Strolling Through Gordon MacDonald’s “Who Stole My Church?”, Part 2: The Introduction


I’ve known Hollywood for nearly a quarter-century. We were roommates in college for a couple of years and kept in touch, mostly via Christmas cards or a yearly phone call. Then came e-mail and blogging and social networking and now there’s rarely a week we don’t communicate.

Anyway, he’s a deacon at his church and their board decided to walk through the book together. I needed something to read on a rainy Sunday (and Monday) so I thought it’d be fun to work through it with him. I’m glad I decided to do this, too. The book has my brain engaged big-time.

MacDonald decided to write the book as a work of fiction (after several failed starts and stops, realizing that there are already tons of books out there on church-change). He and his wife are the only two “real” people, and he creates an ad hoc committee of sorts, about 15 or so long-time New Englanders at a church of about 200. The characters are speaking for a broad range of what I’m guessing are actual comments he’s heard over the years regarding change and churches.

I remember my first impressions of visiting my current church in the summer of 1996.

The parking lot was so crowded that people were having to literally park in the grass that surrounded the church (but not too close to the children’s playground).
The foyer was tiny and crowded, and the greeter table was actually sitting on cinder blocks not completely covered by the fabric they tried to drape over it.
The men’s and women’s restrooms were woefully inadequate.
The auditorium (I can’t stand it when people call the room people meet in the “Sanctuary.” It isn’t.) had lining for AWANA squares and a basketball court, and there were basketball goals raised to the ceiling.
Sunday School classrooms were at the front of the auditorium and the classes had to focus on being quiet as well as being detained until services let out, even if the class “ended.” Every other classroom was packed with either children or youth.
A kitchen that had a home-school co-op science class meet in it Friday would prepare the men’s breakfast Saturday.
Children’s ministry and nursery rooms were VERY crowded and the hallways WAY too small to handle the flow of parents/kids.
The praise band/sound/AV were ALL volunteers, and the “visual” part of that equation consisted of song lyrics on SLIDES projected on both angled walls. Not even kidding about the use of slides (a piece of visual communication that came after flannel graphs and before Power Point).

In short, the church wasn’t known for the “presentation.” We were known for the “meat.” We later made changes (like asking almost everyone in our church to start coming ONLY to the Sunday evening services, or parking 3/4 of a mile away and shuttling folks to the church) that should’ve killed the growth. In fact, once I got the job our student ministry made a t-shirt that I’d asked them to design that “described us.” On the front was an equation that read: “The Message > the medium.” On the back was a quote about how “a collapsed view of heaven is the price you pay for your comfort.” The reason I loved that shirt was it exemplified what we valued at that time.

Anyway, when it came to designing a new building, much of it was an attempt to maintain our values and correct some of those inconveniences: Parking was never going to be an issue and we have a great parking lot now. Very spacious foyer for visiting with friends and getting all caught up. Wide hallways to get to spacious classrooms appropriate for all ages (adult Christian Ed on the top floor, babies & toddlers on the main floor, children and youth downstairs). Nicer chairs in the auditorium and an extra basketball court, with nicer plexiglass goals and room for volleyball. A parent’s box in case your child cries or they’re not keen on leaving their babies with strangers). A kitchen that can cook for an army and, because of ample space & resources elsewhere, doesn’t have to be shared with science students. Big screens with computer driven technology that shows videos and all that jazz with a paid staff person to oversee all that stuff.

Like I said, we tried to maintain values and correct inconveniences. I think we did that.

In his introduction, MacDonald talks about his entry into his church as the senior pastor and how things went initially:

“I think, first of all, I’d been a compromise candidate who was somehow reasonably acceptable to both the younger and older generations. To the older folks I was perceived as ‘one of them.’ To the younger I was a father figure who sounded reasonably in touch with today’s youth.

Soon after I came to the church, the older people in the church discovered to their dismay that I would not be wearing a necktie while I preached and that I wasn’t going to bring back organ music and hymnbook-based singing (which, by the way, had been dropped from Sunday mornings a year before I came). They couldn’t believe that a man my age liked PowerPoint sermon presentations, small groups more than adult Sunday School classes, and children’s play areas that looked more like a Chuck E. Cheese’s than the institutionally gray, multiuse classroom.”

What strikes me about this is that, from my perspective, even the stuff MacDonald mentions that might’ve “put off” the older folks in his church are, well, about 10 years behind the curve, IMHO.

See, what I love about going to the Youth Specialties Youth Ministry Conference every year (and put up with the same-old, same-old stuff they do at them) is because you get to see “what’s next” in ministry. They have the cutting edge speakers and worship leaders and all that going on and just seeing that is inspirational and eye-opening. Also, you get 2,000 youth ministers, who, by definition, have a screw loose (and their wives, who have a different screw that’s loose because they married us) and let them worship together…well, it’s beautiful and twisted and awesome.

One time I came home from the conference after hearing the worship leader with a CD. From the first time I heard him on the main stage before the speaker, I knew he was exactly what my students wanted as far as music style and presentation. Nobody at our church had ever heard of Dave Crowder at that time. So, there were a couple of songs I loved and played for our student praise band. They quickly picked up on them and our students got into it. At the same time, I gave the CD to our worship leader and told him I thought it’d be cool to run those songs in our main services. He was REALLY worried about doing it, but after 8 months he finally agreed.

Well, by that time, our students had moved on to the Next Big Thing…which, I think was a short-lived attempt at “rave/techno” music. Meanwhile, the main services at our church seemed to be digging Dave Crowder a couple of times a month…our kids were mildly appreciative, but it was still “out” in their way of thinking.

My point is this: When I hear MacDonald or any other pastor talk about PowerPoint presentations or the use of movie clips to illustrate a sermon point, well, I kind of smile. That’s why I contend that most worship services of churches today resemble youth group meetings from 10 years ago.

We’re already on to something else…

…and, frankly, our high school and middle school parents should be talking to their children about what’s going on currently in our student ministry. It’s definitely effective at helping our students experience God while being grounded in Truth. It’s a change even for those of us used to warp-speed, turn-on-a-dime changes.

I dig it, though.
Big time.


…the main point of this entry inspired by the introduction (and I’ll have the chance to expound in more detail on chapter 1’s entry)?

Change is inevitable.
Even when going from a cramped building to a shiny new one with the same values but more polish to what you’re doing.
And grownups in Big Church are still behind the curve.
Way behind…which is okay, I guess.
But, if change in churches is inevitable…
…shouldn’t we be more open and excited about it?

And, if we’re not open and excited about it, what does that say about how we truly view the main worship service? Something like, “We like it this way, and if you’re younger you might want to learn to do it our way, and we gave you a room where you can do it your way downstairs with all the bells and whistles so you can do it your way downstairs?”

Or, I guess we’ll wait until 2020 to see what the kids are doing downstairs today…