The Attractiveness of Church Services for Outsiders
Regularly you hear the question "How attractive are our services for outsiders?" Asking this question often comes from the assumption that the church service must be attractive to outsiders. Equally often the question arises from the notion that the present liturgy repels outsiders and is not particularly inviting and understandable.
When we think about how the present church service is perceived by outsiders, we are forced to conclude that outsiders are constantly confronted with incomprehensible texts, acts and customs. According to us, the church service has little or no connection with the culture outside its walls. The chance that with and in a church service you then will reach outsiders is slim. Not for nothing, there is the phenomenon of "welcoming-services", church services specifically designed for outsiders.
Often it is argued that it is high time for us to tinker more with the church services, so that they become more attractive to outsiders (and insiders). After all the church has a message to the world; also in her services. And that is good enough reason to make the church service more attractive to outsiders.
Yet, you can ask yourself whether it's all that simple. The question how attractive the church service is for outsiders, however, is connected with a number of other questions that cannot be ignored. Without formulating definitive and sufficiently argued answers in this article, I will touch on a few of these. My purpose is to indicate that the question of attractiveness of the church services for outsiders cannot be isolated from, for example, our view of the church service.
View of the Church Service
It will not be necessary here to argue that the church has a missionary task in this world. In how far, however, this task must be determinative for the church service, is something altogether different. The church after all has just as well (and perhaps even primarily!) a liturgical task: the adoration and glorifying of God.
In line with this you can ask yourself in how far attractiveness of the church service for outsiders is really relevant. We are here not only dealing with a missionary question, but also with a liturgical one.
Within our churches there is, in the last few decades, an increasing interest in the church service in all its facets. From the Fifties of the previous century people like G. van Rongen and C. Trimp in their various publication have contributed fundamentally to the re-evaluation process. Since 1986 there exists a Work group-Worship which studies and provides information about the church service. Furthermore, since Synod Ommen (1993) there are now Deputies for Worship and on a local level many liturgy committees are active.
There has then, in the last couple of years, been a lot of study of the church service by a number of different organization. Yet, it strikes me that the central liturgical questions are all but answered in the same way. You can think here of questions such as "what is a church service?" and "what is the object of a church service?" In discussions, about liturgical subjects it appears again and again that opinions diverge. This difference becomes particularly clear in the totally different way people work out concrete liturgical matters. So one group wants to give ample room to the evangelical song repertoire, while another wants to have nothing to do with it whatsoever. So one group wants as much as possible the use of everyday language in the service, while the other also wants to show by means of language use that the church service is something else than a cozy chitchat.
The attractiveness of the church services for outsiders is another subject about which there are different opinions because there is no uniform vision with regard to the basic liturgical questions.
As clarification the following — purposely formulated to the extreme — example: you may support the thought that the value and attractiveness of the church service depends especially on the question whether those present (church members and none-members) have been able to profit from the sermon; have learned something from it: you can then especially see the church service as a form (sermon with a before and after programme) in which the cognitive knowledge of faith must be passed on. A kind of "massive catechism class" for church members and other interested parties.
It is in this cognitive-liturgy view not strange when you, somewhat worried, conclude that certain groups of people (for example, children and outsiders) threaten to fall by the wayside, because the sermon is "too difficult" for them and too much directed towards the confessing members. When the rest of the service is a mere side issue you are saddled with a problem. The problem of attractiveness of the church service for outsiders could then be largely solved when the minister in his sermon strongly takes the non-confessing members into account.
The Essence of Church Services
When we want to say something sensible about the attractiveness of the church services for outsiders, we must first consider the question what the church service in essence is.
According to me, there are good grounds for stating that the church service is in the first place for the church as the people of God. We have services because God wants to meet his people at regular times and be adored by them. In the church services everything revolves around God's people who — together with the universal, apostolic church and the church in heaven — wish to remember God's deeds, whereby she is build up in faith and equipped for her task in the world.
The attractiveness of church services for outsiders is subordinate to this. Note well: subordinate — for of course each church service has a message for the world and we, therefore, ought not to construct and maintain unnecessary barriers, that needlessly prevent outsiders from participating.
On the other hand you cannot simply attune the church service to outsiders "who once and a while come to take a look." Each church service regardless of the question of how it has been ordered, presupposes a certain measure of knowledge about the Christian faith. The church, after all, gives form to her faith in a church service. You can see this in both a negative and positive light; negatively, because it makes the church service inaccessible to outsiders and positively, because it can function excellently as a clarification of some of the aspects of the Christian faith to outsiders, because the church service is so insolubly tied to this faith.
To mention a few examples. Why do we (at the beginning of the service) confess our guilt? Why do we pray for the illumination of the Spirit prior to reading Scripture? Why do we confess our faith at the end of the service after the sermon and before the celebration of the Lord's Supper?
The answers to these and similar questions have to do with the "basic principles" (content) of our faith. An order of service is more than a mere form that is interchangeable with any other imaginable form. Orders of service give form to faith. In and outside the worship service it becomes clear who God is for us and who we want to be for Him.
Viewed this way, the church service can be an excellent and valuable means and occasion to speak with outsiders about the Gospel! Or to speak about the trinity "faith-law-prayer" that takes an important place in our catechism instruction and in the church service. This, however, means that you must have good Orders of Service to begin with. Further, that the members of the congregation are well informed about the "how, what and why" of the church service.
Target Groups and Niche Marketing
Sometimes you hear it argued that changes in language and music, for example, can increase the attractiveness of the church service for outsiders. Apart from the question whether you can and must design church services that are attractive to outsiders, I believe that such measures at best will only have limited effect.
The big problem will always be and remain to be: what is the target group for which you wish to tailor the use of language and music? It is after all clear that the group "outsiders" consists of totally different people and is nowhere near a homogenous group. It certainly makes a difference whether a church is made attractive for an educated business men who continues to develop himself generally, for example, or for a youth whose entire "cultural" life exclusively consists of MTV and hockey.
If you want to make the church service a little more attractive for young people, then you must, among others, drastically change the present church music practice. And, therefore, not come with a soft gospel group or a weak extract of a music genre from the current pop culture. If you wish at this point to make the service more attractive for the business man than you probably have to use other music genres.
All this also means that to my taste it is nonsense to plead, for example, for the liturgical use of "Praise and Worship" music, as if you were in some "with-it" way busy with reaching out to contemporary unbelievers. There are loads of unchurched people you will never get inside the church building precisely because of this "contemporary praise". You will only reach people who for one or another reason are attracted by (or perhaps addicted to?) contemporary praise.
What has been said about music also holds true for the use of language. In short, with these kinds of interventions you select a certain group of outsiders and at best reach a small or larger percentage. In this, it can also become immediately clear that with a motley mix of styles and genres, you only get a meaningless, neutrally-flavoured whole. I am convinced that it is better to choose another point of entry. The beginning of the attractiveness ought to be founded on the fact that the church service in a good way gives form to matters that the church stands for.
Mouth and Deeds
Let me clarify this with an example. The church confesses God as creator of heaven and earth. Furthermore, she confesses that the creation and all creation gifts are given to glorify His Name. Well then, let this be seen and heard in a church service and give form to it in a good way. That has consequences for the manner you handle the gifts of creation such as language and music. As church you don't resign yourself to inferior quality. You will wish to get the very best out of the available possibilities. God wants to be praised by and with his creation. That then is another starting point than to let yourself primarily be guided by the question whether something is attractive to outsiders as well.
Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the attractiveness of a church service is not solely dependent on the question whether outsiders comprehend everything that occurs in the building. The building itself, for example, is important as well. As yet, outsiders sooner walk into a beautiful Roman-Catholic church building. In any case, our church buildings are generally locked during the week, by which we certainly know that people literally move past our door.
With this we want to say, that the church building, the interior design, and its furnishings, have something to say about the attractiveness of the church service for outsiders (and insiders!).
In Western society, where so many styles and customs in all kinds of areas, it is a perilous undertaking to search for an average, a common denominator with which you could make a church service attractive for outsiders. In our modern society almost every group has its own style, custom, and usage. Why may the church then not have her own style and customs in various areas?
On the subject of the church service, no matter how, much depends on credibility. The way in which the church service, and everything that happens in it, takes place must be convincing and credible. What you confess with your mouth, must be in agreement with your liturgical deeds.
So, I think, that you are not very convincingly busy when on the one hand you make clear to an outsider that the church service is a holy and imposing meeting between God and his people, while the outsider on the other hand feels that before, during, and after the service has drifted into a noisy chicken coop, where the latest news and gossip is exchanged. Or, to mention another example: you can postulate that the prayer, confession, glorification in and by the congregation is essentially important. When, however, this takes place in the church service by means of a song, sung by a spiritless singing congregation, you for the most part do not even convince the insiders, let alone the outside guests. This then also means that when you as an organist take your task seriously and take care of quality, you are just as well busy with the missionary task of the church as is the committee for evangelism.
In summary: I believe that before you will be able to enter into the spirit of the worship service, you will have to clarify the how and why of a church service to outsiders (that, however, holds true for members by baptism as well). Whether or not the service then will be attractive depends particular on the question whether you, in a good way, have given liturgical form to your faith. Matters such as authenticity, truth, integrity play a fundamental role in this.