–Winter of 2009
How many times have you heard an old-timer say, “The only things you can be sure of these days are death and taxes”? Actually, that statement is wrong. The only things you can be sure of are death, taxes and change. For over a hundred years both politicians and preachers have been declaring that we live in a day of “unprecedented change.” And they were dead right no matter if those words were spoken in 1901, 1951 or 2001. Changes have occurred so rapidly each decade in travel and communications alone that this massive planet of ours is now so small that we circle the globe weekly for commerce and have daily chats or trade email with friends on multiple continents. We have gone from localized purchases at the general store to such global commerce that a collector of antiques in China can buy online today a lantern you bought at a yard sale yesterday. We deposit our checks, pay our bills and buy needed items from anywhere in the world with a few clicks on the keypad.
Our new U.S. president won on a platform that promised to “change the way we do business in Washington.” The very fact that an African-American was elected to the highest office in the land indicates the change that has taken place in the attitudes of America’s white majority. A home that was built in part by black slaves now houses a black man as the most powerful leader in the free world. Change has affected every level of our lives. It has become a constant in the world we live in.
The Church too is affected by change. The church at the beginning of the twenty-first century is much different from the church at the beginning of the twentieth century. Changes like indoor plumbing and air conditioning have made worship more comfortable. Digital sound and video technology have made it possible to stream the service via the Internet to people miles away. Advances in technology have changed the appearance of our bulletins, the quality of our educational tools and the sound of our music, all of which can enhance the worship experience. The style of preaching and the length of most services and sermons have changed.
Not all change in our world has been good. For example, the Internet has placed an invaluable world of knowledge at our fingertips. It has opened a whole new world of commerce and even aided in the spread of the gospel to parts of the world closed to missionaries. But it has also become a sewer pipe of the most sordid sensuality ready to spill its vile contents with just the click of a mouse or to spread the doctrines of a radical terrorist to anyone who chooses to browse in the realm of darkness.
America has some of the finest educational institutions in the world, but changes in the educational thought and moral philosophy they promote have secularized our society to the point that relativism and warped multiculturalism have eroded a belief in the absolutes of a transcendent truth, resulting in behavior that is often immoral and sometimes pagan.
The changes in the Church have had a mixed effect as well. Some of the changes have been a true blessing, while others have led the Church to dilute its message, compromise it’s most deeply held beliefs and swerve from its true mission. Some changes have brought unnecessary generational divides to congregations, while in the other cases it brought bitter church splits.
Because many in the Church have seen the negative result of some changes, they have dug in their heels and resisted any change at all. Like the Amish who decided that they were going to “lock in” to the late nineteenth-century way of doing life, many churches have “locked in” to a post-World War II model of doing church and refuse to budge. I believe this is a significant reason why many churches in America have plateaued or are in decline. They don’t know how to deal with change, so they just refuse it altogether.
On the other hand, I believe that many churches who are growing numerically because of changes they have made, have lost their way biblically and spiritually because they saw change as the answer to all things. Their failure to understand change led them to discard carelessly many things that are timeless and unchanging.
So what is the answer? How do we decide what to change and what not to change? How do we discern between traditions that are passing and truth that is permanent? I will endeavor to answer those questions in my next article: “Developing a Biblical Theology of Change.”