I’m sure most Christians have heard, “As long as the message stays the same the methods can change.” Some people say, “the methods must change.” I don’t completely disagree with that. Hymnals, overheads, or projector? Doesn’t matter. Organ, Piano, or Guitars? Doesn’t matter. Preachers in suits or preachers in t-shirt and jeans? Doesn’t matter. Live preacher or pre-recorded preacher? As difficult as this one is for me to admit… doesn’t matter (but come on, you trust the campus pastor to lead his/her church site, but you don’t let them preach?) Technology changes, styles change, and adapting to that is fine. I have been thinking about this for a while. There are lots of articles going around defending various traditions of the church; choirs, hymns, organs, etc… I feel there is some merit to these articles but I also feel some of it is wanting to hang on to tradition for the sake of tradition. Then on the other side of the isle there are articles telling churches you have to change if you want to grow. I read a quote that finally pushed me to put my thoughts ‘down on paper’:
“When we see more and more people saying NO to church… we’ve got to say YES to change.”
The spirit of the quote is change to please people, change for the sake of numbers. That really got the wheels in my head turning. I’m not so much addressing the “methods can change” side of things but the “methods must change” mindset. Do church methods really need to change?
Let us not forget God is sovereign
We serve a God who is unchanging (Hebrews 13:8). We serve a God who cannot be stopped. His plan to redeem humankind was set in motion before the creation of the world and it cannot be stopped (Isaiah 14:27, Matthew 16:18). Abraham threw a wrench in God’s plan by having a child with Hagar, but that didn’t stop God. Virtually every other chapter in the old testament Israel’s disobedience looks like it’s going to derail God’s plan, but it didn’t. Are we arrogant enough to believe the methods we choose to use will stop God? Jesus said the gates of hell will not stop his church from being built, but it seems like some people believe using an organ and singing hymns will stop the church dead in it’s tracks! Some people believe if you cannot draw the lost and unchurched into your church you will fail. I don’t think those people have a very high view of God’s sovereignty. God can use anybody and anything that He wills. God used a homeless prophet as the forerunner of Christ. John the baptist was a homeless, smelly, messy prophet! Surely God can use people that still sing hymns, and believe in the “silliness” of the power of the Holy Spirit. Surely God can use people who don’t recognize the latest pop stars and can’t sing along with the Billboard top 10 pop hits. Surely God can use a church that is “inward focused” and educates and builds up it’s members to prepare them to reach the people they come in contact with everyday. Surely God can even use that homeless man that you look at and say, “Man, he needs Jesus.” By saying we have to change our methods to reach people you are essentially saying God is not powerful enough to reach people through the methods you deem antiquated, old fashioned, and ineffective.
Sometimes people reject God
The church can’t just change because people are “saying no to church.” Sometimes people say no to church because they are really saying no to God, they have hardened their hearts and nothing you can do will change that. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to reach them, but we don’t change how we “do church” for them either. I think we need to stop seeing it as people not being interested in church and see it for what is really is, people are not interested in God. Read Romans 1! It is real, it happened in Paul’s day and it is happening today. Read 2 Timothy 3! It is real, it happened in Paul’s day and it is happening today. People don’t want anything to do with God. If the Gospel is central to your message, people who want to know God will be at your church. The church, that is the building, is not your fishing net. Your Sunday service is not a fishing net. When Jesus told Peter he would make him a fisher of men we think of the type of fisherman Peter was where you throw out a net and then haul in lots of fish at once. I think for most Christians it is more like someone fishing from the dock. They cast their baited line, you can’t make the fish bite but when they do you reel them in. People are most often “won to Christ” one-on-one.
We should all be street preachers
I know that some people will object and point out there were mass conversions in the Bible, read Acts 2. Yes there were some mass conversions, but they revolved around the preaching of the gospel. It didn’t involve a nice building with the latest technology, leadership strategy, a freshly cast vision, smoke, lights and music. Nobody in the New Testament was drawing people to a place so they could convert them. Peter stood in the street and yelled, “Let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.” There is not a “church growth expert” that will tell you to go preach to people in the streets, frankly I have never read a “church growth expert” whose core message is preach the gospel. Peter, James, John and Paul were the original church growth experts! Do you know what they did? They preached the gospel (1 Corinthians 2)! It wasn’t Peter’s method that converted 3000 people that day. It was the Spirit of God.
Church is not supposed to be cool
In regards to cool, trendy, seeker friendly churches I think one of my favorite quotes from the Bible might be “God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching.” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Church is not supposed to be cool, Christianity is not supposed to be cool. This whole message of sin, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and eternal life is foolishness to those without the spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14). If you look like a fool you might be doing it right! Jesus even said we would be hated (Mark 13:13). If you are hated you just might be doing it right. If your church is cool to the world you might be doing it wrong. Now let me clarify, if the world hates you or thinks you are foolish because of your failed attempts at relevance (e.g. putting on a Star Wars Easter pageant), that is not what Paul or Jesus are talking about. That type of thing is foolishness in the eyes of the world and the church. Extravagant efforts to make the Bible relevant just goes to prove you don’t believe the Bible is relevant.
Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic. Do not defend God’s word, but testify to it. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity.
So should church methods change?
If you look at one of the most successful trends in churches today you will see a very old method resurfacing. You will see small groups of people gathering in homes, having fellowship, studying the word, and praying together just like the early church. That is what going to church is really about. It’s about fellowship, learning, bearing each others’ burdens, worshiping together. Being strengthened by the Word, by the Spirit, and by each other so we can go to work and preach the Gospel to our co-workers. So we can preach the gospel to our neighbor, our friends, and our family. This was the method used by the original church growth experts and it is proven to work today and in virtually all cultures.
I believe changing the methods to adopt new technology, new styles in music and design is fine. I think some changing to adapt to culture is fine as well. But I think we have gotten too loose with our methods. In extreme cases preachers curse from the pulpit, churches have played AC/DC Highway to Hell which glorifies a life leading to hell. Not all methods are OK. Paul said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) but we never pay attention to the context. Paul made himself a slave to those he was trying to reach. He voluntarily gave up his liberties in Christ to reach people. He followed the Mosaic law to reach the Jews, he didn’t follow the Mosaic law to reach the gentiles. The point is he gave up Christian liberty for the sake of reaching people. We see churches taking more liberty and say it’s in the name of reaching others. The American church is becoming like the world to reach the world, and that is only serving to confuse the world!