Creating the Frankenchurch Monster

I sometimes get accused of being negative.  Okay, fine, this post is definitely negative.  However, it is not a blaming or accusing post.  It is merely writing-frankensteindescribing something bizarre and ugly — patchwork bodies of Christ, slapping together bits and pieces (s0me dead) to create a well-intentioned mockery of life.  Harsh?  You bet.  But the Frankenstein monster — as well intentioned as he might have been — was a monster nonetheless.  Many of our patchwork churches — no less well-intentioned — produce some pretty monstrous results as well.

When I travelled as a consultant for congregational revitalization, the number one question I asked was, “Why?”  Why do you offer worship?  Why do you preach a sermon?  Why do you have a Sunday school?  Why do you have a worship committee (when the pastor/music director makes all the decisions?)  Why do you only have one service?  Why do you have more than one service?  Why?  Why?  Why?  I always pushed to have people explain the rationale and justification of everything they were doing as a church.  Want to know something troubling, though?  Most church leaders struggled to answer the “why” question? 

We offer worship because we’re a church and that’s what churches do.

We have Sunday school because the parents expect it.

We have one service because everyone needs to be together.

We have two services so we can reach more people.

We have a worship committee so that someone will change the paraments.

Lots of answers, but no real explanations.  Without clarity about “why” we do something, what we do doesn’t much matter.  And what we don’t do doesn’t much matter, either.  Holy Communion services that discard confession, pardon, invitation and the Great Thanksgiving; baptismal services that allow no congregational response or affirmation; worship services lacking an offering or invitation to discipleship, sanctuaries without crosses, Bibles, and candles; worship services with no scriptures read, no prayers prayed.  Instead, there is a hodge-podge of often unrelated songs, skits, movie/TV colin_cliveclips, or “exercises to open our Spirit wells.”  Crooked projection screens, tangles of wires, drum kits, music stands, and laptop computers compete for space at the chancel, and huge soundboards, projectors, speakers, and lights crowd the sanctuary.  Am I against technology and progress?  By no means.  It’s just that over the crackle and buzz in many sanctuaries I can distinctly hear Colin Clive shriek, “IT’s ALIVE!”

Many of our older facilities resist being upgraded.  It is sad to enter many churches designed for an earlier time modified to handle coffee shops, book stores, video arcades, welcome centers, DVD kiosks, etc.  They end up looking like crazed evangelical Robo-Cops, metal and plastic protruding from old, worn, polished wood.  The intention is to make our outdated facilities more appealing to a modern (post-modern?) crowd, but is that what happens?

In many different surveys with the young, the younger, the spiritual seeker, and those unaffiliated with the church, the overall impact of our best efforts is not impressive.  The following comments represent different responses at different times over a fifteen year period.  They all refer to churches attempts to be modern, appealing, contemporary, or cool:

It’s like when my mom wears my clothes?  I can never wear them again because I can’t get the picture of how gnarly she looks in them out of my head?  This church is like that.  It’s really embarrassing.

My uncle never throws anything away, so his house always looks like a rummage sale about to happen.  Cramming all the instruments in that sanctuary makes me think of my uncle’s house.

The cafe next to the church library and the information desk by the nursery?  It kind of looks like a mall, but not a good mall.  It looks like one of those sad malls.

That little dinky crooked screen and the little projector?  That was just weird.  If you’re going to do it that badly, don’t do it at all.

It didn’t feel like church and it didn’t feel like NOT church.  A guy in our neighborhood bought this really beautiful old house, the he painted it purple and put all this modern sculpture around it.  Everybody that drives by goes, “what the hell?”  All the modern stuff in the old sanctuary reminds me of that guy’s house.

Man, I would love to have those speakers and the big screens, but that was painful.  The acoustics in that room sucked.  That is like the wrong room for that kind of power.

They have all this incredible equipment, but they don’t know how to use it.  They have that awesome projection system and they show these boring slides.  The timing and transitions were way off on the music and it looked like they were just learning how to use it.  It was very distracting.

This is like a place that doesn’t know what it wants to be.

I feel like this church is embarrassed to be a church and it really wants to be liked, so it does cool stuff to make people forget it’s a church and like it better.  If it doesn’t want to be a church, it should just be something else, because this is lame.

The poor use of equipment, technology, space, music, media, people, food, and other resources is worse than not using them at all.  In the same way the Frankenstein monster is a mockery of life, Frankenchurch monstrosities are a mockery of spiritual community.  It isn’t that we shouldn’t do these things.  It isn’t that we don’t need both space and grace to learn how to do them.  The point I am making is that too often we simply slap together what everyone else is doing without fully integrating WHY we want to do something with trying to do it.  Almost universally, research shows that a poor use of technology is more off-putting than the non-use of technology.  Some interesting research into technology use in churches shows that most churches overbuy technology — purchasing technology that they don’t need and never use.  For example, I went into a church recently that had a professional soundboard, but they had taped down 80% of the switches and knobs because they didn’t use or need them.  In another church I found “stadium” projectors that actually raised the room temperature because they were so strong.  Having too much or too good or too powerful is no better than having inadequate.

Slapdash, patchwork imitations of well-designed, well-executed, integrated change look bad and do more damage than good.  The desire to have what others have and do what others do is seductive, but unless we can do it well, we probably shouldn’t do it at all.  With many young moderns we are losing all credibility.  They look at cheap imitation and poor attempts to mimic quality and they dismiss the church as a sham.  People don’t need any more excuses to think we don’t know what we’re doing.

Why do we do the kind of worship we do?  How well do we do it?  Why do we offer educational and formational experiences in our churches?  What is required to do them well?  Why do we want to use technology?  How does it enhance (or detract) from what we are trying to convey?  It isn’t that we shouldn’t add new techniques, technologies, and tricks into our worship and learning life, but we should always attempt to do so as seamlessly and with as much integrity as possible.  Otherwise, the monster we create may break from our control and do a lot more damage than we bargain for.

22 replies

  1. Frankenchurch…what a great image to visualize.

    When I ask ‘why’ about worship at “First Church” I feel a little guilty – for instance, I was feeling guilty for making a fuss a week or so ago about including the Thanksgiving over the water at an upcoming Baptism…too many words said our Sr. Pastor. Yikes! “I’m just not as ‘liturgical’ as you are,” Sr. Pastor said…sigh…

    Thanks for encouraging me to start whipping out this important and powerful little word!

  2. As one of those young “post modern” people with my eye on the exit, I have to say that, for me, the fundamental problem lies in the answers to the “why?” question.

    I don’t even have to think twice. Jesus, that’s why. Glorification of the Father, that’s why. Truth, that’s why. Without a foundation of _that_ we just build a house of empty phrases and idolatry.

    Great site, and keep up the excellent work.

  3. Dan – thanks for the post. (I’ve been quietly lurking for a while now.) Even if “negative,” it’s an important reminder. A friend shared with me in college an old quote: “remember who you are and what you are doing.” Sometimes, in the rush to be and do more as a congregation (particularly as a “new” church), it’s easy to forget the core. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I’m a young pastor with a heart for both traditional and emergent forms of worship. Every month or so, I throw the congregation for a loop. One Sunday we painted a rainbow on six canvases and painted in what the promise of God after the flood meant to us. (We are in Iowa – floods are powerfully scary things!!!) Those canvases still are hanging in the chancel area of our sanctuary.

    Two weeks ago, we did prayer stations around the sanctuary during the sermon and filled bags with sand representing our sins. We sang very very traditional hymns “Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast” among them, but our psalter for the day was a video we projected on our dinky little portable screen.

    We haven’t installed anything professional yet. And our technology set-up is kind of sad. It’s my laptop, hooked up to a projector I got the memorial committee to buy. We finally got the sound running through the system – although I have to admit with a little embarassment that we used my portable computer speakers for a little while.

    But those moments we are able to use technology I think have been meaningful. I don’t do it unless it helps the message. But for that service, having psalm 51 cycling through in the background with gregorian chant echoing through the sanctuary – it was powerful.

    Maybe it’s because we have the why question figured out – at least about how/why we use technology in the worship space. We use it in an authentic way – not just to try to please the crowd, or look cool and postmodern.

    • I want to reiterate — it is more about the integrity of what we’re trying to do than the look… and there is a learning curve where we won’t have everything down perfect. I support finding ways to communicate that are non-traditional and visual, but in my research I found that many people — both in the church and outside it — don’t always “get” what the church is trying to do. And this is not just in worship. It is the patchwork, slapped-together, unclear intentions results that leave people cold and make them feel the church doesn’t know what it is doing. Where there is a clear intention and what is being done really “fits,” most people don’t complain if the execution is a bit rough. Introducing new (and old) things is not good or bad in and of itself, it is how well the new things are woven seamlessly into the larger picture. I am very glad you are having such good and meaningful experiences.

  5. At my Baptist Church in South Africa, we worship because God is God Most High. We gather together to praise Him for the amazing things He does in our, and other’s, lives. We worship Him because we belong to Him and we are nothing without Christ. We listen so we can hear what God has to say: His instructions, teaching, admonishment and encouragement. And we check that everything is in line with the Bible. Our worship is not confined to Sundays, but to every day of our lives. Our pastors and elders constantly urge us to draw closer to Christ. They love God so much that it makes my heart melt. We choose leaders according to biblical criteria and nothing else. Our leaders do nothing without waiting for clear instructions from God first. this has ‘rubbed off’ on the congregation.

    • Thank you for sharing this reflective and clear description — your ability to share your “why. The better we can tell our “why,” to witness to our core beliefs and practices, the more faithful and effective we will be. Again, at the core, it is all about integrity.

  6. As one who thinks that your blogs are often-times negative, I completely and wholeheartedly agree with this one! I resonate with the comments by people that you included. It is frustrating to see congregations trying to become something other than the good thing God was shaping them into for their context all because they think by adding a projector or wearing blue jeans at worship they are becoming “relevant.”

    When will we learn the three rules of realty for the church? (context, context, context.) What works in one city may not work in another. What works for one church may not work for another.

    Now, where and how are churches getting it right?

    Peace,
    Jeff

    • I want to encourage people who feel they are doing it right to respond. I try not to “out” churches — either those doing poorly or those doing well — by name. I have been told by so many vital churches that they are not interested in being a model or example for others to study. They ask not to be identified for exactly the reason you name — context. Where it is being done well, its success is based on the fact that there is radical integrity matching the community of faith to its processes and practices. Their answer is their answer. I always teach that no one else has your answer. Working out our own salvation with fear and trembling is a big part of becoming the church God needs us to be. That said, if you feel you have a story of real effectiveness defeating the Frankenchurch, please tell it, share it, and offer examples that show what can be done.

  7. Our church has become a mishmash of the old and the new… we own an 1882 church building and have gone through a very intense renovation….four years ago, nobody new about our church–even though it was located in downtown Indy–in a great neighborhood on busy streets. I had driven passed the place hundreds of times and thought it was closed down…. last month we were voted BEST HOUSE OF WORSHIP by our alternative weekly newspaper here…. this is what they wrote:

    Best house of worship: Lockerbie Central UMC

    At Lockerbie Central, worship is just one form of expression for a community with a conscious. These progressive Methodists also clothe and feed the homeless, run an organic café, screen documentaries about social issues, display local artwork and host poetry slams, yoga, dancers and drum circles. They describe themselves as a “lay-led” congregation and “strive to worship in a communal and conversational manner,” designing services based on discussion in meetings and on their blog. It’s hard to find the line between their congregation and their community space — and that’s a good thing. http://www.lockerbiecentral.com, 237 N. East St., 637-2716

    Yep we tore apart our community room and build a coffee shop (thus ridding ourselves of years of fake plastic plants and ugly carpet), we ripped out our pews, tore down our organ, and built a performance stage and installed a high quality projector and screen.

    we are still a small church–we beat the biggest methodist church in the state for that award though–but atleast people know what we are about and have become very much part of the cultural heartbeat of our city.

    • Cool! I’m looking forward to visiting sometime. We need more examples of doing it well. And by the way, I absolutely love the Lockerbie Central YouTube video on your website. Excellent.

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