Why a Worship Service That Shouldn't Work is Working
Our first value at TCPC is “A corporate worship that reflects the transcendence and immanence of God.” It is God and his nature that form and direct our liturgy, song, prayers, and preaching each week, not so much the tide of opinion. (Although unlike some “traditional” churches, we do think the preferences of people is a God honoring discussion to have and consider)
Because of this, Sunday mornings at TCPC are an anomaly for many. I don’t preach in jeans (skinny or baggy); I preach in a robe. Our meeting space is not a modern auditorium with big screens; it is classic architecture with wood pews. The service itself isn’t a new and fresh production each week; it is a liturgical routine with common practices. We are not an independent non-denominational church with the freedom to do what we want; we belong to a very conservative confessional denomination with high doctrinal standards. Our music is from a hymnal, accompanied by a choir, and led by an organ. In other words, our church shouldn’t work. And yet the Lord is filling our pews with a diverse demographic. This comes as a surprise to many and to be honest, I understand their confusion. We readily admit that TCPC breaks the mold of your typical Evangelical church.
So how is this possible? There are many answers to that question, the primary one being the sheer grace of God, but I want to offer four reasons why TCPC is flourishing despite the fact that the design of our Sunday morning services probably breaks every church growth strategy there is.
1. Members are the primary gatherers rather than the service itself.
At TCPC we believe the most effective ministry is bound up in the lives of our members, and this is actually a novel concept in the modern Evangelical Church. The predominant strategy is to create excellent, cutting-edge, extremely contextualized worship services that will, on their own merit, draw people in or at minimum make it very easy for members to invite friends. If that were our strategy then our worship would look a whole lot different than it does. But we are convinced that strategy, though initially very effective, yields shallow unsustainable growth.
Of course there are those who are drawn to TCPC because they are looking for traditional worship, but for the most part, our service does not fit the preferences of the community at large. And certainly if you are a member of TCPC it is “harder” to invite friends. But we are comfortable with that. We believe relationships, not technique, is the most effective way to grow and sustain a church. If the members do the more arduous work of loving their neighbor and investing in lives, they could invite them to a snake handling revival and they would come. And when people come because someone has loved them well and invited them, they typically stay and get plugged in.
In some ways, we are glad it is a bit awkward to invite friends to our services. It forces our people to build relationships, love people well, explain why we do what we do, and yes, even teach them to worship (worship is the learned language of God’s people). That is significantly more difficult than inviting someone to a service you know will be entertaining, but we believe it is more effective in the long run.
2. How you do things is more important than what you do.
The traditional elements of worship are not the problem as much as how they are performed. In other words, the liturgy is not as important as how the church enacts the liturgy. People tend to think that having a high form of liturgy is what makes traditional worship boring to so many. But have they ever experienced this form of liturgy passionately enacted by a participatory congregation? Have they heard a call to worship thunderously shouted; have they experienced the eerie silence of lament and confession; have they heard a people with one voice of conviction confessing their faith together; have they heard a skilled choir leading a congregation in singing hymns with lyrically complex truths; have they heard an organ in an acoustically rich sanctuary with all the stops pulled out?
Most people have never experienced traditional worship at its best, because quite honestly, there aren’t that many churches doing it well. At TCPC we are convinced that style of worship is far less important than the ethos of the worshiping community. And we have learned that typically people are pleasantly surprised when they encounter traditional worship done with excellence, and though it may be an acquired taste, they grow to love, appreciate, and yes, prefer it.
3. People don’t want to witness our poor attempt at imitating the culture.
I’m going to let everyone in on a little secret; the church in our day is being laughed at by the world. The evangelical technique of the 90’s that simply imitated pop culture has run its course and is now seen by the world at large for what it is—a very poor attempt by the Church to be something we are not. I liken this technique to parents trying to be cool. When parents try to dress like their kids, use the vernacular of their kids, and keep up with the trends of their kids, it never works. It comes across as so disingenuous and cheesy. Kids just want their parents to be who they are, and they love them for who they are.
When we take our worship service and try to recreate the feel of the current cultural trends, we aren’t fooling anyone. And certainly, we do not impress anyone. I think the world is reacting against that movement and is intrigued, once again, by authentic Christianity with its authentic worship. They don’t want us imitating their concerts; they want us to be ourselves. It is our worship, our Scriptures, our creeds, confession, and prayers, our liturgical practices, which nobody else has.
This is what we do that nobody else can do, and people want us to authentically do that with excellence. If you were to visit a foreign country and discover a cheap imitation of American culture you would be disappointed. You want to see and experience the culture of that country. Of course it will be awkward, of course you will be lost and confused at times, but at least the experience will be authentic.
Worship, though contextualized, is not supposed to imitate the culture, but instead embody a new culture, namely the culture of Gods’ Kingdom. It is the sacred space where the ways and practices of the Kingdom of God are on display, and this is what the world around us is hungering to see and experience. They don’t need or want to experience a rather poor imitation of what they always experience. They want to experience Christian worship in its rawest and truest forms.
4. The preaching of the Word is our priority.
Time and time again we hear the same thing at TCPC; we came because of the preaching of God’s Word. They think we are crazy for baptizing babies; they think we are apostate for confessing belief in “the holy catholic church;” they find the hymns a bit strange, the pews a bit uncomfortable, the robes a bit scary, but it matters not. They know that each week a preacher will stand behind a pulpit, open a Bible, and feed their soul with expository exaltation.
It is so simple and yet so neglected. Churches spend millions of dollars on specialized staff and relevant programs, but for the most part, it still comes down to preaching. God’s people are starving, now more than ever, for an anointed, trained, studious, contemplative, bold, passionate prophet to open the Bible and preach it to them. And this has always been the priority of TCPC. Our session is simply unwilling to compromise the preaching of God’s Word, and God continues to bless that commitment.
If you have never visited TCPC, we would love for you to join us on a Sunday morning. It may not be what you would expect, but you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.