Friday, May 17, 2013

Different vs. Better

I was in a discussion recently where it became clear to me that the denomination of which I am still a member, the Presbyterian Church USA, and probably other traditional, mainline denominations, has forgotten the simple distinction between "different" and "better."

The context for my saying this is that my congregation offers both a very traditional worship service and a contemporary worship service.  The congregation is growing.  Both services are growing.  And a part of the growth is due to us offering things that are "different", while a part of the growth is due to us becoming "better."

In recent years, the tenor of what has emanated from the denomination has singularly focused on "different."  They bellow that we need to do things differently - that the "old ways" won't do any more.  And while this is true to a large extent, a lot of their definition of "different" is symbolized by what strikes our old-timers as radically different forms of church - whether that means meeting in coffee houses or having rock music.

But what that ignores is that a lot of the change that is needed is just improvement.  A lot of the "old ways" that need to be upgraded are simply things that need to become better in execution, not always different in kind.  A lot of our older churches need things like paint and carpet and to get that pile of junk out of the corner.  The warbling choir (sorry Aunt Clarissa or whoever) needs voices that can sing the music (whatever music you choose) and above all, a warm smile at the door that makes a visitor feel welcome, not like an alien intruder.  In other words, it doesn't matter what style of worship you offer if you do it poorly.

Yes, our churches need different also.  But the goal of different is to reach a new audience.  Whether it is our contemporary worship or our social media outreach - the things we are doing differently are helping us reach people who otherwise wouldn't come to our church.

I love watching Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares on TV.  Ramsey is a celebrity chef who goes into failing restaurants and screams obscenities at them until they change.  But the first thing that he always changes is this: the food.  They invariably serve lousy food using canned or frozen ingredients.  He ends that.  Good food.  Simple food.  Fresh ingredients.  This is the foundation of his turnaround every time.  We can learn from that.  Different is about deciding whether to offer French cuisine or Asian; it's about choosing a target audience.  Better is about whether your food will taste good.

So we are also growing because some of the things we've always done are simply being done better than before (and our goal is to keep getting better). There is still an audience for churches that are somewhat as they have always been - except that many of our churches aren't executing well enough.  Traditional music and preaching doesn't have to be boring.  Liturgy doesn't have to be read s..l..o..w..l..y. 

So before you get too fixated on starting something different, invest some energy into making sure that what you already do is being done as well as it can be done.  The problem may not be what's on the menu, the problem may be what's going on the plate.

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