Catholics, Creeds and Compromise

Back when I read newspapers (does anybody still read newspapers??) an issue of USAToday had an interesting editorial by a Presbyterian minister who bemoaned the decline of mainline churches. What’s worse, churches are dropping “Baptist,” “Methodist” or whatever from their names in order to attract a wider audience! *Clutches pearls*

One reason mainline churches are dwindling is because the average unchurched person in America (and the average person in America, by the way, is unchurched) can’t understand the mysteries of the mainlines. When to sit, stand, recite or respond. There should be a user’s guide next to the hymnal.

I was the music director at a Presbyterian church for a few years. It was a contemporary, seeker-friendly-type church planted by a very traditional Presbyterian church, but the plant still had serious Presbyterian overtones that sometimes hindered ministry.

I’m a church growth enthusiast, and to my amusement I realized that the more the church became less Presbyterian, the more it would grow and reach the unchurched. (You might need to diagram that sentence for it to make sense!)

For instance, for years I battled the Nicene Creed. Presbyterians, as well as most mainlines, are fixated on creeds. I had no control over whether we did them or not. Oh, I like the concept of creeds, but the problem with the current batch is that you might as well be speaking Latin (close – it’s Shakespearean English.) The archaic language just doesn’t gel with a contemporary service. When was the last time you used or heard phrases like:

Very God of very God.


The quick and the dead. (Sounds like a great title for a horror movie!)

You get the point. The most confusing part of the creed is the “holy catholic Church” section, which would freak out any of our visitors, both churched and unchurched. Of course, in this context, “catholic” Church means “universal” Church, or the Body of Christ… the Church as a whole. Not the Roman Catholic Church, specifically. But your average Baptistish South Carolinian doesn’t know that. I heard continual complaints and questions from both unchurched and non-Presbyterian-culture attendees about the creed.

So I argued, “why can’t we just change it to ‘universal Church’ or something? Find another word that means ‘catholic’?”

“No!!!” came the answer (yes, with three exclamation points.) That’s the way the creed was written, historically! The elders refused to change it.

Instead, a compromise. The pastor will now have a short sermonette before we recite the creed, explaining that “catholic” does not mean “Catholic,” but universal.

The first Sunday he did this explanation, a young [target market] couple rushed up to him after church. I saw the whole thing. “Is this a Catholic church?” they gasped. In staff meeting the next week, the pastor was incredulous. Why, he had explained the whole thing! Didn’t they listen?

Guess not. Never saw that young couple again.

This went on for about 2 years. I wonder how many people visited and never came back.

Then, one Sunday, a new guitarist came up to me after church and said he’d like to play in the praise band. (Yippee! You know hard it is to find good guitarists…) “My wife and I almost decided we wouldn’t attend this church, we thought it was Catholic or something.” I nearly had an aneurysm.

That next week in our worship committee meeting (committees are another Presbyterian fixation) I exploded. “Why the HECK are we still insisting on using the word “CATHOLIC” in that creed? I nearly lost a good guitarist!”

Then, a dear soul on the worship committee named Tim quietly spoke up: “Funny how it’s okay to translate God’s word from the KJV to the NIV so modern people can understand it better, and use it in our services, but we can’t translate the Nicene Creed.”

The pastor threw up his hands. “I give up.”

We never used the word “catholic” again. Thanks, Tim.


Essential reading for worship leaders since 2002.


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