Evangelicals and Innovation

In his new book Why Should I Believe You? Rediscovering Clergy Credibility (Abingdon), Thomas Bandy notes that the church is one of the last organizations in our culture that discourages (I think this is a typo, it should be “encourages”) innovation. He writes, "The church must learn the hard lessons that organizations in other public sectors have learned. In a world of mass migration, technological change, rapid communication, and spiritual searching, core values for maintenance, stability and predictability are no longer practical. The church is one of the last holdouts in organizational America that rewards employees and volunteers for their lack of experimentation.

"Such behavior is quite contrary to the New Testament, in which Jesus uses the parable of the talents to urge an entrepreneurial spirit in the disciples. It is also contrary to the tradition of first-millennium Christianity, in which leaders of the Christian movement tried everything from funeral societies to house churches to table talk in the agora in order to share the gospel. It is the dominance of the diocesan church of the second millennium, and the need of the diocesan leaders to control, that changed everything. Now we have to change back again."

The above two paragraphs were lifted out of the latest issue of Preaching Now, a newsletter that I generally find very helpful. For some reason these few sentences really stuck in my craw. I don’t know Thomas Bandy, and don’t plan to read his book, but I want to respond to what he said with one short word: baloney.

There are a couple of straw men that the church growth writers have set up, and one of them is that the church has failed to innovate. I’m not sure where these writers have been, but after thirty years of ministry, statements like that make me scratch my head. In point of fact Evangelicalism has been extremely good at innovation. We have ministries to college students, servicemen and servicewomen, ministries aimed at specific professions. We’ve creatively designed all kinds of ministries to kids and teens. I had lunch today with a friend whose church has a ministry to deaf people. I could go on and on. The church has discouraged innovation?

I look at my own congregation. I’ve served here for 26 years and I want to tell you that this is not the same church it was in 1980 when I came. Our people dress more casually. We’re not stuck singing gospel songs from the 1930’s. We do both older and newer Christ-centered music. Discussion has replaced lecture in many areas of our teaching ministries. Our kids programs and youth groups are not age-specific replicas of a worship service. We’ve moved from the King James Version. Many of our adults attend home Bible studies during the week, something made possible by eliminating our Sunday evening and midweek services. We use more than just an organ and a piano on Sunday morning. Our efforts to reach out to our community have been focused on having them receive something from us rather than inviting them to join us in our "thing." And I could go on.

Some might say that these changes are not that significant? Really? You should have been here while they were taking place. Some people had a hard time with some of these "minor" changes. And my congretation is not the only one of which this would be true. None of this would have happened – here or elsewhere – without innovation. So exactly what is it, Mr. Church Growth Expert (and I am not directing this at Mr. Bandy) that needs to change?

Let me share a lesson I learned years ago. For the first decade of my ministry at Faith I worked broadly in the Christian Education program. One of my responsibilities involved the evaluation of children's curriculum. The early 1980’s happened to be a time when innovation and creativity were big ticket items in the world of curriculum publishing. Borrowing from the educational methodology that was in vogue at the time, publishers traded in plain-looking, content-driven teaching quarterlies for more colorful, activity-centered programs. Some of the really creative leading-lights even included props for the teachers to use to move the kids from one whiz-bang thing to another.

The problem was that as the methods became more creative, and the activities became more prominent, it became evident that the content had to be cut back. Initially this was viewed as acceptable, because after all, the average kid’s attention span was regressing at a record pace. So we had them act out stories, make things, etc., etc., with the understanding that they would grasp more if they were active learners. But fifteen years later, kids weaned on those kinds of programs don’t know the Bible.

I am not advocating a return to fill-in-the-blank quarterlies. I'm not saying we should go back to rote learning. But I am pointing out an example of what happens when methods become the focus. I could cite other instances of methods overshadowing message, but in order to keep this on the shorter side, I won’t do that.

I bristle when I read statements like those that begin this entry. I’m sure that the author knows of some stick-in-the mud groups who live as if this was 1957 and not 2007. But I don’t suspect that is true of as many churches as some of the experts seem to think.

Here are some things that I know. God honors his Word. There is power in it, because the Spirit of God uses it to change people’s lives. The Gospel has a specific content. It can’t be reduced too far without removing its essence. Christ’s call is to discipleship, not a fulfilled life, and people are more interested in fulfillment than they are in following. That’s why thousands of people gathered to listen to him teach and get a free lunch in the bargain, but why when he rose from the dead he only had about 120 people to gather around him.

Our call is to be faithful. I want to be creative, and I want to be innovative, but not at the expense of the spiritual well-being of my people and not at the expense of the clarity of the Gospel. I would contend that some of the weakness in our churches and in our people has come about because of some of the very innovations that the gurus’ applaud. Christian people know less of the Bible, are less distinctive in their lifestyle, and think less and less from an eternal perspective than previous generations. That’s what I'm observing, and I am not alone, at least based on the conversations I have with friends in ministry. I want to recover some of that, not find more ways to let it happen.

Thomas Bandy has written other books that show that he is apparently interested in these things too. It may be that Preaching Now excerpted something that represents just a small part of what he says. But I still say it’s baloney. Evangelicalism has changed, it has innovated, and some of the change and innovation has weakened us. Let’s fix what we can, let’s change where we need to change, but let’s be sure we are not being unfaithful to the message or to the God who gave it to us.

1 comments:

bumble said...

Amen,

I could testify for the innovations here too throughout the past 20 years, and the commitment to hold fast to God's Word at the same time.

Bumble, Midway City