Chapter Seven: Saints Alive!
Our family once visited St. David’s Cathedral in West Wales. This beautiful edifice houses the bones of the patron saint of Wales, along with the remains of other notable church leaders. As we walked through the huge sanctuary and chapels, we marveled at the magnificent windows and carved woodwork, the handiwork of skilled workers. It’s an edifice dedicated to the glory of God.
However, there was a "dusty" feeling in the building. The atmosphere seemed like that of the Egyptian pyramids. St. David’s is a memorial to what God did in the past. There are often more remains of departed saints in the building than bodies of living saints! Some churches seem similarly filled with stuffy saints. There is little life for new people to see and enjoy.
New Christians have a right to see the joy of the Lord in older Christians. Genuine joy doesn’t mean, of course, pasting on an artificial smile just to make a good impression, or hiding problems. Genuine joy is the confidence of a relationship with Jesus Christ that endures even in difficult circumstances.
Several years ago, Mary Ellison lay in her upstairs bedroom, dying of throat cancer. She radiated Christ’s love even in the last stages of dying, when she could no longer speak. The nurses who attended her came downstairs weeping after being with her. The doctor, a nominal Christian, was so impressed by her radiance that he asked Mary’s family for permission to bring his wife in to see her.
About the time Mary died, a young man across the street lost his father. He became manic-depressive. He let his beard and hair grow almost to his waist. Unable to escape his depression, he called on the doctor who had attended Mary Ellison.
The doctor told him, "I can give you drugs which will help you for three months or so. But if you go to that church over there [the Christian Center, where Mary had attended], theyTl help you for the rest of your life."
With hope renewed, the young man began attending the church. Several weeks later, he made a decision to follow Christ. He enthusiastically helped the church with tract distribution. Shaking off the depression, he began regular Bible study with the pastor of the church. The prescription had worked!
Within a few months, ten additional people, from three different families, were attending the church as a result of this same doctor’s recommendation. Mary Ellison reflected the joy of knowing Jesus, even on her deathbed. That kind of joy is contagious!
The Worship Service
Members of a church may be friendly and inviting, but without a vital spiritual life at the core of the congregation, new persons will be turned off. Oswald and Leas say it well:
No amount of propaganda or organization will cover a lack of substance at the core. It is folly for congregations to work at improving their incorporation process when they do not have substantial food to nourish people once they are incorporated. It’s like putting whipped cream on stale pudding.
New people can sense the strength of spiritual substance in a church during the worship hour. When people turn Godward in worship, they expose themselves at a deep level. And when they express themselves to one another, newcomers can sense the relational health of the church. By seeing saints that are alive and caring, new people soon sense God is alive among God’s people. Consequently, the worship service is often the factor determining whether or not new people become part of the church.
People new to a church may not enjoy the same kind of worship long-term members enjoy. The worship style may serve as a barrier to receiving new members. Ray Bakke asserts that people are often so offended by thoughtless worship forms that they never have a real opportunity to be offended by the cross.2 What kind of worship service will help a new believer worship in spirit and in truth—yet meet the needs of longtime members?
Dr. Peter Wilkes, pastor of South Hills Community Church (San Jose, Calif.) has pondered this question. For him, the incarnation of Christ is a basic biblical truth which should inform every aspect of the church’s life. As Christ came into an alien world to identify with sinners, so must the church identify with the needs of those in the surrounding culture. This principle especially applies to welcoming new members into the local church.
Wilkes believes that most church activities should aim to touch new people with the message of Jesus Christ. However, every sermon must somehow communicate with the broad spectrum of those in attendance. At South Hills, with about 2000 people present on a Sunday morning, this spectrum may include perhaps 10-20 percent who don’t know Christ. There may be another 10 percent who are new Christians. A good number of Bible students may want a "meaty" Bible exposition. Then there will be a core group of regular church attenders who have heard the Word preached many times.
Obviously a congregation of 2000 struggles with different issues than a congregation of 50. Not everything Wilkes has learned will be applicable to those small congregations which far outnumber the giant ones. But one principle remains constant despite congregational size—the needs and backgrounds of church attenders can vary widely. Those congregations able to recognize and implement this understanding will be most skillful at creating a healthy blend of satisfied older members and excited newcomers.
Nowhere do tastes differ more than in music. Wilkes doesn’t believe new attenders should have to endure a worship service whose music doesn’t minister to unchurched people. So the congregation selects church music appealing to persons in contemporary culture. Peter believes that churches must adapt to a changing culture or be ineffective in making newcomers, particularly those who are new Christians, feel at home.
Robert came to Christ as a college student. Reflecting on his first church experience in a university town, he notes that the church music bore no resemblance to the music he personally enjoyed. Lacking the beat and rhythm, the drums and guitars and synthesizers he appreciated, it was, he had to confess, downright boring.
Because he sensed the truth and love embodied in the Christians whose fellowship he was enjoying, Robert endured the music. But he feels the poor music exemplifies needless barriers the church put in the way of his Christian growth.(note:3)
Robert was blessed to have a group of people who cared for him, even though the worship and music in the church seemed lackluster. Now he’s a church musician, helping to enliven the worship services for others who are coming to Christ and the church.
Songs and poetry serve as reminders of people and the past. So for the older members, hymns are a rich repository of memories. But for new people unfamiliar with hymns, they have no such function.
It’s said that people enjoy most the music they listened to as teenagers. This implies that in the church there are three different generations of musical preference. Unless the church makes an attempt to reach the musical tastes of more than one generation, some people will likely feel unable to worship from the heart.
Eating together is one of the most enjoyable and intimate activities people can share. In biblical times, eating had deep covenantal meanings. To eat with someone indicated fellowship and agreement. This is the background for the apostle Paul’s command not to eat with a so-called church member whose life was drastically out of order (1 Cor. 5:11).
Communion is an expression of the covenant between God and God’s people, through the mediation of Jesus Christ. Eating the covenant meal together is the most intimate expression of Christian fellowship. By breaking bread from house to house, the early church celebrated the presence of Christ. Every breaking of bread was a reminder of Christ. To welcome people to the communion table is to welcome them into Christ’s fellowship. This is the ultimate welcome a church can give a new believer.
Some churches have found renewed meaning in communion through love feasts—eating a simple meal accompanied by sharing the emblematic bread and cup. Other churches encourage people to share communion in their homes or in small groups, for mutual spiritual encouragement.
Words That Communicate
A bishop in the Amish Mennonite Church told me about a struggle with changing the language of worship in his church. For years, the church had used only German in the worship services. He began to question this practice when members of the congregation invited friends who could not understand German to accompany them. On such occasions, the preacher spoke in English to accommodate the guests.
When non-German speaking guests became more frequent, the church made the switch to regular English services, with occasional German songs. They found it too difficult to prepare sermons in both languages, not knowing which they would use until the service began.
You may be saying to yourself, "I’m glad we don’t have a language problem. Everyone can understand our service." Wait! Many people find it difficult to understand the words used in church, even if the language is English. Like a secret society, or a department within a university, a church can develop jargon that makes insiders feel in and outsiders out.
A church that wants to grow must use words readily understood by newcomers. A pastor who has helped several churches grow told me his method for testing the words he used in the service. As he prepared his sermon, he would think about a young couple who had just begun to attend church. They were new Christians unfamiliar with "churchy" language.
He kept asking himself, "Would Norman and Lisa understand these words and ideas?" As a result, he began to communicate more clearly. Surprisingly, older members of his church began complimenting him more on his sermons.
Have you ever noticed the simplicity with which Jesus spoke? He used few unfamiliar or long words. Yet his words attracted sinners as well as learned theologians. Juan Carlos Ortiz, a Latin evangelist, uses a simple formula—he tries to use language a twelve-year-old can understand. Reader’s Digest, a magazine distributed around the world, is written at that level as well.
As times change, so does the language of the people. Consequently, the everyday language of the people in one generation sounds odd and outdated to another. Have you ever read a very old novel? If so, you surely found words and expressions which seemed quaint or foreign.
Many people likewise associate the King James Version of the Bible with castles or old churches with run-down graveyards. The language sounds like something King Arthur would have used to address his knights. Because we no longer use such language in ordinary conversation, it reminds people of the past. When the Scripture is read, it should give new Christians the feeling that God has something to communicate today. God is alive!
Furthermore, we can’t assume that new people are familiar with the Bible. In a class I once taught for new members, one couple was having difficulty understanding how Moses and the Israelites could carry the ark of the covenant through the wilderness. They thought it was Noah’s ark! I assured them that both arks had to do with a covenant, and their confusion needn’t embarrass them.
A pastor’s wife told about a woman who had joined their church. When the newcomer first attended, she had never heard of the crucifixion of Christ! The worship service or small-group Bible study should be a place’where people can learn the basics without embarrassment.
When people are invited to turn to a biblical passage, we can give some description of where to find it, such as, "It’s about halfway through the New Testament." Even if only one person benefits from such instruction, it’s worth the effort. That person, feeling cared for, may invite others to come!
In most denominations, or even congregations, there is some form of "alphabet soup." Abbreviations of the names of church commissions, committees, and service structures abound. In the Mennonite Church, for example, there are MCC, MDS, MBM, MCA, MMAA, MCLF, MEDA, MEEC, MMHS, MSEC, MRT, MWC, MPA, MYF, and MBCM, to name just a few. Noting the abundance of "M’s," one new Hispanic Mennonite suggested perhaps it should be called the "M and M" church!
When such abbreviations are used in church life, new people are left groping. And having to ask for definitions simply increases a newcomer’s sense of being an outsider. No one wants to seem stupid or ignorant, so it’s easiest to remain silent. When it comes to asking questions, many newcomers reflect Abraham Lincoln’s homespun philosophy: "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak up and remove all doubt."
The best way to make sure everyone understands announcements and messages is to use the full name of organizations, committees, or locations. This is true whenever you use abbreviations, whether written or spoken. Don’t assume the reader or hearer knows what is being referred to, unless you have explained a reference previously.
Perhaps you’re a church member who doesn’t understand the language or words in the service. Or perhaps you’re aware of others who don’t understand the words or abbreviations. Why not compile a list of unfamiliar words or ideas used at your church and give them to the pastor?
"It has been said that persons join a church for many reasons, but they stay for only one reason—relationships." The importance of relationships is stated most clearly in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. Here Paul convincingly argues that in the church, all members (parts) have a vital role to play in the body of Christ, the church. No part is to be excluded. When one part suffers, every part suffers with it. The church is only as healthy as the relationship of its individual members to each other.
God combines the parts of the body in such a way that members have "equal concern for each other, in order that there should be no division in the body" (1 Cor. 12:25). With this kind of shared life, the chance of members "malfunctioning" or "being amputated" is greatly reduced.
Paul often refers to Christians’ life together. In many of these references, he uses the words "one another," or "each other." A sampling of Paul’s "one another" exhortations includes admonitions to instruct, build up, accept, encourage, serve, submit, and teach one another (see Rom. 15.7; 1 Cor. 14:12; 1 Thess. 4:18; Gal. 5:13; Eph. 5:21; and Col. 3:16).
The loving relationships Paul describes are not easily developed in the context of the large church fellowship which meets only once a week for worship. However, one can easily sense the strength of body life as it’s expressed in the corporate worship service. Congregations that are alive and well have a spiritual dynamism. Their members pray for one another. They share joys and problems. They encourage one another through testimonies of God’s power, provision, and love in their lives.
For Review, Study, and Action
- What comes to your mind when you hear the words "saints alive"?
- Discuss Peter Wilkes’ idea that the incarnation of Christ can be a primary example of the way the church should relate to contemporary people. In what ways do you agree or disagree?
- Which generation do you suppose most enjoys the music in your worship service? How might the service be changed to appeal more readily to new Christians?
- Could a twelve-year-old understand the language of your worship service? In what ways could the service be adapted to help newcomers understand more easily what is said?
- Make a list of the "alphabet soup" letters used in your church. List expressions unique to your church.
- How does your church express body life?
- What is the best way to tell whether or not a person’s commitment to Christ is genuine?
For Further Help
How to Build a Magnetic Church, by Herb Miller (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987). Chapter three outlines the elements needed for a vital worship service in today’s society.
The Urban Christian: Effective Ministry in Today’s Urban World, by Ray Bakke (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1987). This book by a well-known pastor and urbanologist is filled with practical examples of ways the church can adapt to the changing needs of society. It’s especially helpful for urban congregations.