Can too much change destroy the church? Change always seems to be in the air, but can too much change be harmful? As churches innovate, is there a spiritual danger of destroying the fabric of the church itself? This is the first of three great questions tackled by an upcoming online conference: Imagine Summit 2016.
The answer to this question depends on what you innovate. Two hundred years ago the fastest form of communication was the Pony Express. And then the telegraph was invented. And then the steam engine, and then the automobile, and then the internet and then smart phones. In one sense you can argue that all of these innovations destroyed the Pony Express, but it only enhanced the underlying issue of communication. The Pony Express was simply one medium, one expression of the centuries-old practice of human communication. If your main goal is to maintain the expression (Pony Express), you grieve at the innovation. If your main goal is to improve the underlying concept of human communication, you rejoice at the innovation throughout the years.
Fifteen years ago while training to serve overseas as a missionary in Africa, I learned an incredible component of missionary strategy that has influenced me ever since. One of the main tasks of a missionary entering a foreign culture is to take the seed of the gospel, strip it of all its American cultural components, and plant the seed of the gospel into the foreign culture and let it grow.
Serving in Botswana, Africa, I saw what happens when we don’t do this. I served in African Baptist Churches that were taught by well meaning missionaries in the 1950s that the only proper way to have church was to have a building, a seminary trained preacher and to sing from a Broadman Holman Hymnal (English of course). The only problem was, the African Baptists there had no money to build expensive buildings, no seminaries in the country to train preachers, and of course English was not their heart language. Inadvertently, the well-meaning missionaries taught the people in Botswana how to be American Christians, not Christians.
To determine whether or not spiritual innovation will destroy the church or not, you have to discern what you’re innovating. If spiritual innovation attempts to change the core, the seed of the gospel (the divinity of Jesus, his sacrifice on the cross, his bodily resurrection), that will ultimately destroy the church. But if spiritual innovation attempts to improve the medium, the expression of the gospel (leaving the seed untouched), then spiritual innovation will only improve the impact of the gospel in the same way text messages are a vast improvement in human communication over the Pony Express.
When people protest change or innovation, many times they’re clinging onto their preferred expression, their preferred medium. Those should not and cannot be sacred to us. As the need for human communication has remained the same while the mediums and expressions have changed, the underlying need for the gospel will always remain the same while the current expressions and mediums will change.
Here’s the danger: if we don’t innovate well, churches can too easily be left on the sidelines of society, the spiritual equivalent of VCR repairmen and landline phone salesman, utterly irrelevant to the world around us. Protecting the core seed of the gospel, if churches don’t innovate, they will die.
The Imagine Summit is March 15-17, 2016 and you can be a part of this online conference by registering here.