Wineskins Archive

January 22, 2014

A Middle of the Road Church Reaches Out and Stays Together (Jul – Aug 1993)

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by Michael L. Lewis
July – August, 1993

17Can a congregation fearing all extremes, desiring neither to be too contemporary nor too traditional still connect with the current culture of seekers?

The answer is, “yes….” But not extremely, “Yes!” However, a simple yes is enough for congregations with multi-generational heritages. Such congregations cannot afford to become extremely anything in a short period of time without great damage to unity. Such congregations do not turn on a dime. If they did, they would hardly be worth a dime. Congregations with a multi-generational heritage must turn more like ocean liners, so slowly at times that the change is unnoticeable but the correct destination is almost always eventually reached. Strangely, a large number of folks will even pay extra for the joy of the slower journey.

In my part of the country, the “middle of the road” is considered a place of doom for both armadillos and preachers. “This is Texas, man… you’re supposed to draw the line, choose your side, take a stand, and attack all challengers!” And on it goes.

I belong, however, to another kingdom not made with hands where balance and moderation in matters of style can be wise… even Christ-like.

The Bammel Road church is a twenty-two-year-old unashamedly “middle-of-the-road” congregation. My elders have deliberately mapped a course of the “golden mean” in all matters of style. For example, our announced congregational worship style is an attempt to blend contemporary and traditional forms. A rare presentation of drama as well as the more traditional sermon is used to teach. Songs by Handel, Stamps-Baxter, and Twila Paris are often sung back-to-back. Occasionally a choral group sings at the beginning or the end of a worship period.

“Now did the worship assembly begin or end before or after the group sang?”

Such questions are left intentionally unanswered, allowing Christians present to assign the individual interpretation necessary to remain consistent with their personal spiritual convictions.

“Are there tensions with such diversity and intentional vagueness?” (Excuse me while I chuckle at the question.)

Of course there are some tensions. We are moving “too fast” for some and “too slow” for others which adds up to “just the right speed” for a middle-of-the-road congregation concerned about the whole. There is a clear awareness on the part of the staff and the elder leadership that church growth experts say congregations who choose middle-of-the-road paths simply “take turns” insulting different segments of a congregation. We choose to describe it by another perspective, and suggest it enhances spiritual maturity in a multi-generational congregation to acknowledge diversity and allow all generational preferences an opportunity to be fulfilled at times and at times sacrificed for the loving sake of others. Consider this principle applied to reaching those “seekers” in the community.

We engage in a large variety of outreach styles. Every generation has its favorite. A special sermon series on “How to Share the Gospel With a Friend” doubles as a traditional gospel meeting for those who want to use such to reach their friends. A team well-schooled in teaching the gospel by filmstrips is always at work searching for people interested in such…and there are some still interested. In general, we have found different generations of seekers, like different generations of believers, have different preferences for styles of communication of the gospel. We attempt to match up seekers with believing witnesses by generation, religious background and philosophical perspective to enhance the likelihood of making a connection. Thankfully, the world of seekers consists of more than just baby boomers and their children.

Everyone in the congregation is not equipped to witness for Christ as they need to be so a number of weeks each year are given to equipping and discipling within the context of a traditional assembly format. However, this is balanced with several weeks each year given exclusively to outreach toward the primary generation of our community…the 35-50 age group… yes, the infamous “boomer” crowd.

There are three times each year the average seeker is most prone to attend a church service, Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day; therefore, we plan a highly focused outreach period between Easter and Mother’s Day each Spring. The morning assemblies are more contemporary in music style and message topics. The traditional evening service is completely replaced by a seminar format with lectures, question and answer periods, punch and cookies, book displays, etc. The importance of Christ is never absent for any activity or message. However, the style and content during this outreach period is totally oriented toward the contemporary seeker.

Last year’s morning themes relating to family, work habits and forgiveness were combined with an evening seminar on “How to Divorce-Proof Your Marriage.” Advertising in focused layers using billboards, newspaper, radio, and cable television were used. In that six-week period (between Easter and Mother’s Day), approximately 1,000 community guests participated in some regularly scheduled meeting of the Bammel congregation. About $12,000 was spent on the effort (about 1% of our yearly congregational budget) and it involved over 200 members of the congregation in some direct aspect of the outreach effort. A thousand guests in six weeks! It was beyond anyone’s dreams (an unfortunate commentary on the limits of our dreams). As a result, we were out-numbered, under-manned for follow-up and may not have used the opportunity wisely enough. But it was a strong message to all about the future possibilities.

We are now putting the finishing touches on this year’s spring outreach plan, complete with a larger advertising budget, more detailed follow-up efforts that will run into the summer months, additional community Bible classes and other activities that will spin off the spring effort. We are even going to expand our sunrise service at the local golf course on the morning the world celebrates Easter to connect with more people in the area. All this is contemporary outreach strategy, yet if you drop in to visit us next October, you will probably find a fairly traditional assembly, and expository preaching on some aspect of Christian maturity. If you could take a picture of the entire year at one time, you would notice the balanced composition of the photo, balanced between things old and new, reaching out to guests and inward equipping of diversely different saints.

Perhaps the next most natural question is, “Why not engage in that contemporary evangelistic style year-round?’

For a zero-history, new congregation, such a year-round style is possible. However, after a generation or two, such an intensely evangelistic style is far more difficult. It is the difference between Acts and Hebrews. The larger and older you become, the more diverse and different you become. Believers soon need more than just a passion for the lost, but also need to know how to keep their marriages together, their thirst for deeper biblical insight alive, and their sense of Christian joy free from the entanglements of materialism, suffering and loss. For sure, the importance of witnessing can help direct our steps in every aspect of life, but so can the importance of a united fellowship.

Jesus tied outreach inseparably to unity within the family of disciples in his prayers (John 17:20-23). The image of our Lord praying for our oneness and that through such unity the world may believe, should never be too far from our hearts as we choose how things should be done.

That wonderful interpreter of Christ, the Apostle Paul, should stir us and guide us. He was the essence of focus and flexibility. His focus was uncompromisingly upon exalting Christ, but his flexibility was always connected to the diversity of the group he was trying to reach. Whether in Pisidian Antioch in a Jewish synagogue (Acts 13) or in Athens on Mars Hill (Acts 17), Paul the student of culture was ready to connect with the hearers’ background and world view. Yet, this man who endeavored to become all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) did not restrict his unending flexibility and nonnegotiable focus to seekers, but also believers. That is what the council in Jerusalem demonstrated (Acts 15), or his teaching about meats and days (Romans 14 and 15). Perhaps even most telling of all is Paul, the great missionary teacher of freedom from ritualistic law, back in Jerusalem taking part in a ceremonial purification ritual in the temple (Acts 20:20-26). Why? It was for the sake of unity in the church in Jerusalem. Who would doubt Paul’s convictions about freedom in Christ? But he also believed in unity within the body of Christ and lived accordingly. So must we all, especially we who work with older congregations.

We witness about the truth in love. To simply proclaim the truth without regard for people is not really the truth. To simply be concerned with the attitudes and lives of people is not really love. Both are required to know either one over a lifetime with Christ and his people.Wineskins Magazine

Michael L. Lewis

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