In the church labeling business, contemporary doesn’t mean a lot

Healthy churches constantly introduce new ideas and processes in order to sustain thriving congregations.

By Bud Wrenn

Some of the biggest misconceptions in the American church today come as the result of the labeling of individual churches. Churches have always been labeled. But those labels primarily have been associated with denominationalism. The church growth movement of the past 30 or more years has led to a broader variety of labels, often associated with worship style. In turn, worship style has come to be equated with musical style.

For example, words such as contemporary and innovative are used to distinguish a church from one that is traditional. The term traditional has come to represent the benchmark to determine how contemporary or innovative a church really is. Traditional typically characterizes a church that uses hymns, and perhaps instruments such as piano and organ. Any musical style that is characterized by more modern praise choruses (even those that may embody 70s style popular music), or uses any other instruments than piano or organ, will always be labeled contemporary by some.

Labeling in the church is very subjective. The label is defined in the mind of the individual, and is shaped by the preferences, tastes and experiences of the individual. One person’s traditional church is another’s blended church. One’s contemporary church is someone else’s traditional church.

Label confusion

This confusion of labeling has led to a couple of words — contemporary and innovative — coming to be used almost interchangeably. But these words are not the same. In the purest sense, contemporary, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is defined as:

  1. Belonging to the same period of time: a fact documented by two contemporary sources.
  2. Of about the same age.
  3. Current; modern: contemporary trends in design.

However, despite this dictionary definition we use the word to describe worship styles that incorporate music and other elements that don’t belong to the same period of time. The true idea of being contemporary is like shooting at a moving target. Anything that is truly contemporary must be in a nearly constant state of continuous change in order to keep pace with a changing environment. In that regard, no church can be completely contemporary in a pure sense.

In the church labeling business the word contemporary has become a relative term. It’s most often used to refer to any church characterized by a style that is not traditional.

Successfully redefine failure

The other word in that interchangeable pair, innovative, has a totally different meaning. Being innovative has more to do with operating in a mode in which new things are regularly being introduced. An innovative organization or church might be known as one that:

  • Is willing to try new things
  • Encourages its people to come up with new ideas and put them into place
  • Allows experimentation
  • Doesn’t get overly concerned with failure

The innovative organization successfully redefines failure and sees in it the opportunity to learn new things that will enhance chances for success in the future.

An innovative congregation, then, is a congregation that is willing to do new things, regardless of whether they may look contemporary, traditional, modern or postmodern. The innovative congregation is one that will do new things because it is the right thing to do. It innovates with purpose and intentionality, not just doing something new for the sake of doing something new. Rather, it has in mind a larger picture, one that innovation will help the congregation move toward. The truly innovative congregation will know:

  • When something new is needed
  • How to figure out what is needed
  • What purpose the innovation will serve
  • What success with the innovation will look like

So what is innovation? Innovation in a congregation is not defined by style of music, the accepted attire for those who attend worship services, or the use of drama and multimedia in services.

Proactive decision processes

An innovative approach to ministry has more to do with the way decisions are made and executed. For example, the innovative congregation will be characterized by a culture that emphasizes staying in touch with external and internal environmental factors and decision processes that are proactive and allow for timely and effective response to changes in those environmental factors.

So a church being labeled contemporary doesn’t really say a whole lot — simply that it’s not traditional. On the other hand, it is important that a church earn the label “innovative” and live up to it. That is what Jesus calls his church to be.

There are several things a congregation must key on if it is to be truly innovative.

First, there needs to be an awareness of what is going on inside the church. This is much easier said than done. The leadership of the typical congregation has very little first hand exposure to what is really going on in the lives of its members. Leaders may spend as little as an hour per week with the rest of the congregation. With this relatively small amount of direct contact time it is difficult to know what is really going on. It is so easy for leaders to misread the state of the congregation, as their assessments are most likely based on what they observe during these times of direct contact.

Second, church leadership needs a keen awareness of what is going on in and around the community, region and state where the church is located.  These external factors will invariably affect the congregation as a whole, just as they affect the members as individuals. So often slight shifts in external factors that have relatively small impact on individual members can have much more pronounced collective effects on entire congregations. The effects of these shifts are often underestimated and even go undetected.

The third
critical element in an innovative approach has to do with the responsiveness of the congregation with regard to these internal and external factors.  While awareness of these factors is a must, it is not nearly enough. The congregation must have the ability to read and assess the impact of shifts and to act accordingly. In other words, the congregation’s decision-making process must be nimble.

The bureaucratic congregation

A truly innovative congregation is one that embodies these three qualities. At the other end of the spectrum is the bureaucratic congregation. The purely bureaucratic congregation is one that is much less likely to take into account the state of its people and internal and external environmental factors. The bureaucracy is much more likely to operate in the manner it has always operated.

Procedures have been deeply engrained in the organizational structure and they seldom change. Often, it appears the organization exists for the purpose of self-perpetuation rather than for the benefit of any customer or client base. As long as the typical bureaucracy can function and perform well enough, it will continue in that mode.

Congregations are just as susceptible to becoming bureaucratic as any company — perhaps more so. As a matter of fact, in an absence of intentionality toward innovation, congregations will most likely default into becoming a bureaucracy — likely a far cry from Jesus’ vision for his church.

It can be pretty comfortable being a part of a bureaucracy. The bureaucracy for all its lack of flexibility, can provide a great ride for those who desire to work or live in a mode that will require little disturbance. Many who just want to get by and who don’t care about excellence, can find a home in a bureaucratic organization. They are not likely to get pushed to perform at a level that would challenge the status quo of the organization or that would challenge their own level of comfort.

Waste of time, money and efficiency

The tough side of life in a bureaucracy is that anyone who chooses to be a part of one will have to put up with some unpleasant stuff. In a bureaucracy, there is so much waste that comes in the wake of its operation; a waste of time, money and efficiency. The bureaucracy is typically absorbed with perpetuating itself at nearly any cost.

In a bureaucracy, much of this waste comes from a focus on the wrong measure of success. The measuring stick, or metric, is often one that makes the organization look good right now, with little regard for longer term health of the organization or those it serves. Having a short-term metric often leads to micromanagement and often a serious suppression of the organization members’ senses of freedom and creativity.

Churches are quite susceptible to this trap; congregations are not generally known as havens for good leadership practices.

Churches are usually run by part-time volunteer committees, whose members with limited time trying to balance all the other demands on their time, often try to just keep things going. This often means doing things the way we have always done them.

In contrast to the bureaucracy the innovative organization knows its purpose and is committed to fulfilling it. Three clear aspects of the innovative organization distinguish it from the bureaucracy.

First, leaders in the innovative organization do their best to do the right thing for the organization, regardless of politics, public perception or personal gain. They are willing to make the tough decisions, to do the hard stuff and to endure inconvenience. In the innovative congregation this may take the form of a children’s ministry team making a recommendation or a difficult decision that is best for the children’s ministry, even if it means going against the desires of some of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the congregation.

Second, the innovative organization’s approach is focused on the overall health of the organization and of those it serves. An innovative congregation values evangelism, but they value the healthy integration of converts into the local church body just as well.

An evangelism team, with its eye on a denominational award for baptisms, may forego an opportunity to stage a big-time evangelistic crusade if it feels that the discipleship department isn’t adequately staffed to handle follow-up with potential converts.

Third, the innovative organization may actually sacrifice short-term numbers for long-term health. For example, let’s say an organization is faced with choosing between two options. The first option is the organization can bring to market this year three products with marginal profit potential and in doing so meets its forecasted objective for current year product introduction.

The second option is the organization can introduce one of those products this year and invest its product development funds into two high profit-potential products that will come to market in two to three years. In doing this the organization will miss its product introduction goal for the current year, but will enhance future profitability — perhaps beyond three years down the road.

The bureaucracy will likely choose the first option, while the truly innovative organization will choose the second course of action.

Bureaucracies can indeed be a comfortable place to work but there are significant costs associated with the waste that comes out of bureaucratic operations. Innovative organizations on the other hand, are much more concerned with doing the right things and doing them the right way. Innovative organizations are much better equipped to handle the inconveniences that come with making tough decisions.

Bud Wrenn is pastor of Integrity Community Church, Burlington, NC and coordinator of the Innovative Church Community. In early 2009 Chalice Press will publish his new book, The Church in 4D: Intentional Planning for Your Church’s Future. [www.integritycommunity.org]

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