Anxiety in the preservationist church system


Every family is a system of emotional relationships and the roles that come from them. Churches are a network of family systems. Any lack of health in the families that make up the church gets brought into the church system.

Unprincipled Preservation of Practices

To my eye, the system of Nobleford CRC (and churches in this area in general) has become locked into the automatic assumption that practices that we have inherited are the only correct Reformed way of doing things. What that really is a preservation of ways of doing things without returning regularly, as Reformed believers should, to scripture and principles to reshape practices to fit their current culture. The principles have been lost. I believe this past practice focus to be a result of family systems in the area that never matured well. Why that happened has been explained, hinted at, and theorized about before. But the result is that there is a deep, long standing need for learning about emotional and spiritual maturity and growth and a return to principles guiding decisions on practices.
For example I see this  in how the serious and solemn form of ‘reverence’ in worship and worship leading that so many grew up with is assumed to be right and necessary. Since it is what the forefathers did, it is accepted as the only way worship should be done or led. What I believe has been lost in this region is awareness of Reformed principles of worship, derived from scripture, that are to have regularly shaped our practices. One of those early Reformation principles, for instance, is that worship should be in the common language (culture) of the people of the day. For me that means that Thees and Thous are out because they are not part of the culture of today and sound as foreign to visitors who are not used to them as Latin did in days gone by. Many of the practices that we have inherited were in fact shaped more by cultural forces back in their day, than by Biblical or Reformed principles. The expectations of the way Lord’s supper is done here is to me an example of that, which I will get back to.
As a result of this acceptance of — and attachment to — specific practices, combined with the principles or reasons for them being lost or forgotten in time, we have many people who quickly realized that the way I lead worship is ‘not normal.’ (for a post on this matter, which I wrote after completing this one, take a look at: http://wp.me/P3etrg-ej when you get a chance.)

They right away think: It is not what we grew up with and what ‘Dad’ said was right, which is, without thinking much, presumed to be the ‘right way’ according to the Word itself. The ways of the past are certainly comfortable for those people who are very much part of that ‘preservative of the past practices’ system. In the face of that, I ask “When did God ever in scripture encourage that kind of comfortableness?” Tell me.

Anxiety, and leaders dealing with it

This difference between my style (or any pastor’s style) and people’s expectations creates anxiety in the people who find comfort in the ‘usual’ way of doing things. When a community has that kind of anxiety in it, it will put pressure on it’s leadership to feel responsible to ease their anxiety by taking away it’s perceived source: The Pastor or, more often, the “new” or “less comfortable” way of doing something.
Leaders in the church need to learn that the anxiety is the problem of the people having it, not theirs. It is a matter of emotional boundaries. Part of maturing is learning to deal with one’s own anxiety and see it for what it is.
In fact the worst thing leaders can do is to bend to accommodate that kind of anxiety. Worst for the larger body’s progress and spiritual growth, anyway. Sure, bending will politically have the leaders fall back into favour with the anxious squeaky wheels, some of whom are likely part of their own family system. But, in keeping to what the least healthy people are comfortable with, the entire church is held at a low level of maturity.
Anxiety is regularly jumping around in NCRC as a community where preservation of the past seems to be preferred by “the anxious” instead of exploring scripture and Reformed principles with current culture in mind to find the most effective God glorifying, spiritually nurturing way of worship for our time, and of being church for here and now. It is very hard to not be anxious in the face of people who are clearly upset. To do that lets the anxiety spread, and debilitates leaders from fulfilling their role and calling. The aims of ‘the anxious’ include
  1. They do what they can to get more people to take up their anxiety (in a trend called ‘herding’ which I also call “group-think” where they glum together as like-minded folk and affirm each other in the issue of the day). They are unlikely to have open discussion with those who are not like-minded, since that spoils the aim.
  2. They believe that if they can spread their concern to enough people to get or imply their opinion is a majority opinion, it is therefore valid (democracy). I say just because a group is all stampeding in the same direction does not mean it is a good direction or that there is danger. They may just have been spooked by a dust devil. There may well be a cliff ahead. 
  3. They firmly believe others are creating their anxiety and are unable or unwilling to look at their part in it. In fact, this is where maturity would have them behaving differently if they had been taught it or had it modeled. A mature person is able to identify and take responsibility for their part in the situation. Immaturity — like that of the 10 year old who calls her parents mean because they won’t let her ride the 4wheeler off the ramp into a snowbank — only sees others creating their problem, not themselves contributing to it. In the same way, some who are currently physically adults have never been taught to discern how much they actually seem to need fear and anxiety in their lives, and to see how they cannot rest until others are fearful with them. (There is a strong possibility that, among other things, preachers who taught them a fear of ‘getting it wrong and suffering God’s wrath’ are partly responsible for creating this and crippling them in this way.) When I have conversations with people, I listen carefully for how much they are able to identify their feelings and emotions, and especially for who the attribute those emotions to. If they tell me I am creating the feelings in them, I know there are things they have not yet learned, such as that we chose to let ourselves have the feelings we have. But that is a subject for another day.
  4. They want leaders to do things to ease their anxiety, and believe that is the leader’s role and responsibility.
Good leaders, like good parents, need to learn to see that happening, and learn to not buy in to the anxiety, to recognize much of it as the problem of the anxious ones, a problem that is only solved by personal growth, not by leaders giving in, and the leaders need to keep the church on a healthy growth trajectory, refusing to hold back.
The interesting thing is, that if the true leaders are in charge and facilitate good spiritual and emotional growth, then a point will come for those who are holding back that they realize “Hey, everyone is moving on, and I now have a choice of trying to move with them, or drop out.” They might just begin to join in. Of course they could drop out too. But they are the ones choosing that. (even though they will want to make it the fault of the leaders)

Relating this all to Lord’s Supper practices

Given all that, I see the two or three things that have come up since I got here relating to Lord’s Supper as all related to this preservation anxiety. The preparation form was the first to come up and biggest of these. That mater was healthily helped toward resolution by the Elders doing exactly what should be done, returning, prayerfully and thoughtfully, to scripture and it’s interpretation, and realizing that our understanding of particularly 1 Corinthians 11 has changed in a way that makes the ‘beating yourself up’ before LS not a valid view or practice today. That was Elders leading as they should.
There are two other matters that have come up that are no where near as serious, yet which I see falling into the same pattern. That is the question of the Elders sitting up front on Lord’s Supper Sundays, and the taking up of a Love offering after communion.  To me, these matters are also symptoms of part of the system wanting to preserve preferred practices rather than be led by principle. My starting point, you need to know clearly, is that whether the Elders sit up front or not, or whether a Love Offering is taken up or not is neither right nor wrong. Neither are unacceptable practices But you need, in my book, to have deep principled and scriptural reasons for persisting those practices.
When the explanation for why these are done comes up as lacking a scriptural basis to my ears, I began to suspect the reasons for these practices are part of the problematic aspects of the preservationist system. That explanation falls into teh category called “That’s how we’ve always done it and it is comfortable to us because it is normal”
As such, I say it is, subconsciously, about not making people anxious by dropping something from the past that used to be important. If that is indeed the driver of the reason for doing them, then it is not a good reason to continue. Fear of upsetting those inclined to be anxious because they are either wounded or for some other reason have not matured is not a reason to keep a practice. We either have to come up with solid reasons to keep them (and I believe they exist), or we need to look for something new that has meaning in today’s language and culture. That would be the Reformed way of resolving this.
That all said, let me lay out as briefly as I can, the ‘devolution’ of Lords Supper, or what I think is going on.

How I see preservationism and a fear of creating anxiety in the Lords Supper examples

Back in the day, 50 to 100 years ago, when you became a deacon you bought a special dark suit. When you became an Elder, you bought a dark pinstriped suit. The Elders and Deacons each sat on a side of the Pulpit (in what we hockey players referred to as “penalty boxes”) as visible signs of their ‘oversight’ of the pastor (and to make sure they paid attention because the whole congregation was watching). The Elder on duty’s handshake with the Pastor was a similar visible action showing the ‘oversight’ role was being done. In some churches the duty Elder shook before and after the service, and I clearly recall a time the Elder would NOT shake the pastor’s hand after the service. In those days, the LS was up front at tables. The Elders physically ‘stood guard’ at the table (I also remember when a man came to the table and an Elder sent him back!). I suspect that as NCRC followed the efficiency trend of serving LS in the pews (a big time saver), there was resistance to letting go of practices like the Elders dressing in suits and ‘guarding’ the table. The up-front tables back in the day also had a pot or basket on them into which a Love offering was put when you came forward. I suspect that having the Elders sit up front for the entire communion service, and of a Love offering being taken up is a remnant anxiety of a previous generation who was worried about the changes coming to the sacrament, and so they fought for those two things to remain. But today, no one knows why they remain, just that it was important at one time. So they struggle, when asked for reasons, to explain in a principled way, why they exist.
They are, to me, remnants that should be given fresh deep scriptural and principled meaning. Maintaining a past practice so that people who have not matured in faith won’t be upset is not sufficient reason to do it unless it has deep meaning. Jesus did plenty of things that upstanding religious people of his day were upset with, and he did not seem to worry about upsetting them, and in fact took every opportunity to challenge the ‘rules made by men’ against God’s principles and purposes.
I hope you can follow my reasoning and my explanation. Several things are woven together here. As always, I welcome especially questions, or comments, or descriptions of your feelings as you ponder this.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jeff
    Apr 22, 2014 @ 08:51:08

    I understand that you are not saying the Love Offering is bad. That we need to look in scripture at why we do it. But I cannot understand why we would even think about not taking a love offering at after communion. If anything I guess we should take a love offering every week. There is always more to give.


    • pastorpete
      Apr 22, 2014 @ 09:32:42

      Thanks for the comment Jeff. On that I’m saying: If we did not have the history of the offering basket being on the table as people came forward it would likely not occur to us to have it as a separate offering in a Lords Supper-in-the-pews service. It is the preservation of history that has created the practice. That gives me pause.
      Imagine a scenario where we did not have it as a historic practice, and you suggested we add it in. Would it fly? I think not, even though, as you say, there is always more to give and giving is good.


  2. Jeff
    Apr 24, 2014 @ 12:13:20

    I agree with your comments many of our practices are just preservation of our history. It is the abolition of history for the sake of it being part of our history that is troubling my heart. I do understand that having an offering plate on a guarded table would have negative thoughts and memories for some people. I do not have any of that baggage. For me, when I think of the Love Offering I think of giving extra than my normal Sunday tithe, and my time of close communion with God.


    • pastorpete
      May 21, 2014 @ 07:50:42

      Hey Jeff, I missed this comment when you made it. The conclusion that is troubling your heart: “abolition of history for the sake of it being part of our history” is a mistaken one. Practices should be reconsidered when they are being practiced empty of deep meaning and only have meaning because they are historic. That is a different thing.


  3. PaulVK
    May 20, 2014 @ 22:59:05

    I really like your section on leaders and anxiety. Are those four points yours or did you get them from some place?


  4. Leadership and Anxiety | Leadingchurch.com
    May 20, 2014 @ 23:02:36

  5. pastorpete
    May 21, 2014 @ 07:13:39

    They came out of my own experience, head and heart Paul. Howevr, this entire post was shaped a lot by my just having completed reading “Failure of Nerve” by Edwin Friedman, but I don’t recall using a list he presents. Between those things and preaching through Exodus as a Transition journey and ‘watching’ the anxieties of Israel it started to make sense this way.


  6. My Hope for a Less Conflictive, Anxious and Distracted Synod | Leadingchurch.com
    May 21, 2014 @ 08:08:09

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