2 Ways to Put Church Preferences in Their Proper Place

Scripture lays out the basis for our congregational life together. (Photo by Sarah Noltner on Unsplash)

Everyone has their own personal preferences.

I am an '80s guy. In fact, I like '80s music so much so that a worship leader at a church I planted in Tennessee called me "'80s Ed." But some people prefer music from the '90s, or music that has just been released or music from the 18th century.

It can be tricky to balance all of those varying preferences in a church. There's no way to please everybody when you have someone in your church who only likes to sing hymns seated next to somebody who never wants to crack open a hymnal.

But the church was never meant to cater to people's personal preferences. We are not there as consumers of a product; instead, we are there as participators in the body of Christ. We shouldn't demand our church to do things a certain way. Instead, we should look for ways we can let go of our favorites and sacrificially love the church.

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So how do you keep preferences from becoming central to your congregation? I want to share four tips for curbing preferences. I'll share two today and two tomorrow.

First, keep compelling your people with Scripture. Scripture lays out the basis for our congregational life together. Too many people believe their preferences come from Scripture, but this is often not the case.

Take music. There are no musical notes in the Bible. The closest possibility to a musical notation is the word selah in the Old Testament, but we don't know what that means. As such, there is no musical preference in the Bible. Furthermore, there is no direction about what clothes you should wear in the Bible. And there is no direction about how long a church service should be.

Now, there are things commanded in the Bible, like the public reading of Scripture, the Lord's Supper, baptism and more. But most things we argue about are preferences shaped by culture.

Letting Go of Preferences

What the Bible does direct us to do is to let go of our preferences. For example, Philippians 2:3-4 reads, "Let nothing be done out of strife or conceit, but in humility let each esteem the other better than himself. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others."

If we are really considering others as more significant than ourselves, then we will not insist on our own preferences.

Because people often mistakenly believe their preferences are outlined in the Bible, they feel their preferences are truths they need to stand firm on and defend. It is true that we should defend biblical truth on essential issues. If someone is trying to change the service to deemphasize Jesus, that's an essential issue.

Preferences are not essential issues.

We need to be humble and loving enough to let go of our preferences for the sake of our brothers and sisters. Pointing your congregation to Scriptures like Philippians 2:3-4 and reminding them that things such as church service dress codes do not exist in the Bible is a great way to curb preferences and keep your church immersed in Scripture.

Second, keep compelling your people with the vision. You should create and cast a vision with your congregation of what you want your church to be. The vision of the church should boil down to glorifying God and seeing lives changed.

Often, it is easiest if you cast this vision from the get-go.

When a church is being planted, start by teaching your launch team or your core group that it is not about their preferences; it is about the vision. There will likely be things about the new church they don't prefer, and that's OK, because the purpose of the church is to glorify God and see lives changed, not cater to one's likes and dislikes.

In a church that is already established, a good way to revitalize your church is to preach some on the issues of preferences. Remind the congregation of what preferences are and wean them off the idea that their preferences are somehow more biblical than another person's preferences.

Whether you are a church plant or a church in need of a reminder about preferences, pushing people to think of the church worldwide is helpful in getting people to rethink whether what they are holding on to is a preference or truly a core issue. Would you insist that people in Africa, Asia, South America or North America must sing this way? Dress this way?

Considering the global church helps us acknowledge whether something is outside of biblical truth or just outside of our comfort zone. For example, if a biblically faithful church in Senegal can't (or should not) do it, you really can't insist it is a biblical requirement for church. It's probably a preference.

There are many applications where preferences are confused with biblical commands. That's because some meanings can only be expressed through cultural forms.

For example, respect is shown in different ways in different cultures. In some cultures, respect means bowing. In other cultures, not wearing a hat in church or dressing up for church is respectful. Occasionally, since people only have the cultural form to express the meaning of something, when that form is not followed, they see it as a violation of the meaning. They may believe that person is being disrespectful for whatever the issue is. In reality, that person has a different cultural context, and they might express respect in a different way.

Our priority must be on helping people see that the vision is bigger than their form of expressing the meaning. Then, they may be more accepting and loving of people who are different than they are.

It's a hard thing to not be driven by preferences, but focusing on mission and vision helps.

Ed Stetzer holds the titles of Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College; executive director of the Billy Graham Center; dean of the Wheaton College School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership and interim teaching pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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