I visited a local ministry conference recently. One of the pastors on the staff of the hosting church did a seminar on creating a welcoming experience for church guests. There was some good information and food for thought when it comes to the way guests perceive our churches. There were also some "catch-words" thrown around that cause me to wince. Terms such as "customer service", "church marketing", "local max", etc. This post is not to discuss the items from the conference, rather it was the things I heard that prompted me to contemplate the tug-o-war that seemingly takes place in my mind when it comes to theology vs. methodologies.
It is not a new debate and frankly I think the most harmful aspect
is when these issues become mired in debate. Much like the argument of
God’s sovereignty vs. mans’ free will, there never seems to be a
satisfactory resolution. So, what I’ve learned to do with hot topic
theological issues is to settle into the place where the most tension lies.
By tension, I’m not referring to emotional stress. As a pastor friend
said to me, the church should not be a place where everyone walks on
eggshells. Rather, I’m referring to tension in a positive and
beneficial sense. I believe great strength comes from tension.
For a moment, think about the tension in a suspension bridge where the
cables are seemingly engaged in a struggle with the gravitational pull
of the weighty bridge. Even if the deck is constructed with the
strongest materials, and even if the underlying pillars are sturdy
enough to hold the bridge up, without the proper tension or too much
tension, the results can be disastrous!
In this metaphor, the deck represents the church. It is where people
cross over from the world to Christ. The pillars are the
doctrine/scripture/Biblical preaching, communion, Baptism that comprise
the foundation. Without the foundation the deck(church) has no truth
to stand on. The cables are the methods/practices used to assist the
bridge travelers in their journey. A cable is comprised of many steel
strands. Strands can be musical styles, aesthetics, architecture,
worship forms, liturgy, or programs. These methods have changed over
time in response to cultural changes and have obviously accelerated in
the last hundred years or so. (note: I consider preaching,
communion, baptism to be part of the foundation even though they are
It’s helpful to remind ourselves that the necessary tension for
strengthening a bridge does not come from the cables, nor does it come
from the pillars. The source of the tension is the result of the
cables pulling away from the steadfastness of the pillars which are
subject to gravitational law. Keep in mind, the most important
element in the bridge are the pillars. In no way can the cables carry
the weight of the bridge nor can they influence the pillars. They do
influence the bridge as a whole, but are kept in check by the pillars
which never move! And while the pillars provide the sturdy foundation
we need to remember that without tension they are dead words and empty
practices. When God is inspiring our methodologies and practices by
the creative power of His Word and underwriting them with His prescribed practices, tension is activated!
While this illustration isn’t perfect, it provides a glimpse into
ways our methods can be used for God as long as we are intensely keen
to the foundational pillars of preaching, scripture, communion, and so
Questions, Questions, Questions.
I recently read an article on Charles Finney by Tom Browning.
Finney is considered the father of many ministry practices and
methodologies employed in the evangelical church throughout the past
150 plus years. Many of them have been retired, retried, and just
plain tired. One of the points Browning makes is that methods aren’t
always being subjected to correct theology, but are often employed
simply because they work. For example, a church might employ a free
plasma tv giveaway on a Sunday because it "works" in drawing a crowd.
Back in Finney’s day, his critics focused on his new methods and
techniques instead of asking important questions about the underlying
theology. Browning believes, and I agree, that our theology drives our
methods. For example, if our theology informs us that "faith is by
hearing and hearing by the Word of God" then our method naturally would
involve gospel preaching. If our methods do not involve gospel
preaching, then it points to an underlying theology that devalues or
ignores "faith by hearing".
It’s easy to go to a conference like the one I did, and walk away
with someone else’s ideas and say "We’ve got to do this"! Instead,
when contemplating a new program or practice, are we examining our
underlying theology? Are we asking the right questions like: Why
are we wanting to do this? Is the method a servant to the gospel? Or
is the method a gospel in of itself? Is God prescribing this for our
church? These are much better questions than ones like "is this
effective" or "is this cutting edge" or "will this work"? Anything can
be effective, cutting edge, and "work, yet still be based on human
ingenuity and effort leaving God out of the process. Most times, God
is real specific on how to grow His church. He’s specific because we
have seen throughout Biblical history what happens when humans put
their spin on doing God’s work.
Everyone’s a hero
Now, if I were to stop right here, then I wouldn’t be embracing the
tension we so desperately need! I would just be another "frozen
chosen" as one of my good Reformed friends quips about himself. With
that in mind, we need to comprehend "new" things and be sensitive to
the changes in our culture. It’s funny how missionaries to foreign
countries understand this better than the American churches that send
them. What missionary would be expected to go to Africa or Brazil and
attempt to "westernize" them with all of our baroquish hymns of the
faith. We would learn their music, wear their apparel, and learn
their language and culture! Contrary to "religious right" viewpoints,
Christianity is not synonymous with American. America is NOT a
Christian nation. In planting a church in a foreign land, you still
would build your bridge on the same pillars of truth, but your cable
strands would look a little different. Sometimes I find it difficult
to believe that people ignore the fact that American culture is far
more diverse then it was 25, 50,and 100 years ago. As I mentioned
earlier, maybe it’s because the culture has morphed so quickly that the
church hasn’t been able to gain her bearings long enough to reason this
out. This spiritual stumbling results in the muck of endless debate
when each side knee-jerks with intense efforts to "save the church" as
if God depended on such heroism from us. One side accuses these
evangelistic heroes because their methods are man-centered. However,
the same could be said of the accusers. Instead of man-centered
heroic evangelism, they often display themselves as man-centered heroic
Protectors of Doctrine in the name of God-centeredness! The thought
that the church has done things in certain ways for centuries therefore anything different and new must be wrong
is a nice sentiment, and while I agree that we should be discriminating
in regard to newness, it’s not because it is new but because it is new so it could be false! Frankly, culture has changed so drastically in such a relatively short time, that "we’ve done it this way for centuries" is not the best argument for truth.
When we respond to the culture, and make no mistake, the church must
respond, we should be sensitively counter-cultural. If this sounds
conflicting, that’s because it is. If the church is to be counter
cultural then how is it possible to be culturally-sensitive at the same
time? This is where the tension lies. This is where the church should
If the church has no tension, then you are left with an abandoned
bridge that no one ever crosses and crumbles over time. If there is
too much tension, then the bridge collapses and crushes the travelers
in their stead.
The church desperately needs the tension that is realized when the
protectors of doctrine wrestle with the relevant evangelists. Tension
is not always comfortable, but it is as necessary to the church’s
spiritual growth as liquid fire is to the tempering of steel!
We need tension. What we don’t need are more heroes.