It was the perfect stereotype. I was going to speak at a fundamental, independent, King-James-only, ultra-conservative church. I knew there’d be the choir, the hymns and the time where visitors would be singled out and recognized publicly. Not that these things are terrible—they just seem a little outdated for today’s postmodern, post-Christian culture.
As I pulled off the state highway, the visual cues were right on. There was the white colonial church, the big steeple and the big front entrance. As the service began, all the expected elements began to take shape as well. The choir marched in, the hymns were sung, and visitors were asked to raise their hands so they could be given a visitor’s card to fill out.
But then something happened. As John Wesley described it, my heart became strangely warmed. At greeting time, countless people came up to me and genuinely said how happy they were to have me there. As I looked around, I noticed a high percentage of young married couples, the kind that are supposed to reject church and spirituality until they’re 30 or their second child arrives. Speaking of kids, I thought they would be dismissed for “junior church” at some point, but they all stayed. And they all sat and quietly listened to the entire 75-minute service. At the end, I saw two dads that didn’t look very “churched” come forward during the invitation. After the service, a couple young fathers talked to me about the importance of spiritual leadership in their home and in the church.
In summary, lives were being changed in a real and unmistakable way. And by the end of the service, I was convicted of my preconceived notions of how this church should change their ways even though I hadn’t seen what kind of ministry was really taking place.
You see, I wanted to box these people in. I wanted to tell them that they could take their 6/8/2003 service, transplant it to 6/8/1963, and they wouldn’t have to change a thing except a few hairstyles and some clothes. I wanted to tell them that the postmodern world is upon us and that their ministry methods need to reflect this. I knew that the clinical definition of death is “that which does not change” and was convinced they had one foot in the grave when it came to relating to the world of today. But then I was confronted with life change that is real and significant, and I was left wondering if I had it all wrong in the first place.
So, I’d like to offer a few observations:
Maybe older paradigms of ministry are still appropriate after all. There are millions of people in the country with varying degrees of church in their background. Surely traditional church methods will continue to meet the needs of some in the foreseeable future.
Maybe, living in the North as I do, I didn’t realize that some areas of the country, like the Deep South, haven’t changed enough to warrant drastic changes in ministry methods. Churches in these areas could continue to do what they are doing and not experience any decline in the foreseeable future.
Maybe some churches are called to reach disconnected believers who have significant church backgrounds in their lives. It may even be unintentional on the part of the church, but they will continue to prosper in the foreseeable future.
But there’s that phrase—“the foreseeable future.” How long is the foreseeable future? When will the changes in our culture and society bring the Church to the point where—even in conservative parts of the country—staying the same is more painful than changing? No one can deny the influence of culture on ministry methods, even in the most inflexible denominations and churches. Consider changes brought about by the printing press, the telephone, the Internet, etc. Somewhere along the line, many churches realized that the Message doesn’t equal the method, and the Gospel doesn’t have to be compromised because we change our ways of “doing church.”
The paradox of the need for change is the constancy of the Gospel message itself—the Jesus narrative. Throughout history, that is what stayed constant when church leaders fought to keep scriptural interpretation under the lock and key of a chosen few. That is what stayed constant when people fought to keep pipe organs out of the church. And while some groups have decided to stop the clock on how they do church and others have embraced new and untried paradigms, the Message still survives and changes lives. So for all the talk about ministry methods, there’s no one assumption that can be made on the basis of methods alone. The incredible diversity of people calls for incredible diversity of ministry methods.
So while I continue to carry the banner of cultural relevance, I have learned to be much more conciliatory toward those who I think are automatically ineffective because their methods seem out of step with today’s world. I have also learned that cultural relevance must be interpreted in the local context and not in a homogenous, one-size-fits-all context. Pieties of any form, postmodern or not, belong further back in time than any “outdated” ministry method currently being used.
RELATED LINKS:BEYOND COOL: BEING RELEVANT