I was listening to KPFT 90.1 FM the other day and an interview by the lead singer from the band Negativeland was being aired. I’d never heard of the band, and after the interview, I won’t be looking them up anytime soon. It was an insightful conversation, though, about the college music scene from the 80s and 90s and their influence on the industry. Apparently Negativeland had quite a following and a lot of influence within the college music scene.
But there was one quote that jumped out at me. Addressing the dramatic changes in the music industry and who his favorite musicians today were, the singer admitted that album sales are no longer any measure of a band’s success because “no one sells albums anymore.” Think about that. The music industry exists – or it used to – to sell albums. But now, “no one sells albums anymore.” The market is so diluted, and with digital content allowing people to pick and choose, that the aspirations of a band simply cannot be to sell albums. They will have to carve out a career of ticket sales, selling individual songs here and there, streaming, basically anything they can get.
There are certainly parallels to the kind of changes the church is experiencing at large. In the church, there is constant anxiety about the church shrinking, there being less believers in the polls, and church traditions dying out. (I’m one who has such anxiety.) But what the musician’s quote reminded me of is that the church is often quite myopic when considering its problems. The truth is that it isn’t just the church that is changing. Everything else is, too.
I realize that is as obvious as the nose on our face. And yet, we don’t act like it. We are in the middle of change at such a rapid pace, but all we really have time to worry about is the change within the church. So we try to combat changes in society by changing the church. I won’t rehearse all the efforts the church has made to become simpatico with the culture, but they involve everything from theology to music and everything in between. Meanwhile, we might be in a situation that is really beyond our control, because, remember, it is not just the church that is changing. Everything else is, too.
In other words, in the West at least, we may already be in a losing proposition. The proverbial writing may already be on the wall that dooms the church to second-class status in this culture. (If we ever believed we were entitled to first-class status, shame on us.) And if that’s the case, why change? If we are destined to become a relic of a bygone world – or at least less influential than we have been – then why try to win the world over? In the end, only disciples who understand the costs of discipleship and are willing to bear them will carry the church forward, anyway. So keep “traditional” worship. Keep using words like “sin” and “holiness”. Keep addressing issues that will make some uncomfortable. Because pretty soon, we might be saying, “No one goes to church anymore” just as the musician says, “No one sells albums anymore.” Why sell out between now and then?
One other thought about the music industry, though, that spells difficulty for the church. What the musicians quote indicates is that generally, we do not consume much of anything for extended periods of time. We probably consume more media than ever, but it feels like less. We just nibble around the edges. A little social media, a little TV, some blog somewhere, a book we’re in the middle of. It can just run all together. And since anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can produce more and more media, there is an endless amount to consume.
At some point, these habits of consumption – not to mention general rebellion against God! – will make it harder for a church service to be palatable. The only way for the “traditional” church to survive will be for her members to make a commitment to its forms. We literally will need to train our minds and our hearts to look forward to an experience that is becoming foreign to the world: sitting in one place, for over an hour, with our attention undivided, without special effects and Dolby 5.0 sound to make it all cool.
A final thought. Yes, the world is changing, and quickly. It has always changed. But remember what Paul said to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:16): “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” God will grow or shrink his church. It’s his church, after all! While we dare not give up, it is God who will look after his church in every circumstance. Including this rapidly changing world.