What is the church’s role in today’s society?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 12, 2001

A part, yet apart. That’s how the Rev. Sam Tomlinson defines his view of the Christian church’s role in 21st century society.

&uot;We should as be, as well as a part, apart from society, in order to become cleansing,&uot; said Tomlinson, assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Church. &uot;The church should make sense, should be attractive to society but if we’re really doing our job we’re challenging people.&uot;

And in challenging people to think and grow, Tomlinson said, &uot;paradoxically, the church might become a little more popular.&uot;

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It’s an admittedly difficult balance, as Tomlinson knows from first-hand experience.

&uot;(The Episcopal church) is looked at by my own child as somewhat out-of-date,&uot; Tomlinson said. His son attends a Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., complete with theater seating, contemporary music and elaborate productions, even the informality of allowing congregation members to drink coffee or hot chocolate during the informal services.

&uot;I’m not sure I can get used to drinking hot chocolate in church,&uot; Tomlinson said. &uot;But on the other hand, I know God probably isn’t impressed with all my inhibitions.&uot;

But how much is enough? &uot;You don’t want the church to sell out and become a little reflection of society,&uot; Tomlinson said. Instead, scripture clearly points out that the Christian church &uot;should be a challenge to any society.&uot;

It’s a point of view that the Rev. Alfred Camp of St. Mary Basilica shares. &uot;The church is supposed to be countercultural,&uot; he said. &uot;It should not embrace, even accept, what is generally acceptable in our society . Even keeping the commandments is quite different from our ordinary way of thinking.&uot;

Camp cites the Beatitudes as an example. &uot;It says clearly, ‘blessed are the poor.’ Well, who wants to be poor in this day and age?&uot;

Does how we worship matter?

The formality of some religions – such as Roman Catholic or Episcopal – is in sharp contrast to the growing popularity of more informal, sensory and participatory worship services which seem to be growing in popularity.

At First Assembly of God, for example, the Rev. Doug Wright leads a lively worship. &uot;We have fairly contemporary music; we offer worship experiences that will appeal to young people.&uot;

And the church leaders are actively seeking ways to appeal to the &uot;modern person.&uot;

&uot;We realize we’ve got to change with the times. Not change the message of the Gospel, but change the communication,&uot; Wright said.

Even within the larger Christian church community, leaders of different denominations are realizing the Body of Christ is &uot;made up of many different faces and churches,&uot; he said. &uot;We’re not bringing a 1950s or 1960s approach (to formal religion). I don’t think people are so geared toward denominations as they used to be.&uot;

In fact, he said, many individuals are more likely to switch denominations based on the vitality of a congregation or its message. That leads to changes in congregation size based on swapping of membership instead of developing of new membership through reaching the unchurched.

And that &uot;unchurched&uot; population is the group most Natchez-area clerics hope to reach with their message.

The message remains the same

As the Rev. David deVries of First Presbyterian said, &uot;It’s the one message that is always relevant. I believe and it’s my experience that part of who I am needs to worship and be in contact with that which created me. And that is God personified in Christ.&uot;

DeVries said, as others did, that the message of Christianity doesn’t change but how it’s presented may change. &uot;At a certain time and place, God decided it was time for Christ to come; and he will decide again when it’s time for Christ to come. In the meantime, we’re in this time.&uot;

DeVries believes a challenge of the Christian is to show others the message through his behavior as a disciple of Christ.

&uot;I think today people have to see it through us, through our behavior, acts, compassions, love. There is a place to share testimony and a place to ask for commitment but in today’s age the gospel of Jesus Christ is best seen in the actions of people.&uot;

The success of a less formal early Sunday worship service at First Presbyterian, in contrast to the more traditional 11 a.m. service, has not surprised deVries. In fact, it confirms his belief that many people are looking for an intimacy that has been lost in big churches.

&uot;As families separate, children and parents moving thousands of miles apart, we’re looking for close relationships. There’s no better place than at church,&uot; deVries said.

&uot;At the 9 o’clock service, they like sitting in the semi-circle rather than behind each other; they like being able to see each other’s faces rather than backs of heads. They like to hear each other sing, even when they sing badly; they like to bring walls down with the informality.&uot;

The ‘uncompromised gospel’

For Southern Baptists, the challenge has been to maintain the timeless focus of the denomination, said the Rev. Dale Little, director of missions for the Adams-Union Baptist Association.

So far, he said, the churches have succeeded. Still, that doesn’t mean all Southern Baptists or all congregations within the denomination agree on every issue. &uot;We send messengers to the convention and they vote their convictions. But that doesn’t mean that the convention reflects what every Baptist believes or practices.&uot;

Southern Baptists focus on missions, and the denomination’s dispersing of and supporting missionaries around the world holds firm. A consistency in the Baptist message has been important to its success in holding members and bringing in new ones, he said, alluding to some denominations in which the message has become blurred by modern cultural and societal influences.

&uot;What the church allows in moderation, the world acts out in excess. When the church starts trying to represent the world instead of representing the church, they’re in trouble,&uot; Little said.

The Rev. Dr. Bill Hurt, pastor at First Baptist Church in Natchez, agreed. &uot;Baptists continue to grow as a denomination because we preach the uncompromised gospel.&uot;

Churches where you hear words such as &uot;slip-up&uot; and &uot;mishap&uot; instead of &uot;sin&uot; are compromising the message, he said..

That approach – taking a middle ground – does not satisfy people’s needs, Hurt said. &uot;People want parameters. They want to know what is right and what is wrong. The church has to speak out for what is right. The church always has had to be the moral compass of the community.&uot;

Gospel meets challenges

That moral compass may quiver under pressures churches face today, especially as so many young people of the church – and those who are unchurched – are exposed to raw language and images. But the committed congregation can hold steady, said the Rev. Windell Greene of the Fourth Street Church of God.

&uot;Materials children are able to get their hands on today were unheard of years ago,&uot; Greene said. &uot;The language of today has deteriorated. The vulgar language on television is heard even on prime time.&uot;

Popular songs that express disrespect for authority and that degrade women are accepted by teens as normal today. &uot;We’ve tried to make them aware that they’re being impacted by these negative things. We try to teach them to respect themselves and to demand that others respect them and not to allow garbage to fill their minds.&uot;

Technology can be put to better use, Greene said, and the church must step forward and offer alternatives. &uot;We have to teach young people to develop an appetite for better selections. We have to instruct parents, too.&uot;

The message of the gospel will remain constant, Greene said, as he echoed what other ministers said.

&uot;You may present it in a different way, but the essence of the message is the same. And it’s still amazing to see the power of the gospel.&uot;

At Rose Hill Missionary Baptist Church, the congregation has grown since the early 1990s, said active member Mae Marshall, who in recent years has chaired the committee to renovate and add on to the historic church building.

Marshall credits the growth to several factors, including the ministry of Kenneth Stanton, pastor since 1992. The congregation places emphasis on nurturing children and families, Marshall said.

&uot;We try to be a church that gives young people a family who are concerned about them. We share with them; we compliment them; we let them know it’s all right to make mistakes. We give them support,&uot; Marshall said.

The congregation stands firm in the scripture, she said, planning its outreach programs to assist the needy according to the lessons they learn at regular worship service and Bible study.