We are not in the church to be consumers, we are there to love and to serve. Sometimes that means surrendering our preferences.
Everyone has their own personal preferences.
I am an 80’s guy. In fact, I like 80’s music so much so that a worship leader at a church I planted in Tennessee called me “80’s Ed.” But some people prefer music from the 90’s, 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.
So how do you keep preferences from becoming central to your congregation? I want to share four tips for curbing preferences.
First, keep compelling your people with Scripture.
Scripture lays out the basis for our congregational life together. Too many people believe that 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. Furthemore, 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, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his 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 de-emphasize 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 okay, 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 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.
Third, exegete the culture.
If you are going to take the steps to walk through what it looks like to engage a culture wisely, then you need to exegete the culture. Exegeting a culture helps keep your preferences at bay. You need to step back and consider, “What is the culture we’re trying to engage, and how can we engage it?”
Think about the context of your church and what expressions of biblical practices will most appropriately engage your cultural context. For example, how would the people you are trying to reach in your community best engage in worship that is both filled with Spirit and truth? This is not always going to be comfortable, because the contextualized preferences are not always going to align with what your preferences are. That’s okay because Scripture reminds us to sacrifice for others and to hold on to our vision.
Of course, some will object to this, but generally not if they’ve been on a mission trip. They have probably already seen what such applications look like.
Exegeting your culture means loving and learning about the community around you, deferring your preferences to see others come to Christ and be changed by the power of the gospel.
Finally, be a model for preference deferral.
It can be a lot easier to tell everybody else to defer their preferences rather than giving up your own. But to lead well, we need to lead by example. We must be willing to sacrifice our favorite worship style or style of dress so that our churches will be most effective for the gospel. Instead of asking yourself, “What do I prefer?” ask yourself “What’s on mission?”
Too often, pastors create churches with their own style preferences. Instead, root yourself in Scripture. Remind yourself continually of your vision. Exegete your culture. Use these tools to help you give up your preferences. Lead by example.
Let’s follow in the Apostle Paul’s example when he says in 1 Corinthians 9:20–23:
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
Giving up your preferences and reminding your congregation to do the same is not an easy road, but it is worth it for the sake of the gospel.
Eventually, you’ll have people say, “You know, I’m not about my preferences. What’s better for the church and the gospel and the kingdom?”
That’s where we want to be.
Ed Stetzer, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center. This article originally appeared on The Exchange.