When great changes occur in society the church has several choices: it can fight to preserve a familiar but dying tradition, it can discard the old and embrace the new without prejudice, or it can make room for the profitable new when and where it does not violate biblical fidelity. What should we do, change, or resist change? The church has always lived in this tension between constancy and change.
This article is the beginning of my appeal for the church to neither arbitrarily discard the past nor fight to preserve the traditions of the past but instead embrace, in Christlike humility, the profitable new while upholding the faith once delivered to the saints. As we step into this conversation a few things should be acknowledged.
Every position, perspective, theory, or idea can be behaviorally supported. Somewhere at some time, someone has been visually successful in every different endeavor. But not everything is successful, sometimes it just hasn’t had enough time to fail. Where is the Crystal Cathedral? What of Bill Hybels? Rob Bell? Mark Driscoll? James McDonald? Perry Nobles? Carl Lentz? Ravi Zacharias? Hillsong? Does anyone remember T.D. Jakes’ book Lay Aside the Weight? He’s not doing that anymore. Has anyone checked up on those companies extolled in Jim Collins’ Good to Great? Pointing to popular religious leaders or current ministry successes as reasoning for behavior is a flawed logic of validation. The only trustworthy measurement is scripture and its handmaiden is 2000 years of church history. The moment can be extremely deceptive, time blows away the chaff.
Denominational structures have value, but that value is ultimately limited to peer relationships, joint efforts, career advancement, and retirement. In all honesty, these are worthwhile values if we are careful to remember that blind loyalty to any system is still blinding. Presently, every Christian denomination is in decline with its leaders either frantically searching for some innovative thing to revive its sagging numbers or construct a new narrative that views decline as something positive. The ideas of desperate denominations are usually more pragmatic than biblical—I’m not saying always, but I am saying usually. The point is this, we should never sacrifice the local church on the altar of denominational interests. The local community of faith is far more important than the religiopolitical structures our fathers created.
Our highest goals must be identified. Forfeiting long-term sustainability for the sake of greater growth will always ultimately lead to decay. Spiritual decay, like cancer, may stay hidden for a while, but only for a while. I refer you back to the list in paragraph three. Excitement burns a hotter fire but it burns out, true passion for Christ remains. What are the church’s highest goals? They must be identified.
First, is it not to make true, faithful, and committed disciples? If the local church is constantly re-inventing itself, shifting its vision, moving with every new wind of change, how can it hope for constancy? To produce consistent stable followers the ministry itself must be consistent and stable. The landscape of evangelical Christianity over the last 30+ years is dotted with churches and pastors who had a “vision” to be unique in their locale while in reality merely crafting themselves to imitate some distant “successful church model.” I must ask, in this pursuit for entrepreneurial success what of the people? What of the people? It has been said that too many pastors love the crowds but hate the people.
Much of our church growth “re-visioning” has seen the sitting congregation exit while the new congregation entered, and more often than not, with little numerical difference between the before and after. However, during the great migration the new pastor was always “excited to see new people becoming engaged and the staff being more empowered to fulfill their calling.” [Quotation marks are used because I have read similar comments numerous times.] With an almost sociopathic dismissal vision-oriented pastors have bid farewell to faithful congregants often leaving in their wake an unstable group that quickly evaporated when the charismatic visionary departed.
Second, are not those disciples to be followers of Christ? A common phrase in the newest books peddling progressive Christianity is: “but Jesus never said.” These “how-to-do-church” books proceed to isolate and elevate the quotations of Christ in the New Testament above all other scriptures, conveniently failing to mention John 21:25, Luke 24:27, and 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Everything Jesus said while He was upon this earth was not recorded and the bible is more than just the quotes of Jesus in the four gospels. The totality of scripture has been revealed and preserved for the fullness of God’s self-revelation. To expunge a biblical text from application simply because there is no direct quote from Jesus is to misunderstand the very nature of Christ Himself. Paul’s proclamation referenced above is the foundation of what the church uses to fully make authentic Christ followers. Every step away from the biblical text is a step into anemic Christianity, and the steps into anti-Christianity are few.
Third, are not those followers to become an integral part of the Christian community of faith? The local church is not to be an expression of the pastor’s vision, it is to be the expression of God plan when His people live as His family in obedience to His Word, thereby revealing His glory. At any given moment within a biblical congregation there will always be people on every point of the path and in every circumstance with those points and circumstances constantly changing as the members confront success and failure, victory and defeat, obedience and sin, all governed and managed according to the principles and teachings of scripture. One of God’s best methods for discipleship is the spiritual diversity within the body of Christ—there is no better ‘people making” mechanism. It is in the community of faith where we learn to give and forgive; encourage and be encouraged. This is where we are nurtured so that we will not remain what we are but instead be conformed, usually by imperceptible degrees, into the image of Christ Jesus.
These last 18 months have eroded man’s religious work, not God’s. We should not be shocked when difficult times wash away the houses we have built on sand. Nor should we, once the storm passes, proceed to pile up more sand to start over. The future is bright for those who realize our current dilemma is a gracious wake-up call for the church to return to the way of Christ the chief cornerstone, the one who promised us He would build His church. Let us awake and return to the discarded values of the past adorning the doctrine of God without denying diminishing, or violating it. There is a forward path of victory for the church, but it is not found in the writings of church growth gurus or on trendy podcasts. It is clearly revealed in the scriptures if we will just pause and look.
For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God, which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each person must be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 3:9-11)
Church Survival 2: The Wounded Church