Paradigm Shifts: Sometimes Change Is Good

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Woodrow Wilson

“There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.” Churchill

Change. That word frightens many. Some things do not change. A “C Major” chord sounds the same anywhere on the globe. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level in Hong Kong or Wake Forest. If you, no matter your level of athletic ability, jump out of a plane at 20,000 feet without a parachute, you are going to die. And most importantly, the gospel that changes lives eternally has been, is, and will be the only way to know God and to live for Him. There is no other God, and no one or no thing worthy of worship. We must constantly remind ourselves of the reality that our hope is in Christ, and we have hope in no other. Further, some change is bad, really bad, particularly change that moves us from God and His truth.

That being said, some things do change. Some things must change. I do not see pastors in the West preaching in a toga as in the first century. We do not need to worship Jesus in catacombs in the city even though the early church did that in Rome. Nor do we need to sing plainsong Gregorian chants in congregational worship. The New Testament devotes several books to qualifications for those who lead the church; there is an unchanging standard there. But the New Testament is remarkably silent on worship style, and yet we argue over that too often while holding to the standard for pastors less tenaciously.

In like manner, we see the gospel being proclaimed without exception as we read the narrative of Acts. But we see a variety of methods used to display the gospel: miracles, bold proclamation, gospel community, the gospel shared from the starting point of the Old Testament to Jews and from creation to Gentiles (see Acts 17 for the latter), the gospel shared in the synagogue and in lecture halls, in the marketplace and before rulers. Same message, varied approaches.

We must be careful in any given culture as a church to contextualize the gospel for the lost and for the church without compromising the message. And, we must consistently confront the idols of our time. Sometimes those two converge. Materialism might be the greatest idol in the western church. If we are not careful, our love for elaborate buildings (supposedly to give our best to God) may in fact be more a reflection of our materialism. If we build more austere buildings we just might have more money for the mission. If we did more in homes then we might need less classroom space, and thus less buildings. Just a thought.

Some things are changing. And these changes are good. We must constantly guard ourselves from the extremes of embracing the culture too much on the one hand (the fallacy of liberalism) and confusing our preferences in matters that can change with the changeless message on the other (the fallacy of legalism).

Here are a few examples of changes I believe are good, and are driven by the gospel:

1. From the Church “Plant” (i.e. the buildings) to Church Planting. As a youth actively involved in a Southern Baptist Church and as a young adult in ministry training, the most passionate, continuous appeal to express great faith came regarding one subject more than any other: building programs. “Not equal gifts but equal sacrifice” was quoted more than most Scripture verses or so it seemed. Now, we need buildings, and I am glad for them. Our church has four worship services each Sunday and finds creative ways to fill the building throughout the week. We could use a bigger building. But here is the difference: in my time in seminary we measured the SEATING capacity of the local church building; today we measure the SENDING capacity of the local church ministry. I can remember not a single church in the 1970s or 80s that had more than three services. That seemed to be the unwritten window. Today churches have four, five, eight, ten services on one, two, or five or six campuses. The 100 largest churches in the nation last year met at 373 sites with many more services, for instance. So the “edifice complex” and sometimes over-emphasis on buildings (and at times on ostentation) is a thing of the past. Massive building programs are being replaced by missional churches with major church planting emphases. The focus is less on the physical PLANT of the local church and more on the churches it is planting. So, a pastor of a church averaging 300 who gives much focus to planting churches nationally and globally has more respect than a pastor of a much larger church that plants no new congregations.

2. From event-driven student ministry to missional student ministry. This one is only recently starting to happen, but it is happening in increasing ways. In the short time I have given focus to student ministry I have had many discussions with some of the most outstanding student pastors in America. A great and fundamental shift is happening, from treating teens like preschoolers to engaging them in the mission, from entertainment and activities to mission trips and discipleship, from a youth “group” to a student “ministry.” Watch and see this growing movement. Jim Elliot said, “Children are arrows in a quiver, and they are to be trained as missionaries and shot at the Devil.” Student ministry seen as training a generation of missionaries is driven by student pastors ready to change, and by a millennial generation ready for a challenge.

3. From local to global to glocal. If you want to be seen as totally irrelevant to a younger generation of ministers (and an awful lot of older ministers engaged in the Great Commission), just spend all your time, effort, and money in the immediate proximity of your ministry. This is problematic on several levels. Jesus taught a new way of thinking, that to live one must die, that to gain one must lose, that to lead one must follow, and to have freedom one must surrender. An obsession with what we do (and the numbers we have) locally only works against that Kingdom mentality. I would submit that a church or ministry given to all of Acts 1:8 (local and global) will do more effective ministry locally than if it obsessed with its own borders and the ministry that happens within. The word “glocal” means global and local. The separation between them is shrinking. We live in a flat world where technology and rapid travel makes almost everywhere accessible. Cities in America are international. The world is here, and the world is there. And we must reach it all. Increasingly leaders and churches recognize the more we give away to reach the uttermost parts of the world, the more vitality we have locally in our ministries as well.

4. From religious behavior to gospel-centered lives. In the South where I have lived most of my life religious practice comes with the territory. And sometimes that religious practice gets in the way of the gospel. Religious lives create a minimalist Christianity that focuses on what happens in the institution of the church (i.e. church building) while not in others, like the home and the state. So it has become almost epidemic to have more than a few in almost every church who show up at services with regularity but whose homes, if we were to see behind the curtains, reflect nothing of the gospel. In the same way, there too often exists a disconnect between the way we sing about Jesus in a church service and the way we live for him at the office (or the restaurant immediately following the service). Religion creates its own version of a virtual reality. Some people create a virtual personality online and sneak around doing wicked things (pedophiles are the most sordid form of this behavior). But people can create a virtual reality in which people at their churches see one person on the church campus, but who live sadly different lives away from the building. But a gospel-centered life sees all of life from the perspective of the gospel. This affects our work ethic and our parenting, our use of leisure time and our relationship. A growing focus of reflecting the gospel at all times is helping to shape a more missional understanding of Christianity.

Other examples exist. These simply offer a few of my observations on where we sit in year 2010. We live in exciting times, when the timeless Word of God must be given to our world in a timely manner. We must not only speak it well, or even live it well, we must think it well, as well.

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  1. Adrian Bell   •  

    good stuff. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Encouraging!

  2. Steve Schenewerk   •  

    Thanks. I am jealous of your students.Oh to be young man
    againand to have the opportunity to study under you. I have a renewed confidence in the future of the SBC becsuse of you and those like you at our seminaries

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