Modern is not a word often used to describe the Methodist church. The very name of the denomination is a synonym for tradition. We have a certain way of doing things here – a method.
The name adopted by the Methodist Church originated as a slight by the clergy of the Church of England. A group of students at Oxford had formed habits of bible study, prayer, and fasting that others were quick to identify as a formula. The group agreed that it was a formula, and thought it was such a good one that they adopted the name “Methodist” for the societies they established as a badge of honor.
There is certainly nothing wrong with positive habits. We are often told that the best way to get rid of bad habits is to replace them with good ones. Smokers replace cigarettes with sunflower seeds, dieters replace cupcakes with carrot sticks. It’s a good idea that works.
The Methodist church has been around for a long time now. What began as a radical rebellion against the complacency of the Church of England has settled into a comfortable groove. Society has changed a great deal since the Methodist Church adopted it’s current practices – a lot more than the institution has. How much should we allow these changes to affect our praise and worship?
The traditionalist camp would say that change isn’t necessary, or should be very limited and gradual. Those hymns have meant so much to people for generations. Why fix it if it isn’t broken? Our praise and worship traditions may be well-worn, but they are comforting. If upcoming generations don’t appreciate them the fault lies with them, not with the quality of our time-tested methods.
Most recognize the danger in this kind of thinking. The institution is made up of people from today’s culture, and we are charged with reaching them with the good news of the gospel. But we have to reach them where they are, not where we wish they were. The truth is that many of them don’t connect with the form of worship that we have grown to know and love.
I wish they loved organ music. I wish they loved (and could sing) beautiful hymns in four part harmony. I wish that they had the attention span to appreciate traditional sermons the way I do (most of the time.) But they don’t, and if they haven’t grown up in the church, it isn’t very likely that they are going to learn.
For many in our culture, the traditions that we find so comforting are totally foreign to them. Could you imagine attending a mosque in Iran? That’s how many of them feel when they walk into your church – like a fish out of water. They feel as if everyone is watching and judging them, and if we were honest, we would admit that some members of our congregation are doing just that.
Many Methodist churches are starting new worship services to meet the needs of the unchurched in their communities. They are intentionally targeting a younger generation who is unfamiliar with the traditions that they love and value, and branching out into uncharted territory. It isn’t easy. It isn’t always pretty. But it’s the right thing to do.
Drum sets are appearing in sanctuaries. Acoustic guitars that are usually used only at camp or in the fellowship hall have started turning up in Sunday morning services. Props are being used during sermons for the adults, not just the kids. Drama is being used to reinforce the theme of the service. In short, some very un-Methodist things are happening.
Reluctant though many of us are, we are beginning to modernize for the sake of reaching the lost. It is ruffling feathers, dragging people out of comfort zones, and hurting feelings. It causes disagreements, inconveniences, and arguments. It isn’t easy, but it is worthwhile.
The apostle Paul wanted to be all things to all people in order to share the gospel. He discussed philosophy with the philosophers, Judaism with the Jews, and Pantheism with the Pantheists. In the same way, we must speak the language of our culture to win the hearts of our culture for Jesus Christ. If speaking that language includes using a different group of musical instruments, visual aids, and some attention-grabbing techniques, then so be it.
Methodists understand that the sacrifice Jesus performed for our salvation is a gift beyond measure. We are learning to understand that the way that gift is packaged is not nearly as important as the gift itself. If a change in the packaging will lead to a greater number of people receiving that gift, we should be willing to change the packaging. It’s time for the Methodists to try new methods.