Rethinking the typical church environment

I must say, I’ve really enjoyed reading Dan Kimball’s thoughts on pews in the church, and especially his follow-up entry today. Like Dan, I also have given myself the freedom to evaluate the church’s present environment and worship services. Maybe it worked well 100 years ago, but is it still the best we can do today? Probably not.

Last November I blogged about the segregation we promote in families at church, but I didn’t have too many solid ideas for how to change it. Four months later I’m still mulling over the same thoughts and questions. It just won’t go away, especially when I read blogs like Dan’s and see that others are wrestling with some of the same issues. There’s got to be a better way to “do church” on Sunday mornings than a theater setup with a lecture and passive participation in a room that demands “sit down and be quiet.” It feels like school. Anyone who’s familiar with learning styles and retention knows that this is an ineffective method of learning for most people. This can’t be the best Sunday morning experience we can think of for promoting life-change, is it?

A couple years ago our local newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, conducted a survey on reasons people go to church. The results:
— For the music 5%
— The sermon 7%
— To learn 8%
— Raised their/habit 10%
— Peace of mind 13%
— To worship God 13%
— Because of the minister/priest/rabbi 20%
— Location 24%
— Fellowship/the people 36%
(Sorry, I do not have a link or documentation. I only recorded the information without a citation, nor did I record the polling method or how the stats add up.)

People primarily attend church for the relationships. Although church-goers may feel comfortable with tradition, they are not primarily there for sermons and music, especially teenagers. Following the early church’s example of community, maybe we should use these relationships as a ministry tool on Sunday mornings and re-think the teaching methods we use. Maybe then we could promote a lot more life-change and active learning than we currently see.

My vision for Sunday mornings worship services is always defining itself. Every time I write it down, it’s different than the last time I tried solidifying it. So, with that in mind, this is my Sunday morning vision for the teaching element as it currently stands:

— The room: Following Dan Kimball’s living room analogy, picture a sanctuary that full of couches. They’re set up in circle groups on oriental rugs, each group with a coffee table in the middle, a couple candles, and low-hanging ceiling lights. The walls are covered with pictures of people attend along with thought-provoking imagery and scripture passages that are changed monthly. The room is inviting and comfortable and compels people to interact with each other.

— The method: Rather than having a lecture, what if we followed something closer to a small group philosophy. The pastor could introduce a topic that is then led by discussion facilitators in various couch groups. Discussions could be modified on-the-fly to address the specific needs and “spiritual levels” of those in the group. For example, discussion sheets would include a “Deep Theology” section that some groups would utilize, while other groups with an unsaved person could take advantage of a “Salvation Implications” section. Other groups with children could skip to a “Kidz Corner” section. When closing time draws near, groups can report to other groups what they found in scripture, what the Lord impressed upon them, and personal applications for the week, effectively compelling people to think through the material in relation to their life rather than listening to a preacher make generic applications for them. The pastor could also share with everyone some concluding thoughts on the issue at hand.

I know this isn’t an entirely new concept that no one is practicing. My idea is more to revise it a little and take it to the Sunday morning experience. With this kind of model, families can now learn and grow together, relationships are strengthened, teaching is personalized, applications are specific, content is more easily retained, and learning styles are utilized. Of course, it’s not without it’s disadvantages, such as a group only pooling their ignorance on matters, but there are clearly disadvantages to probably any model.

I guess my vision really does fall into the emerging church movement. As Leonard Sweet describes the movement, the church needs to be experiential, participatory, based on imagery, and be a place of community. My vision for how to implement these aspects, though, is still blurry and undefined. Give me more time to dream and hopefully something will eventually come into focus.

My obvious application is to start implementing these aspects more in the youth ministry. By validating this environment in youth ministry with students who share a vision of a changing church and ministry philosophy, maybe we can provide a clearer direction for those who follow after us.

Posted on March 17, 2006

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