Right at the beginning of my first appoint as a pastor to a local church my co-pastor and I met with the person who would be our mentor during our time there. He was probably the most mission focused pastor I’ve ever met before or since. So, I expected he would lead off with some words of wisdom about how to get our churches out and doing good things in the world.
Instead, during our earliest conversations, he stressed the needs to have good worship. “You can’t grow a church without good worship.” He’d say. To which I would now add Good worship won’t necessarily grow your church.
The reality is, you can do all the “church things” right [worship, VBS, bible study, pot-lucks] and still have a stagnant or declining congregation. However, and this is especially true for worship, you can be doing all the missional things right and be held back by poor “church things.”
Let me put this another way.
My father-in-law spent a lifetime in retail and I remember him telling this story during a meal when I was first dating his daughter. Someone high up in the corporation he worked for had told all the store managers they needed to cut back on the number of plastic bags they used to sack customers purchases. He was justifiably upset, because while it would save them a penny or two it was short sided in the long run. “You can’t win on plastic bags” he said, “but you can lose.”
What he meant was, your not going to win over any new loyal customers by providing adequate bags. After all, in this country anyway, we just expect that. However, you can drive away current and future loyal customers if you insist on overfilling their bags so they break or are hard to carry. You can’t win, but you can lose.
It’s the same way in church. Good worship and excellent preaching won’t automatically get you anywhere if your goal is to reach out to new people. However, if your other activities are successful in reaching new people, poor worship and preaching will keep them from becoming a loyal part of the church community. You can’t win, but you can lose.
Too often pastors and church leaders begin great new missional experiments while letting worship be dominated by those who demand mediocrity. While worship is likely the most sacred of cows in most established congregations, it cannot be allowed to stagnate if the aim is growth.
It simply won’t work.
While it may not seem it, improvement in worship, preaching, and music are actually necessary steps in building a missional congregation that is able to not only reach new people, but also keep them engaged. After all, the purpose of the church is to introduce people to the transforming power of God’s grace. How can we do that if the thing we primarily lift up as a means to get to know God isn’t full of life and vitality?
It may feel like a battle some time, but it is a battle worth fighting. Because when living out God’s calling is your focus, you can’t lose, and you will win.