Once upon a time, my cell phone carrier would provide me, a loyal 14-plus year customer, a new phone every two years. This was a nice perk and an encouragement to re-up my 2-year contract with them. Sure, I pay a lot for a cell phone every month, but at least I didn’t have to pay the full retail price for these lovely phones I’m now addicted to! Well, now that deal has gone the way of the Dodo bird.
“Even me?” I asked the undeserving customer service representative during an intense period of haggling. “I’ve been with you guys for 14 years and I have to buy a new phone?” Sure enough, this seems to be a new policy for all of the carriers. Alas.
I was reminded during this “negotiation” process (during which I gained nothing and lost everything) that one of the persistent issues that every business faces is balancing the need to satisfy existing customers while attracting new customers. It is a delicate dance. If new customers get all of the perks, the loyal customers will wonder why they are being so loyal. The grass becomes greener. If loyal, older customers get all the perks, no one will want to leave their current company.
Might this same dynamic exist in the Church? Of course, the Church is not a gathering of customers, but brothers and sisters in the Lord, the blood-bought Body of Christ. Those who profess Christ as their Lord – and actually pay attention to the consequences of that profession – know that they should not approach church participation or membership as if they were consumers of religious offerings. Given the amount of “church shopping” and turnover that exists, I’m afraid that’s exactly how many Christians do think about church membership.
Congregations are gatherings of human beings, so there is a social reality to the life of each and every congregation. And while the congregation is a holy people who gather together to participate in holy things, the people themselves are still sinners and pastors would be foolish not to consider the social dynamics of a gathered people.
So, to borrow the example from business, are congregations to be loyal to their existing customers or attract new ones? Just as in business, it can be easy to fall off the horse in either side of the ditch. We can get rid of certain traditions to appeal to “new” Christians but end up not teaching the whole faith. Maybe some uncomfortable doctrines get ignored to avoid scaring off the new Christians not ready for inevitable conflicts with the world. Maybe the worship is jazzed up a bit and the old-timers miss those “old” (i.e. “timeless”) hymns. Maybe the scripture becomes a mere backdrop for a nifty sermon series. But in that effort to appeal, if real Christianity is not defined and defended, it really doesn’t do any good to offer a false veneer of religiosity.
On the other hand, we can confuse our congregational or denominational traditions with core doctrines. They are not always the same. Then, we preserve a “way of life” that we are not actually supposed to defend. Everyone who doesn’t share in that way of life becomes our opponent and isn’t welcomed into the group. Christian community is reduced to a very narrow way of being a congregation, and good luck getting any new church members with that attitude. This is commonly seen when congregations are not welcoming to those from a different ethnic background or when a small number of people “run” the church and are not exactly welcoming of new opinions.
So given that there are easy extremes to fall into, I’d like to propose a deal. As a pastor, I will do everything I can do maintain the critical traditions, teachings, and liturgy (or liturgical components) that should never change. Churches ought not do anything new when it comes to our understanding of scripture and, for the most part, worship. It is not our role to be original or even creative. And if some are turned off by our commitment to traditions, well, they probably wouldn’t tolerate the Jesus of the Bible much longer, anyway.
But our evangelism efforts and our community life need not be limited by the way things have always been done…or not done. While our teaching and worship should feed, encourage and edify the “loyal customers” (i.e. those who have been Christians for many years), our evangelism efforts ought to appeal to new Christians. We should try new things, be unafraid in talking to others about our church and our ministries. We should be inviting others to attend our events. The bottom line is that when it comes to worship and teaching, we should stay true to our “loyal customers.” And when it comes to reaching new members, almost nothing should be off the table.