One Sunday…

Not long ago I found myself navigating yet another church visitor card as my weekend work of church consulting was fully underway. This, like so many congregations I’ve encountered, seemed like a nice gathering of nice people who wanted me to have a nice time in their house of worship. Lots of smiles, warm handshakes and even a quality cup of coffee had greeted me in the hallway. Since I was to eat this day’s lunch with the pastor, I’d already been forced to turn down one lunch invitation from a family that had no idea why I had come. As I said…nice.

As I perused the guest card that I knew I’d soon be compelled to complete, suddenly the lights flickered and then found their lowest setting while a large clock on a large screen began spinning what appeared to be a 30-second countdown toward the likely start of music played and performed by the people hurriedly assembling on the platform. In an actual half-minute, I found myself joining that small collection of smiling saints in some of the latest of the burgeoning praise music industry. Worship was underway.

I have to be honest, I was a bit shaken at how the room suddenly changed. Once warm and friendly, it now was neither. Somewhere in the darkness I imagined folks were still smiling, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Spotlights were more focused on the band of developing musicians before us, talented and trying, as they sought to reproduce songs like Michael W. and various California groups made them sound. Really good people, these worshipers, but it seemed someone had given them a less good idea.

Now, before you begin thinking that I’m a “get off my lawn guy” when it comes to modern worship, please know that I’m not. I’ve never met a worship set or song service where I wouldn’t join in. I’ve praised God in so many varied settings, I don’t know if I’d know my favorite song or style, even if we started singing it.

And I’m not anti-mood lighting either. As long as we’re engaging Jesus with sincere and hungry hearts, I’m not concerned if we invite General Electric into the moment or not. But what I realized that morning is that this wonderful congregation was trying to be some other congregation. And I knew hundreds of others were simultaneously trying and failing to be that congregation too.

Here’s the issue: there are various church models that help shape how we “do” church each week, models with different designs and purposes to chase. I could tell the minute I walked into that little church that they were tailor-made for the relational model. You know, the church where everyone knows your name, cares about your week, serves-Jesus-side-by-side-while-growing-old-together kind of church. They’re not one of those family churches where one family dominates the rest, but they’re the church that becomes like family after only a few weeks in their house. It’s who they are and they’re really good at it.

What they’re not good at is turning off the lights where those friendly smiles and that sense of worshiping together is traded for more a bit more of a concert-like environment–where quality of presentation tends to draw folks in. That’s called the attractional model–a valid church approach in itself. the attractional model has been the wheelhouse of America’s largest churches for more than a decade. It seeks to connect people to platform in a meaningful manner, seeking to make the church’s first impression from up there. Attractional model churches draw people with their excellence, whether in worship, communication, or children’s facilities, and keep them with their well-oiled systems of effective people management.

Now my intent isn’t to paint such a model in any negative tone, it’s just that the congregation worshiping around me had little chance to succeed with that model. At this church, the people filled with Jesus were the attraction. They will likely never have the level of musical talent one would find at the three mega-churches within ten miles of their building. Their sound guy did a good job managing the 24-channel board at his fingertips, but those other churches have at least twice the channels and more than twice the number of people to run them. And those spotlights, well, they were highlighting sincere but average efforts, causing their few visitors to recall the superiority of their experience across town last week.

Here’s the point: If you’re leading a relational church, align EVERYTHING your church does around those relational gifts. If you want to soften the lights a bit during times of worship, go ahead. But don’t lose the critical realization that I’m worshiping alongside some people who really look like they love Jesus. Give people time to greet and warmly welcome one another–it’s your best thing! Keep growing and encouraging your musicians in the development of their gifts, but don’t make them the only thing people can see in your sanctuary. You’ll either magnify their weaknesses or encourage pride to swell (or somehow manage to actually achieve both).

Be who you are! That’s the church Jesus has designed and gifted you to be. When you find the path you were meant to walk, that’s when your church will look most appealing to your community.

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