In the past few years radical changes in liturgy have been introduced by several Seventh-day Adventist churches—churches that are making a real effort to reclaim former members and those who seldom, if ever, attend traditional services. These churches have created worship services that are warm, lively, and markedly less traditional; and they are experiencing an exciting growth in membership.
Typical changes of liturgy and furniture Adventist churches operating in the "celebration" mode have made include removing the pulpit to bring the pastor closer to the congregation; singing choruses and Scripture songs from words projected onto a screen (too bad we didn't foresee this before we bought all those new hymnals!); singing livelier songs, sometimes accompanied by guitars and drum sets; using drama more frequently; revising the order of service; changing the forms of public prayer; subordinating or eliminating parts of the traditional Sabbath school program, allocating more time to small group discussions; preaching shorter sermons with less emphasis on doctrine and more on the gospel, praise, personal relation ships, and contemporary social issues; and encouraging greater audience participation through vocal, acoustical, and visual feedback, including responses such as "Amen" and "Praise the Lord," and clapping and raising of hands.
Success attracts attention. Pastors of Adventist churches whose growth has been mediocre or worse have visited the bellwether institutions that are trying these innovations to pick up a few ideas about rejuvenating their own sometimes lackluster services.
But the changes have upset some people. The natural tendency is just to write the naysayers off. After all, you can't win 'em all: "Many are called, but few are chosen." Yet while on the one hand we can't allow the recalcitrant few to sandbag progress, on the other, not all the proposed changes are necessary for church renewal or the outpouring of the Spirit and, in fact, some may be divisive. It would be tragic indeed to adopt a liturgy that unnecessarily weak ens the unity that is a prerequisite for the latter rain.
In addition, many of those objecting are not part of the usual coterie of negative thinkers that afflicts most congregations. Among the objectors are church leaders and others who up until now have been strong supporters of our programs. Since many of us believe that we are long overdue for liturgical re form, why the opposition? It seems to me that there are rational reasons that good people oppose some of the above changes. Further, if we will take the time to listen to what these people are saying, we may be able to effect necessary changes without alienating those who might otherwise join us in a quest for the phenomenon that should mean more to our church than all else the gift of the Spirit.
Reasons for opposition
Why are some good people dis pleased with pastors' plans for change?
First, because of personality type. Whether acquired through nature or nurture, an individual's personality plays a big part in determining how that individual relates to change.
Second, because of need for stability. We live in a world that is changing rapidly. Because of this, insecurity abounds, and many have rightfully come to look to the church for stability. So it is not surprising that such people feel threatened when the one institution they thought they could count on begins a radical alteration in its most visible aspect its forms of worship. It is a virtue, not a vice, that their church is important to them. We must remain sensitive to the needs of all, not just some, of our members.
Third, because of conservative concern. Conservatives are not all legalists or reactionaries. Many are committed believers who look only to Christ and His righteousness as the source of their salvation. More than that, they love their church and are among its strongest supporters. Because they care deeply about the church, they fear threats to its essential doctrines. They are concerned if they perceive that the Sabbath morning messages consistently ignore basic beliefs. And they are uneasy with changes that make the liturgy quite different from the one they have grown up with and that they believe, rightly or wrongly, to be that of the pioneers.
Fourth, because of anxiety about Pentecostalism. Our church has repeatedly warned its members about the dangers of modern Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement with its consequent contribution to ecumenism. Is it any wonder, then, that adopting what many believe to be charismatic forms of worship makes them uneasy? While an error-teaching church can have ideas worthy of emulation, we must recognize that such a distinction is easier for some to make than others.
We should never move people so fast as to cause undue distress. If we do, we may create disunity, a condition incompatible with Pentecost.
Fifth, because of discomfort with contemporary music. Celebration churches tend to have music that is unlike what most Adventists are used to in their services. In our homes, schools, and churches, music has always been one of the most controversial topics. We are kidding ourselves if we think that we can make sudden changes in this area and not run into flak.
Two extremes threaten us here. Some conclude that what they don't like must be sinful. And on the other hand, many sincerely believe that to serve unholy purposes, Satan has involved himself in tinkering with tunes and arrangements as well as lyrics. So when selecting music appropriate for worship, we must consider both Satan's stratagems and our own biases, a neat trick to say the least.
If that isn't challenge enough, add the difficulty of making services attractive to the young and to those who like a lot of warmth and life in their worship while at the same time satisfying the desire of others who associate a worshipful atmosphere with traditional anthems.
In some churches conflict has occurred because their pastors have ignored the five fears we have noted and instead have succumbed to the temptation of using the weight of their office to effect changes with greater dispatch. Unfortunately, each time a pastor takes the rapid route to innovation, he or she alienates another segment of the congregation and diminishes the roster of sup porters.
It is far better to use the slower but ultimately more effective democratic process. The church board, the music committee, the Sabbath school council, etc., are the proper forums for new ideas. When all segments of the congregation are adequately represented and the discussion is free, the congregation is more likely to reach a consensus that will allow change without division. Furthermore, the slow process of running the changes through the church's machinery allows members more time to adjust to the new ideas.
Consider these guidelines
You and your congregation face an awesome responsibility—that of operating an Adventist church at a time when our churches are under severe attack by Satan and when they are also experiencing the stirrings of the Holy Spirit that will grow into that long-awaited explosion of love known as the latter rain. As you do so, consider these guidelines:
1. Don't be afraid of change. Repetitious ritual can kill personal piety and corporate worship. Look for ways to improve your liturgy and all other operations of your church.
2. When introducing significant changes, easy does it. Make changes gradually and prepare the congregation in advance. The people in the pews do not take kindly to sudden shocks. The educational approach is best.
3. Use the democratic process. Work in harmony with the church board, the local elders, and others. To bring about a major change, the pastor needs the support of these folks. (It's not all bad if they think it's their idea.)
4. Carefully consider expressed concerns that certain changes may not harmonize with counsel from the Bible or the Spirit of Prophecy. The people who express these concerns may really love their Lord and support their church. They deserve thoughtful, prayerful responses.
5. Don't try to duplicate the entire program of another church. While it may work well for them, the uniqueness of your situation makes a wholesale adoption of their ideas unwise. For ex ample, successful celebration churches are usually located in population centers in which members can choose among churches with different worship styles. Attempting to impose radical changes on a more isolated congregation may only stir up dissension.
6. Understand that excitement is not a prerequisite for receiving the Holy Spirit. When He comes in His fullness, there will be excitement aplenty, but it will be the product of the experience, not an end in itself.
7. Recognize that true revival does not depend on the form of worship. It is a gift bestowed by a generous Father on hungry hearts united in their love for Him and one another. He may pour His Spirit on a church with no pulpit, one in which the members sing from an overhead screen, or He may grace a church that sings with a pump organ and hears sermons read by the local elder.
8. If your members reject your ideas after you have done all you could to educate them and to bring about change democratically, solace yourself with the fact that few historical innovations came easily. And there is, of course, the barest possibility that the ideas weren't all that red-hot to begin with. The other day a doctor told me that he was not, in fact, infallible. That seemed to me to be a very good thing for a doctor to say.
So you want to be the pastor of a celebration church. OK, but please initiate changes prayerfully, wisely, humbly, and democratically. More than that, put your best efforts into educating your congregation to hunger for the Holy Spirit. Teach them to besiege the Father with pleas for His great Gift, the Holy Spirit, who will bring all other gifts in His train.
When the Spirit comes, filling the hearts of your members with God's unconditional love for others, you will have a celebration church that will knock the socks off your community—and perhaps the world.