Continual change is the reality of our time. Globalism and consumer demands have forced business to “change or die.” Social norms keep shifting. Even our most time-honored institutions have to be innovative at a breath-taking pace to remain relevant to the world they seek to serve. Not only are we changing but the rate at which we are changing continues to accelerate. More change took place in the latter half of the twentieth century than has occurred since the founding of our nation. The twenty-first century has already ushered in major transformations as the post-modernism worldview affects every aspect of the emerging culture.
The church is not an isolated island from the rest of society and, by its very nature, it cannot be. It too is changing. As a matter of fact, change is not new to the church. One only has to read the book of Acts and subsequent church history to see the church changing to meet the challenges of its day. John Wesley and the early Methodists serve as an example of innovation at its best. After Wesley’s own spiritual awakening, he realized that the vast majority of unsaved souls refused to enter the doors of an Anglican Church. Unwilling that people should perish in their sins he took the gospel message to the coal mines and open fields of England. Despite bitter opposition from the clergy, Wesley became an open-air preacher. For the sake of souls, Wesley was willing to change the norm and engage in a practice that even he disliked. He commented, “to this day field preaching is a cross to me, but I know my commission and see no other way of preaching the gospel to every creature.”
As Methodism took root in Great Britain, Wesley was faced with a growing number of societies that had no ordained preacher. His solution was to create a band of itinerant laymen to serve them. In answering a necessity by innovation, he formed one of the great features of Methodism that was, without doubt, pivotal to its success. Mind you, his decision to break with tradition and do something different brought disfavor and persecution from the Anglican Church. Furthermore, Wesley’s approach to spiritual formation through the class and band meetings was not only innovative but also highly effective — so much so that it still serves as the model for small group ministries today.
When Methodism came to America, Francis Asbury was commissioned by Wesley to “offer Christ” to all the people of this new frontier. To reach such a sparse population in a vast untamed wilderness seemed impossible. But Francis Asbury created a small army of saddlebag preachers whose horseback mobility enabled them to evangelize and disciple every soul whether they lived in the largest settlement or the most remote wilderness cabin. The Circuit Rider became a model of innovation that grew the American Methodist church from fewer than 15,000 members, 43 circuits, and 83 itinerants in 1784 to a denomination of 1,069,000 members, 4,000 circuit riders, and more than 7,000 local preachers by 1844.
Methodism’s willingness to be innovative helped them to capitalize on the novel idea of campmeetings. Started by the Presbyterians as sacramental meetings, the Methodists took them over and made them a “battleaxe and weapon of war” to reach lost souls for almost a century. When the campmeeting ceased to draw large crowds of sinners, the Methodists used them to promote the message of holiness among believers for another half-century. The National Campmeeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness swept the country impacting every branch of Methodism as well as many Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Thousands were led to enjoy purity of heart. This happened because leadership was willing to shift gears and capitalize on the hunger for something deeper in the religious culture of the day.
Spirit-filled saints have always been innovative and open to change. D.L. Moody used his organizing genius and Billy Sunday his dynamic preaching style to attract thousands to their evangelistic rallies. Even the Sunday School was an innovative idea, looked upon with skepticism by the established church, but eventually embraced and institutionalized. It became an effective means of catechizing believers as well as serving as an entry point for unchurched people.
Martin Wells Knapp and others used small cheap booklets, lithograph preaching diagrams and the magic lantern (a forerunner of the slide projector) to captivate the mind and win the battle for souls. Meredith Standley was consumed with a passion to reach the lost and saw an opportunity to mobilize an army of “Gods Issues” at the close of WWII. The GI Bill brought veterans to campus and the large surplus of army jeeps and trailers provided the necessary equipment to start the “GI’s of the Cross.” This unique means of outreach enlisted hundreds in its ranks and was responsible for the conversion of souls in numerous small towns across America. A willingness to ride the wave of present opportunity, to adopt new technology or to try something different has been crucial to finding many new and effective methods for winning souls to Christ.
Yet today, the sons and daughters of these innovative saints have retreated into our fortresses and pulled up our drawbridges in an attempt to avoid change and innovation of any sort. It’s so bad in some places that to even suggest a new idea brings considerable pain to the powers that be! Why? Resistance to change is natural. There is a natural tendency to hold on to the things of the past. The older one gets, the more one tends to cling to the familiar, comfortable, and predictable ways of “happier days” gone by.
Resistance to change is especially true for religious institutions. It can even be a good thing if it prevents a group from being swept up in every passing fade or infected by doctrinal heresy. And many of the cultural changes we see bring deeper depravity and greater evil. But we too often refuse to do the hard work of distinguishing between good change and bad change. Such a refusal to evaluate and accept or even embrace appropriate and reasonable change leads only to a closed system which stifles new ideas and new life. Someone has said that the only two kinds of people you need to fear are those who want to change everything and those who want to change nothing.
Every church should face the difficult question of what must and must not change. Every church has to do the difficult and fragile work of understanding change, learning to live with it, and developing ways to use it to their advantage in ministry. Appropriate change must and can be made safely if a church takes the time to develop a theology of change. A theology of change is a well-designed process that leads change in an orderly, healthy, and appropriate way. A good theology of change consists of at least four elements.
1. A Theology of Change first establishes what is unchangeable.
A theology of change cannot be developed in a vacuum; it requires context. The mission and core values of the church provide that context. A clear, concise statement that defines what the church is supposed to be doing has to be in place and understood before one can talk about change. Change cannot begin until one knows exactly what it is one cannot change. The mission of the church has been laid out in holy orders by Christ Himself. In brief, terse terms the Church is to “make and mature disciples.” Any attempt to make the purpose of the church anything else is treason! A clear mission statement allows us to reevaluate our actions and priorities to make sure they are subservient to the mission. If they are not, then change begins with our actions and priorities. But the mission of the church is unchangeable.
Core values are the church’s shared biblical convictions and beliefs. They feed the passion and drive the action of the church’s mission. They represent the conscience and collective soul of the church because they express the church’s most deeply held values. It is impossible for a church to do ministry that matters until it knows what really matters. A church that doesn’t have a clear set of core values is like a river without banks. It will run in every direction and miss the opportunity to advance its cause with whitewater speed and precision. Core values aligned with Scripture are also unchangeable.
Wesley could make significant changes to the status quo of institutionalized religion without compromising the faith or grieving the Spirit that was blessing his efforts because he understood both the mission and the core values of the church. Understanding both is crucial for making changes today. The most effective churches or church movements are those who have a clear mission and a set of core values that undergird and guide the implementation of that mission. Change that ignores the church’s purpose and values causes the church to begin the sad journey of identity loss and ultimate death. Methodism provides an example of that in the late ninetieth century. To fail in having a biblically-centered mission with missional values is to waste your time, dissipate valuable resources, and fail at being the church. A theology of change insists first on a biblical mission and values.
2. A Theology of Change helps us to understand the difference between Function, Form, and Tradition.
A sound theology of change requires that we know the difference between the church’s biblical mandates and her methods. Stated another way, one must know the difference between function and form. Aubrey Malphurs defines the functions of the church as the timeless, unchanging, and nonnegotiable precepts that are based on Scripture and are mandates for all churches to pursue to accomplish their purpose. Most would accept that the general functions of the Church include: preaching/teaching, administration of the sacraments, fellowship, worship, evangelism, and service. All of these functions enable the church to fulfill her purpose of making and maturing disciples into the image of Christ. All are mandated and modeled in scripture. To tamper with these is to tamper with our identity as a church. To leave them behind or lay them aside is to cease to be a church.
Forms, on the other hand, are the temporal and changing practices of the church that are based on culture or tradition. They are methods that all churches are free to choose to accomplish their biblically mandated functions. Forms tend to have a limited time of usefulness and by their very nature have to be replaced with new ones as contexts change.
Traditions are forms or practices that have been handed down from generation to generation and are seen as still effective in helping the church carry out her God-given functions. Traditions help to create a certain amount of identity, familiarity and continuity all of which are central to healthy worship.
Change can pose a problem in two opposite extremes: when forms are institutionalized and elevated to the place of functions or when functions are trivialized and demoted to the category of forms. A solid theology of change prevents this from happening and allows the church to be relevant to its day while being faithful to its scriptural mandates and values. The church’s functions must never change, but forms or methods will and should change from time to time. The same is true with tradition. Tradition cannot be elevated to the place of scripture, nor must it be perpetually embraced just because it has been around a long time and institutionalized. Traditions and forms are valuable as long as they enable the church to fulfill its primary functions: if they no longer contribute to mission fulfillment, they lose their purpose and worth.
For instance, worship is a function of the church. We can’t be a church and not worship. Congregational singing is a traditional part of worship. It would be very difficult to imagine a church where song was not a part of the worship experience. But what and how we sing is a form or practice determined by propriety and preference. Our values require that what we sing be to the glory of God and to the spiritual edification of those present. But whether we sing the words out of a hymn book or from a screen, while accompanied by a piano, or organ, or key board, or guitar, or soundtrack — these are not moral or functional issues, but matters of congregational or cultural preference. The goal, the function, is to worship in Spirit and Truth. The method or form we use is the one that helps us accomplish that goal best.
Another example of a form is the time when we worship. The time of a worship service is an issue to be decided in a manner that is best for the congregation. For instance, the time that we traditionally worship in America is around 11:00 AM. This time was set when America was mostly rural to accommodate farmers as well as give people time to reach the church by means of a horse and buggy. Before the advent of indoor lighting, services were generally held only once on Sunday. With the invention of electric lights, city churches started evening services to give people a more wholesome activity for their Sunday nights. The time of worship is not what is sacred or unchangeable, but meeting together for worship is!
Where we worship is negotiable as well. A fundamental, unalterable part of worship is the fellowship and accountability of other believers. But that doesn’t mean one has to worship in a large church equipped with a steeple and stained glass. One can worship in a store front, a house church, or a warehouse with none of the typical aesthetics of a church. Nor does it mean that I must be surrounded by a multitude of people. In some cases, two or three believers meet in a home and worship with distant congregations by means of internet streaming in order to have acceptable doctrinal teaching and preaching. Whether we worship while sitting in a pew or a chair, are taught by a pastor who stands behind an ornate pulpit or a simple music stand and fellowship with other believers in a building that looks like a cathedral or a warehouse all makes no difference whatsoever. The forms, props and methods are only as valuable as they aid us in fulfilling the great mandates of the church. Idolaters worship forms; saints worship God.
3. A Theology of Change doesn’t fixate on the present and ignore the past.
Some are so anxious to change the present that they ignore the valuable contributions and warnings from earlier generations. When this happens a repetition of past failures and old heresies is likely. History is a treasure trove of insights and answers for the problems we face today. Real change for the future comes through a careful understanding of the past.
4. A Theology of Change addresses the issue of cultural relevance with neither isolation nor accommodation.
Isolationists believe incorrectly that everything about the surrounding culture is inherently evil and that the church needs to stay as far away from it as possible. Though it is true that our culture has many things that are rotten to the core, it is also true that because of God’s grace, our culture has many good things that are part of who we are.
Accommodation is the opposite extreme from isolation. It wants to fully embrace or adopt our culture. Accommodation has both a liberal and conservative side. The liberal side believes that the present culture is a friend of the gospel and we must accommodate its extreme views of sexuality or abortion. The liberals lean over so far to speak to the present culture that they fall in bed with them and end up denying the faith. The conservative side of accommodation argues that God endorses a particular culture as distinctly Christian. The Amish are an example of this. They believe that God endorses the culture of the 1800s, so they model the culture of that day. Other Christians believe that God only endorses Western culture within their particular religious context. This is primarily seen in the exportation of Western ways in missionary enterprise.
A good theology of change recognizes the need to have enough cultural relevance so as to communicate the gospel to the age it seeks to win. Cultural relevance is not found in succumbing blindly to worldly practices, but it is found in understanding a culture well enough to articulate the gospel in a way understandable to the people of that culture.
Change is a constant. Resistance to change is also a constant. As Christians, we need to seek the wisdom from above that allows us to lead the church through the changes that do and will come without succumbing to the extremes of changing everything or changing nothing. Positive change is what the church is about. We seek to change lives by the two greatest change agents known to man: God’s Word and Grace. A theology of change will keep us from tampering with the mission, values, and functions of the church. But it will allow us freedom to use whatever forms we believe necessary and helpful in fulfilling our role as the Body of Christ on earth.