Churches must evolve thoughtfully over time

Young people would just say “this is what it is”. Elderly people would say “it is not what it used to be”. We are talking about the church, of course … this rock of the ages, bearer of tradition through the ages. But if you’ve been careful over the last half century or so, you’ve seen tradition erode at times, like sandcastles crumbling before the rising tide.

In my youth, Sunday was best referred to clothing. The men wore suits and ties. The women wore dresses and sometimes hats. The ministers were almost exclusively men and wore black robes. The shoes were polished and the shirts tucked in. The Easter season meant buying new church attire for the year. You have only come to the House of the Lord in your best light.

Churches were generally identifiable by a steeple or a steeple. Inside, a raised choir was furnished with a pulpit, probably a lectern with a monstrous Bible, a communion table, baptismal font, and uncomfortable, oversized chairs for the clergy. A bulletin board outside announced the title of the sermon, and a wooden sign inside displayed the three hymns of the day. After church, some men lingered on the steps and smoked. You could tell it had always been that way.

But if there is one lesson from decades past, it’s that what seemed sacrosanct then are just memories that fade today. Billy Graham began his ministry as a tent evangelist who concluded the Crusades with an alternate calling as his great baritone musician sang “Just As I Am”. When television brought its crusades to American living rooms, people took that invitation to heart.

Ties were broken, followed by suits. There are churches today where flip flops, shorts, jeans and dangling shirt tails are the new Sunday outfit. And sometimes for pastors as well as for the faithful. Churches are no longer identifiable by bell towers. Rob Bell broke new ground in Grand Rapids when he opened Mars Hill Church in a former mall. A bare raised platform, devoid of traditional furnishings, replaced the choir, folding chairs replaced the benches, and a jumbotron replaced the hymn books.

What was radical 25 years ago has become commonplace today. Choirs have often been stripped of pulpits and altars to make way for the worship band, impromptu choir, theater or sacred dancers. In some local churches, the most important choir or stage furnishings are the drums. Traditional hymns with verses and choruses give way to an often repetitive music of praise, projected on the big screen.

Generalizations can be misleading or dangerous, so I readily admit that in many churches long-standing traditions prevail or change is slow. But there are also many well beyond the spiritual comfort zone of my grandfather, my father, and sometimes me.

What to do with these changes? Deep down, I don’t think God cares much. Christianity is full of once bustling basilicas and cathedrals that are now museums or cultural centers. The names fray at the edges. The church is under pressure to recognize its past complicity with slavery and racism. Confidence is eroding as light shines on sex and financial scandals. Scientific discovery challenges old beliefs. When people show up ready to open their hearts to creation and sing praises, I don’t think God cares where or what they wear. If Jesus could preach and break bread with his disciples on a hill, then an unused mall is probably also sufficient.

For those of us whose tolerance for change falls short of God’s tolerance, adjusting to change is not always easy. Personally, I’m glad I’m done with ties. They were stupid things to begin with. If the communion tables that never really looked like real meeting tables go away, good riddance. Praise music instead of hymns often gives me a toothache, but then I wonder how young people should react by singing Holy Holy Holy and coming up with the phrase “which will be, art and forever”. Their eyes must surely roll too.

If tradition has to be turned around for the church to survive, so be it.

– Community columnist Dale Wyngarden is a resident of the city of Holland. He can be contacted at [email protected]