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Not the Real Problem

Kevin DeYoung (DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed) has a good post today asking pastors and church leaders not to assume that the decline they see in their church is because of (or can be solved by) worship styles. He says,

I do wish church leaders would stop assuming that their problems boil down to a certain worship style and can be fixed with another. I run into church leaders fairly often who struggle to make sense of their declining numbers. I feel for these brothers (and sometimes they are sisters in my circles). I don’t know all the reasons for church growth or church decline. Growth does not equal faithfulness any more than decline equals failure. Sometimes situations, histories, and circumstances are outside our control. Regenerating human hearts always is. So we should be slow to judge another church’s fruitfulness.

And yet, we can ask better questions. I’m not against changing worship styles. There may be good reasons to do so in some circumstances. But I doubt very much that’s usually the real problem. Instead of assuming that young people will flock to our churches if we drop the organ and plug in the guitar (and we have both at our church), declining denominations and shrinking churches should ask deeper, harder questions . . .

We agree with DeYoung’s principle points. He continues by listing several good questions churches should be asking themselves (many of which questions should be asked, it would seem, whether or not the church is declining in numbers).

Indeed, numbers do not a faithful ministry make. The idea that God’s blessing is proportionately tied to the number of lumps of flesh filling our new theater-style seats is wholly antithetical to the Biblical testimony. With few exceptions, we see the people of God as relatively few in number, and often shunned by the world. Indeed, we should expect to see further decline among faithful churches in the United States as our Christian and Puritan heritage further dims out of sight in the rear view mirror, though we would love for things to end up differently.

But returning to Pastor DeYoung’s main thesis, “changing the worship style” is more often than not a Band-aid covering up, rather than properly healing, a deadly cancer. And, ironically enough, it is usually the people who insist that “worship styles don’t matter” who are quickest to think that changing a said style to a more contemporary one is absolutely necessary to the vitality of the church. This is an error from the pit of hell. Given normal circumstances, no surface change can result in the true grace of God flourishing among his people (not to speak of the unregenerate). God does not work like that; he is not bound by such mechanisms. Instead, he promises in His sovereign goodness to bless the preaching of the Word with his Spirit to convert the ungodly (Mark 4:24; John 5:24; 8:47; Rom 10:17; Acts 26:16-18; Gal 3:2; Eph 1:13; cf. Psa 19:7). And He holds out to us who are believers the grace of Christ, and blesses our receiving this grace by faith through the normal, mundane (though glorious) activities of the body of Christ: sound preaching, Scripture reading, earnest prayer, sincere hymns and singing, true Christian fellowship, generous giving, and loving admonishment and discipline. Over and over again God in his Word blesses these activities as the ones of true spiritual benefit (e.g., Luke 24:32; John 10:4; 17:17; Acts 20:31; 1 Cor 14:3, 24-25; 2 Cor 2:14; Eph 4:11-16, 29-30; 5:15-20; 6:18; Phil 4:10-20; Col 3:15-16; 1 Thess 2:13; 5:12; 1 Tim 4:11-16; 2 Tim 3:16; 4:2; James 1:21-25; Rev 1:3).

All of this points to the fact that God never suggests to us that the key to our ministry is our cultural contemporaneity. When we think that we can solve the problem simply by changing how we say things, we are on the wrong track. This is not how God has revealed himself to work. Instead, we ought to first look at how faithful we are being to the pattern of gospel ministry he has given us by his apostles in the New Testament. Then, we ought to consider if in fact the numerical decline is really the problem it seems to be. It may be that, for a period, God has for us a time of sorrowful sowing with tears. In the words of Kent and Barbara Hughes:

“. . . the life of Moses teaches us that one can be regarded as hugely successful in the ministry and yet be a failure. It is possible to give people exactly what they need–the practical exposition of God’s Word, inspiring worship, programs that wonderfully meet human needs–and yet be a failure. It is possible to be held up as a paragon of success and to receive the ardent accolades of one’s people and be a failure.” (Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, 36).

So with Kevin we say, let’s not rush to capitulate on our style of worship. Let’s not resort to surface remedies and this strange evangelical panacea for all ministry troubles. The grace of Christ works without surface changes. There may be times when we need to change slightly the way in which we articulate the gospel, but this will be the exception, not the rule. Instead, let us turn again to the things God has wonderfully blessed in his word and trust in Him who is able to change supernaturally the souls of men through the preaching of the gospel and true Spiritual ministry.

Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

2 Responses to Not the Real Problem

  1. I see the problem with using music as a little deeper. On the marketing level, churches use music to attract or minister to certain demographics. Not necessarily a bad thing, but one demographic's favorite style can alienate another's.

    When a certain style of music becomes part of a churches branding strategy, though, things can get a little tricky. Instead of being about "who we're ministering to," a certain style of music becomes part of "who we are as a church." It becomes part of the church's identity. When we start getting meaning and identity from things, instead of things meaning and identity, we are being narcissistic. We start thinking in terms of "this is the kind of music a church like us would do," even if no one in the leadership or the church really enjoys or finds meaning in it. The style of music has then become an identity trap, and a compensation for our corporate lack of identity and meaning. Externalized identity and meaning is why people get tattoos, buy certain brans of consumer products, live in certain areas, etc. It's the same with music, and when it happens in church, the music's not about musical expression or aesthetic standards any more, and it's only peripherally about worship. It's also not about who we are as a church; it's just part of the movie script we've written about who we're trying to be because we have no real identity (narcissism=The world is a move, I'm the star, and everyone else is just a bit player–The Last Psychiatrist).

    At this point, changing musical styles will only make things worse (or screw up the movie script of who we think we are). Authenticity–discovering and being who we really are, the good, bad, and ugly–and intrinsic meaning and identity in Christ are the answer. After this, music has a chance to be both aesthetically good and worshipful.

  2. Meant to say "When we start getting meaning and identity from things, instead of giving things meaning and identity, we are being narcissistic." above.

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