip and jive service it was. Come as you are, right down to t-shirt and shorts if you like. No worshipful atmosphere, but instead an environment aimed at giving an emotional high to the congregants.

I said then that this was not going to be the outcome. In fact, the opposite happened. People started going from the formal service to the casual service, and in some ways the formal service became less formal. And, sure enough, over a decade later, I happened to notice that the contemporary service worshippers have not made a mass transition to the formal service. The contemporary hip and jive service has grown and is more strong than ever.

What is the problem with this? After all, aren't they getting people into church? Aren't they pulling them in and exposing them to the Word of God? If so, then where is the problem? The problem is quite simple. It isn't contemporary language that is the problem, or necessarily even the music. It is overall style, attitude, and atmosphere. When the style, attitude, and atmosphere of the service become disrespectful and put the focus on the emotional high or uplifted feelings of the congregants rather than on providing a God-centered environment for the praise and worship of the Almighty in the dignity that it deserves, there is a problem.

The issues go deeper than this. When you start changing the style and content merely to satisfy the congregation or merely to get people in, you cease to be a church and instead become commercial marketers. If you advertise your church and people don't come, and then change the atmosphere in one of the negative ways I mentioned above, and then people come, here is what you have done. You have communicated to the people "If you don't like what we do or what we say and therefore won't come, we will change it to suit you." This is a dangerous precedent to set. Even if you think this is acceptable at the beginning just to get them in, and "then they'll change," you're still fooling yourself. If they see that you will change to suit them once, they will expect it again and again. It is basic human nature.

Furthermore, we have the issue of the good of the souls of the faithful. If we have to water down the faith to get them in for mass, then what good are we really doing them?

So what's a priest to do? Well, no one ever said the priesthood was easy. First, stick to your principles! Keep the faith and keep the tradition. The problems in reaching the people thatyou might be experiencing are nothing new. Look to the Saints for inspiration and to see what they did without compromising. Remember again that you must be able to answer "yes" to the four questions mentioned at the beginning if you absolutely must make any changes.

Instead of watering down the faith, give it to the potential converts in pieces...bite-sized pieces that they can handle. Try to figure out what they like, what they're all about, etc., and present the truth of the faith in a way they can understand...but without compromising doctrine or tradition. In other words, give them the parts of the catechism that they are most likely to be able to understand first. Establish a rapport and a dialogue, and then proceed from there. This is but one approach, but it provides a good pattern. Seek to understand your potential convert without compromising the faith, doctrine, or tradition, and then gradually help them to understand you, the Church, and most importantly, Jesus Christ. Through a personal relationship with you, you can help them develop a personal relationship with Christ.

These modern, radical changes are just quick fixes that provide a temporary solution. What you must seek is a long-term solution...and it takes work. Hard work. Our work is never easy, so let's not try to cut corners. In the end, we fail in our duty to God and also to the flock in our care.