The Changing Church

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There’s been a lot of talk in the Christian blogosphere about change lately. I’ve read all sides on the issue and what I come away with disappoints me.

Let me tell you why.

First, I want to talk about a crook. He’s the greatest crook I’ve ever known. He so excels at what he does that he has the admiration of all his peers. When it comes to jewels, he knows his stuff. His name is George Crook, and he’s a gemologist.

What did you think as you read that paragraph? Did you know that I was talking about a person with the surname Crook (and yes, if I’d capitalized it, you would have figured it out right away, but imagine we were conversing face-to-face. It’s called “suspension of disbelief,” okay?) The jewel reference made that even more confusing. Just what are we talking about when we talk about “crook/Crook”?

Here is the problem with talking about change as being a good thing or a bad thing in our churches—the common talking point is not the same. So when we start spouting off about change being bad or good, we have to know exactly what is sacrosanct within a changing world and what is not. The cycle of changeUnfortunately, we rarely get to that common speaking point before the fur starts flying.

At stake is this fundamental issue: The Gospel cannot be changed; the methods we use to present the Gospel can be.

The problem comes when Christians start confusing methodology with the Gospel itself. Critics of those who attempt to change the methodology almost always paint them as changing the Gospel, too. In all fairness to those critics, they’re often correct in their charge because some overzealous crusaders sometimes do corrupt the Gospel in their attempts to try new methodology. But the critics do not escape criticism themselves; in their effort to not only preserve the Gospel but preserve methodology, they face becoming anachronisms that do not so much resemble countercultural Christianity fighting off the waves of perverts of truth, but calcified creatures of antiquity that have nothing to say to a culture that bypassed them long ago.

Now before the critics on both sides start painting me as just the kind of person they love to hate, let me provide a few examples of how change must occur lest the Church be left behind. (And no, that’s not a Tim LaHaye reference….)

A quick reading of the book of Acts shows that the Gospel went out both to large groups of people (the Pentecost message of Peter and Paul’s preachings on his missionary journeys) and also to individuals and families (the Ethiopian eunuch and the household of Cornelius.) Over time, though, the course of preaching narrowed and fewer examples of large public expositions of the Gospel occurred until the 18th century when George Whitefield stumped through America.

Evangelicals worth their salt recognize the greatness of Whitefield. He’s entered the pantheon of preaching giants. However, this was not his title in his day. “Showman” and “Peddler of divinity” more likely were heard from the lips of Whitefield’s contemporaries because of his use of marketing materials, advance advertising campaigns, and even go-ahead scouts who would stump for his tent revivals. He was an agent of change, not only did he favor preaching extemporaneously in a day when sermons were meticulously scripted, but he moved away from preaching in churches to small congregations to that of huge throngs of people (20,000 attended his last appearance in Boston—a city of 17,000 at the time.) He got those crowds through marketing—also a change of methodology. Anyone accusing today’s churches of being too beholden to marketing has to realize that no one marketed more heavily than Whitefield, and he’s as close to an Evangelical “saint” as exists today. The fact that he was excoriated for his techniques at the time seems to have slipped collective memory.

But Whitefield’s group preaching to thousands did not catch on in pre-19th century America. The Second Great Awakening saw the trend going to Methodist circuit riders, stalwart men who usually preached the Gospel to an isolated household or two as they toiled along the dirt paths between settlements in early America. No one can argue with their success; America was largely Methodist by the time of the Civil War. Their technique was also a change. The preaching of the Gospel came to the people rather than the people going to hear the Gospel in a church. Whitefield had explored this change, too, but the circuit riders took it to a new extreme.

Now Pyromaniac Phil will probably publicly hang me for my next contention, but let me go there anyway.

The Industrial Revolution swept all of that away. Rural America became urban America. The change happened in England first, though, and I believe that unless that cultural and societal change had not been accommodated, “The Prince of Preachers” may never have become anything other than “The Town Crier of Preachers.” For if it had not been for the flight from the scattered rural regions to the urban, we would have never seen a Spurgeon or a Moody. Their particular style of preaching was a response to the societal changes that drew thousands of city-dwellers into massive churches designed to hold them in the sway of such powerful preaching. We may have never heard of Spurgeon or Moody had social upheaval not swept away the circuit riders. Had either of those great preachers been one of those riders, their names would be lost to history.

Moody and Spurgeon set the stage for crusade ministries like Billy Sunday’s and Billy Graham’s. There is no disputing that in their day crusades were effective. But in their day and cultural milieu ALL of the preaching methodologies and scenarios I’ve mentioned had their power and prominence. That they changed and died out with time (and will probably be resurrected in later times) is inarguable. Even today, the crusade ministry will probably not be effective any longer in America. Why? Because, again, society has changed. Today, the unsaved are demanding a more personal approach to receiving the Gospel and the ministry that follows than being one in several thousand at a crusade (and for all who would argue that megachurches disprove this theory, I contend that most megachurches are catering to those who already consider themselves Christians, considering how readily megachurches cannibalize smaller congregations. If they were effective in reaching the lost, then we would see dramatic increases in those claiming to be Christians—but the figures are not there.) The Church must respond to that change. Perhaps the circuit rider approach would work again in a new, modern context. God knows.

All I am trying to say here is that methodology changed in presenting the Gospel. We can argue that those who want to change methodology may be compromising the Gospel in their attempts to do so, but we must be exceedingly careful in those charges. Remember, Whitefield won out over his critics.

Now as for those who contend that the Gospel itself must change to meet societal changes, I say, Halt right there, buster! The Gospel message never has to change. And when you attempt to modify it to fit cultural conventions, you fall into heresy. Dumbing it down or mixing it with whatever syncretistic addition you want to add will get you cultural converts, but not converts to Jesus Christ.

Change is NOT bad, so long as you are changing for the right reasons, are guiding by the Lord, and you keep the power of the true Gospel intact. But do not let your methodology take you into sin!

For those on the other side, just because someone’s done it a certain way for two hundred years does not mean that it still applies. You are right; the Gospel never changes. But methodology just might. I’ve pointed out here how the greatest preachers of their times changed their methods to adapt to cultural change or were the very products of that change. Jesus preached to an agrarian society. We are so far removed from being agrarian in America 2005 that it’s not funny. That must change methodology. But it does not change the Gospel.

Before I close, I want to say one thing: The Holy Spirit trumps culture. Give me an Nigerian farmer who locked himself up in his prayer closet for three years and is filled with the Holy Spirit and I’m telling you that he could come to the United States and have a profound ministry. He may know nothing about American culture, but nonetheless, he could touch thousands.

We overemphasize our cultural trappings. Some things are hard to escape, but others are societal issues that pale in the light of Christ and we need to stop letting them have so much power over how we do things.

All sides on this have good points and bad points. Like I have said many times before, the Holy Spirit gives discernment and we need to lean on Him far more than we are doing. That goes for all sides in this battle. We have to think with the minds God gave us and listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit amidst the din of our daily existence. But most of all, we’ve got to stop being knee-jerk and expedient.

It’s how we as the Church of Jesus Christ handle change when God gives it to us that makes it work for good or for evil.

6 thoughts on “The Changing Church

  1. Brian Colmery

    Dan, nice post. I’ve always appreciated your ability to sail between Scylla and Charybdis. Thanks for shedding some light.

  2. Rob

    “At stake is this fundamental issue: The Gospel cannot be changed; the methods we use to present the Gospel can be.”

    Good stuff Dan, but, I have a small disagreement. What exactly is the Gospel? Is it what most american churches proclaim…Accept Jesus as your own personal savior to escape Hell? I think the Gospel, the Good News, the message of the Kingdom of God in the here and now (a la Willard) is much more than the American consumerist mentality paints it to be. In that case, wouldn’t you say that, although the gospel doesn’t change, maybe our understanding of all that the gospel encompasses can change?

  3. Vicki

    Excellent post. It’s been my concern that churches today are, more and more, “dumbing down” the gospel to attract that seeker crowd we hear so much about. The temptation is to stop feeding meat to the sheep, and just entertain the goats. My heart grieves over the PDL saturation these days since so much of it glosses over the Cross of Christ.

    It’s okay to change the presentation of the gospel, but the gospel must not change!

    To Rob: Without knowing you, I sense some ’emergence’ about you when you ask what exactly IS the gospel? I’ve been a Christian since 1983, and never have I thought of the gospel as JUST a ticket to heaven. Christ has the power to change lives in the here and now, and it’s that resurrection power that I personally need daily just to live in this world. What is all the confusion about the gospel anyway?? I’ve read Brian McLaren’s Mere Orthodoxy, and all I can say is, beware those who tamper with the gospel of Jesus Christ, who plant seeds of confusion, and tickle ears with what folks want to hear.

    Thanks, Dan, for this informative, truthful blog. I’ll be back!

  4. David

    Dan, I think one of the issues at play in the current fear of methedology lies in the nature of technology and technique. I’ve been studying this issue and there seems to be a naivette amongst evangelical groups as to the nature of what they are implementing and as to who is pushing these changes. By implementing technique in place of the Holy Spirit one falls into the trap of becoming a magician (by this I mean magician as defined by Giordano Bruno as one who uses images/words to manipulate the “erotic” impulses of a group)

    As I was looking into the “Great Awakening” in the United States there seems to be alot of political and economic overlap between the movement of the evangelists and the movement of some of the more repressive ideas prevalent in the American conciousness.

    I am not saying that these people were ill intentioned, I just think that the battle goes deeper than most people are willing to admit. As you said one must be guided by the Holy Spirit rather than opinion or fear, but it seems to me that God often works in spite of the Church rather than with it.

    Some would say that the current nihilism, relativism and atheism are a direct result of the social changes resultant from the Reformation. Ioan Couliano from the University of Chicago did a pretty excellent analysis (from a secular stance) on this point.

    With the current move towards globalization the Nations are working very dilligently to push forward agendas that might not be pretty 50-100 years down the line and they are actively using religious organizations to mold the minds of their congregations to support these changes. I don’t mean this in a conspiratorial way, it is simply how things work in politics.

    Not enough in depth analysis is being done by the secular groups or the Church to really assess what the underlying assumptions behind much of the change that is occuring.

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