One of our core values at Grace Hills is, “We stay fast, fluid, and flexible. There are no sacred cows. We embrace the pain of change for the win of seeing more people meeting Jesus.” I wrote that one knowing that of all of our other core values, it would probably be the hardest to honor over the long haul. It addresses the crossroads where theology meets psychology, where truth, mission, and fear intermingle. Change is hard.
The American evangelical church is in a rather desperate condition. You’ve heard that America is a “Christian” nation and that Christianity is dominant. Perhaps it’s the popular religion, but far fewer people are attending church than we realize. And we’re only planting one fourth of the number of new churches needed to keep pace with America’s current population growth and rate of decline in existing churches.
So churches absolutely must change and adapt if they will remain relevant to the culture. I realize many Christian leaders don’t like that terminology, so let me clarify that God’s Word, the gospel, Jesus, and the church as Jesus intended it to be have always been, are now, and always will be relevant without our help. But we often hold onto extra-biblical traditions and ideas that severely limit our ability to communicate with a young generation, an influx of immigrants, and a culture being shaped by its technology and entertainment more than its religious and historical roots. In other words, if Satan’s goal is to blind the minds of those who don’t know Christ to the gospel, we often help by handing out blinders such as inauthenticity, racism, ethno-centrism, traditionalism, and political power struggles driven by fear and selfishness.
But if God’s desire to enlarge His family matters… if people who are lost forever without the gospel matter… and if the church of the future matters… we will embrace the pain of change for the win of seeing more people meeting Jesus.
I don’t have all the answers, but I think I have a few, and they are rooted in my understanding of the gospel’s effect on a community and my experience interacting with thousands of pastors and churches in the last few years. As I look at the landscape of stable or slightly declining existing churches who are fighting hard to stay afloat in the current of a rapidly changing culture, I see some common factors that must be addressed by church leaders. Here are some tough questions I believe every church ought to honestly ask:
- Are we really all about Jesus? Is He the head? Does He have preeminence? Are we clear with people that it is to Jesus, and not to a consumer-oriented experience that we are inviting them? Attraction is good. Jesus was attractive. But are we honest about to Whom we are inviting people?
- Will we hold tightly to our historical, biblical theology? Will biblical inerrancy, which has survived a tough struggle in some circles, continue to thrive among evangelical leaders? Will we be faithful to the word of Him who is the one and only Way, Truth, and Life?
- Will we place our need to control, which is based on fear, on the altar as a sacrifice and begin to rely on the Holy Spirit? Will we trust His under-shepherds without the red tape of boards, committees, and votes? Will we listen to Hebrews 13:17?
- Will we embrace people from other cultures and backgrounds? Will we finally put to death the idea of the “white church,” “black church,” “hispanic church,” etc.? Can we value our cultural heritage without the competitive idea that my culture is better than your culture?
- Will we create a safe place for people to deal with their hurts, habits, and hang-ups in the light of the gospel? Can we ever assure people that we won’t use their past against them and handcuff them to their shame?
- Can we grow up and get over our demand for our own preferences to be met? Will we be able to adapt our communication to the language of humanity instead of church-ese? Will we welcome newcomers with love and wisdom, and listen and learn from them rather than leaving the responsibility of adaptation to them?
- Will we make prayer and submission to God the priority over polished productions and performances?
- Will we take risks, spend money, change names, re-constitute, re-launch, help the new church plant down the street, and venture into new mission fields by faith rather than remaining safe and comfortable? Not all of these apply to everyone, of course, but will we take the necessary risks?
More than ever, we need to keep our passion hot for Jesus, His truth, His church, new churches, new mission fields, unreached people, uninvolved believers, unforgiven sinners, the least, the last, and the lost. Pretty much everything else can be left behind.
Any tough questions you would add? Or how are you wrestling with these and similar issues?
Photo by Stuck In Customs.