I came across this quote yesterday from Jeanne Kilde’s excellent book, When Church Became Theatre.
To attract converts to worship, services increasingly were led by better-trained clergy, who demanded higher salaries, incorporated more music performed by paid professionals, and featured a host of elaborate accouterments, including vestments and Communion articles, unknown to earlier generations. The growth of voluntary associations within churches – for women, for youths, for men – also increased the activities and raised the expenses of churches. But it was congregational competitions that most significantly raised costs. To recruit new members from the “cultured” middle classes who could contribute to the financial well-being and social status of the church, congregations were wiling to pay large sums for the best ministers and most artistic musicians and to build and furnish the most beautiful church buildings. Given the shrinking base of affluent citizens living in the heart of the cities, it is not surprising that many congregations chose to build new churches their the new homes of old and potential new members. Yet within the more socially homogenous new residential areas, they often found themselves locked in intense competition with other denominations and congregations for the same members.
Well, here’s the catch…
Kilde isn’t talking about the present state of the church. She’s talking about the church in 19th century Victorian America.
We have a tendency today (although it’s probably been true of people throughout time), to think of our problems as wholly unique and ourselves as the apex of human existence. The reality is that neither is particularly true.
Sure our problems today have a particular 21st century bent to them and we have certainly invented unprecedented technology, but even as the world around us changes our core humanity does not and because that core does not change we continue to come back to many of the same basic issues and problems that have challenged humanity throughout our existence.
This is why historians like to talk about history being cyclical. The players may change and the technology advance, but history demonstrates that we continue to circle back to the same basic struggles, controversies, and challenges time and time again.
As the writer of Ecclesiastes once said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun.”
You’ve probably heard it said “if you don’t learn from your past, you’re doomed to repeat it.” Well, that’s only sort of true. The sentiment there is that we should learn from our past mistakes and that is certainly true. But as the quote from Kilde demonstrates, we’re all but certain to repeat our past either way.
I think it would be more helpful, though admittedly less catchy, for us to understand that we will inevitably repeat our past no matter what we do. So, let’s learn from it, and do a better job the next time around.
Such is the case with the church.
As we saw above, many of the struggles we face in the church today are a repeat of what we already went through not that long ago. Now, we could take the position of the writer of Ecclesiastes and just declare that “everything is meaningless.” Cathartic though that may be, it’s not particularly helpful in avoiding our previous mistakes even as we embrace the inevitability of reliving the past.
Instead, I think this particular example of our 21st century repetition of 19th century church growth strategies should serve as a healthy reminder that the church doesn’t need growth strategies. They worked momentarily for the 19th century church, but eventually failed as times and tastes changed. The same will happen for us.
Rather than trying to constantly reinvent the church or development new schemes for getting more butts in the seats, our not so distant past should remind us that in our distant past the church exploded in growth not because of a formulaic strategy from some business guru, but because the church had the simple audacity to be the Body of Christ in and for the world.
Rather than worrying about attendance, the church focused on the things the church is supposed to focus on: caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, defending the oppressed, comforting the broken, and preaching the gospel.
The early church exploded in growth because these things were their primary concern and they did them well, not because they competed with one another for the nicest building, the best music, or the most cutting edge program.
Despite the hype that consumes the church today, we don’t need radical innovation, at least not the sort of radical innovation some are calling for that bemoans the imminent death of the church if she doesn’t become more relevant or, perhaps we should say, competitive with current cultural tastes.
The church has always been at her best and has always been the most “successful” when she didn’t care about being “successful,” but instead focused on loving, serving, caring for, and discipling the world around her.
There is nothing new under the sun, but if we learn from our past and have the audacity to boldly repeat the best of it, then the church will be exactly who she needs to be – the Body of Christ.
Nothing more and nothing less.
Grace and peace,