Who of us hasn't at one time or another found a nice science project in the cupboard, bread box, or refrigerator? As a genuine carb-oholic I'm not talking about wilted lettuce or limp green beans or brown oranges. I'm talking moldy or other-wise stale bread. If I had never baked a loaf of hot, fresh bread, or a pan of homemade from scratch biscuits, the green stuff in the back of the fridge wouldn't be so offensive. Having done so many times, the stale makes me gag.
Way back when I traveled the state as Director of Pastoral Ministries for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, stale and fresh became my personal comparative for churches. In a church world like this one, when so many different measures are used to characterize church life, it still holds value as a means of survey. Don't get me wrong, I'm not the final say in these things and no one put me in charge of more churches than the ones I served for just short of thirty five years. But, when I traveled, most of the pastors, deacon chairmen, and church leaders I met always wanted to know what I thought about their church. Now, in retirement, as I'm called upon to coach a few pastors, they want to know the same. Usually I give them total encouragement, words to honor them and the work they are leading. If pressed, I typically ask, "Are you sure you want to know?"
Fresh and stale are for me less divisive terms. Many of us wrongly pit the generations against one another with "old" and "young" comparisons, or "traditional" and "contemporary" styles. Of course, then, with all the emotion surrounding those terms the lines are drawn, sides taken, and people who are supposed to be brothers and sisters are demonized, one group or the other. The truth is, being in close to two hundred churches each year, I rarely ever used those distinctives when debriefing the leadership over a weekend visit. It was always "fresh" and "stale". I've been in churches that were as current as today's news but were still stale. I've been in ultra-traditional congregations that were bursting with freshness. In fact, worship style had little to do with it.
You see, Christ is alive, along with the Word of God, his church, the gospel message that is preached, and yessiree, the people he called out of darkness into light. There is a breathing, living quality in the new creation whereby old is gone and the new has come. Where this is clearly evident there is a warmth and joy which spills out of his people whether they're singing "Day is Dying in the West" or "10,000 Reasons". The lights and sound system and professional sounding music are seconded to people who cannot help but declare his praise. This kind of freshness has been seen in house churches in Central Asia and cathedrals in Eastern Europe. It ignites many of the African American churches, the language missions, church plants, and small churches in rural and urban settings. It's not the auditoriums or worship centers or sanctuaries or chapels that are lit, it's the people. Their faith is fresh, exciting, and visible. And, oit is usually catching.
Stale churches are just going through the motions, plodding through the same ol' same ol' with little emotion or or expression. When the benediction is spoken most of them are glad. And, the aroma of Christ that they take away from the church and into the world is one of staleness too. What is more it really is a hungry world, a world of people who are ready for something significant and lasting to happen in their lives. The thing is, they aren't hungry for stale and meaningless religion.
How does this freshness happen? Here's where we venture into another opinion category. I could be wrong. But, in my mind, the pastor leads the processional and sets the pace. His fresh faith, personal devotional life, and love for the Word are the thermostats that establish a sense of freshness in the people. God promised that his word would never return void. So, the faithful preaching and teaching of God's word is essential to maintain a fresh spirit among the people of God. But, it must ignite the heart of the leaders if it is to be preached with power and effect.
Most people know I prefer contemporary Christian music. Not all of it, but that which declares faithful doctrine, speaks the truth of the gospel, and honors Christ. Most of the old hymns give me great comfort and guidance since I've been singing them since birth. But, neither of them drive my personal worship---not the lights, sound, music, actions of the worship leader, or pace of the singing. My personal worship is driven by the newness he works in my life every day.
Jesus said, "But the new wine must be put into new wineskins" (Luke 5:38). That's what I'm talking about. Fresh, not stale.
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