I was in relatively warm Orlando visiting friends last Christmas when I attended Sunday services at College Park Baptist Church. I am a former pastor there, and now the pastor no longer wears a necktie for Sunday morning worship.
This is a change for the church as I always wore a suit and necktie for Sunday morning worship. For me it had to do with dignity in worship, wearing “Sunday best,” meeting God in worship, and positioning the church in the overall Orlando church market. Of course, my perspective was a bit counter-cultural in the Orlando area.
Orlando is Disney, beaches, sun and as friendly a place as you will ever live; welcoming visitors and new residents is economically beneficial in Orlando. And consequently, this culture is reflected in typical Sunday morning dress.
Even when I wore my Sunday best, most people did not; maybe 45 percent of the men wore neckties to worship in my years at the church (2000-07). Now that percent is probably down to 25 or less.
I share a few observations:
Local churches are rooted in a specific cultural context.
I served as a pastor in four very different settings: Danville, Va.; Richmond, Va.; Asheville, N.C.; and Orlando, Fla. Each cultural setting had its wonderful strengths and interesting challenges. What worked in Richmond did not work in Asheville and most certainly did not work in Orlando. To be successful, churches have to be sensitive, even hyper-sensitive, to their cultural settings.
Every spring in my rural setting outside Danville, I would go garden visiting. When people were putting in their vegetable gardens, I would make the rounds and stop by for “conversations at the end of the row.” They would tell me what they were planting, including what seemed to grow especially well in their particular soil. I asked about fertilizer and types of tomatoes; I inspected farm equipment and admired new tractors.
Of course, I have little use for gardening myself. I do not care about tractors and fertilizers. “Conversations at the end of the row” were one way of letting people know I cared about them and what was important to them.
Two miles from downtown Orlando, almost in the center of 1.5 million residents, people were not into vegetable gardens, but they loved quaint local restaurants.
There are many ways to do ministry.
My way of doing ministry is just one way – not the only way. And so the pastor at College Park in Orlando does not wear a necktie on Sunday mornings. From my perspective, the church is still doing very well.
People who had some trouble connecting with me seem to connect with the new pastor quite well. Worship is still vibrant and culturally relevant. People seem to look forward to worship. Attendance is good. The church’s pastor is attempting to position the church more in the mainstream of the culture. And it is working.
While I would never have agreed to a one-day offering for missions on the Sunday before Christmas, the new pastor (and church) pulled it off and it was highly successful. I was surprised; apparently, there are many ways to do successful ministry.
Vibrant change is a natural sign of life.
Change happens, whether we live or die; even the dead deteriorate in well-protected coffins. The ministerial task is to guide change in a way that grows the kingdom and strengthens local ministry.
This is an exceedingly difficult task, requiring the minister to find a way to combine the flow of the larger culture and the hopes and dreams of a church. I have sometimes used the image of catching a wave.
In Asheville, we wove together a love of missions, a desire to become personally involved (hands on), and a need to move the church past old hurts into a missional program we called Asheville First. We involved 300 volunteers in a small construction ministry to Asheville’s neediest.
It succeeded in doing two things: It helped hundreds of low-income families, and it helped the congregation focus on the needs of hurting people – folks with real problems.
While most in Asheville saw the program as helping poor people, I gave thanks for a program that moved the congregation from “licking old wounds” to focusing on the needs of a hurting world. There is no substitute for giving people something to do.
Modern ministers must see themselves as agents of change, or managers of change, taking advantage of natural movements and trends in the fabric of congregational life.