Friday, September 3, 2010

Out with the Old, In with the New: Narrowness Cloaked in Openness

There is much talk in the church today, as there was in the 70's and 80's, about updating the methods used by churches in accomplishing the Great Commission (Matt 28.18-20), as if God only gave a command and didn't also provide the necessary instructions for carrying out the command.  The worship wars have expanded their theatre of conflict now to include the nature of the church and how to do evangelism and missions.  The mantra of the day is "we must be relevant!".  But apparently relevance is a code word for looking like the world--your local coffee shop to be more specific.

Underlying the call for new methods is a new fourth mark of the church.  Historically the church has been understood by the three marks of the right preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and faithful church discipline.  Yet, today, to these three, a fourth mark is emerging (pun intended) and that is the mark of marketing how one does those things.  Some preach the gospel dressed formally and some preach it in flip flops and shorts--never mind that both are apparently meeting with and representing the same God.

Adding marketing to the list of marks provides the justification to flood the religious market with all manner of different styles of churches, so that if one "type" of church is not bringing in the throngs, then we need to offer a different product.  This market driven model apparently provides the justification for churches planting new churches on top of one another without any forethought as to what this says to a community about God and his gospel.

Never mind the obvious Arminian foundation of this thinking and strategic plan, does it not cause anyone to step back and think about the wisdom of using models and strategies for church mission that have been around no longer than some of our youngest covenant children?  G.K. Chesterton, in his book What's Wrong with the World?, comments on this very tactic saying, "It ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people."  He complained that the child is oftentimes older than the theory he is taught, "the flopping infant of four actually has more experience . . . than the dogma to which he is made to submit."

Chesterton's complaint centered on the new fad of man's intoxication with the new and distaste for the old.  "In the modern world we are primarily confronted with the the extraordinary spectacle of people turning to new ideas because they have not tried the old."  C. S. Lewis also sought to refute this error, which he referred to as "chronological snobbery."  Rather than fall prey to this arrogance, Lewis suggested we should allow the "breezes of the centuries" to blow through our minds,
It’s a good rule after reading a new book never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to three new ones....Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books....The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books.
We have lost sight of this wisdom today.  Rather than see ourselves rooted in the tried and true faith and practice of our Reformed heritage through a covenantal and organic connection, we would rather utilize a cut flower approach to our mission.  Yes, cut flowers are aesthetically beautiful and in that beauty give the appearance of health and vitality.  Yet, the nature of cut flowers is that their root system is cut off and they will inevitably die from lack of sustenance and nourishment. 

As a result, some, in order to get away from what many refer to as the white middle class Presbyterianism of western modernity, they have turned to white middle class postmodernity that relativizes truth and practice.  They deny that God has revealed the means by which the church is to fulfill her mission, and as a result, believe that good intentions, good sociological studies and good market research should be used to best be able to reflect the culture they are seeking to reach.  They have merely traded one cultural influence for another.  The truth of Christ and his promise to build the church become contingent on the latest market research.  The danger here is that as the media shapes the message, the gospel of Christ is being confused with postmodern, relativistic pop-psychology and political activism. 

Presbyterian church growth techniques have become a cut flower enterprise that is here today and gone tomorrow, where the younger generation assumes it knows all and those who have gone before are forgotten and dismissed.  This situation is the case in some Presbyterian circles as the older, proven ways are being jettisoned for the new emerging (pun intended again) techniques.  In Presbyterian missions, this has led to the young men who have not proven themselves in ministry any further than momentarily creating a larger crowd serving as experts in presbyteries, rather than sitting at the feet and learning from those who have gone before them.  This includes not only the living elders, but even the dead.

The theory of new equals good, or the new is superior to the old is often touted in terms of being open and not closed-minded.  Yet, to borrow from Chesterton once again, "Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about . . . Tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father."  Intoxication with the new, although clothed with words of openness, is really narrowness in openness clothing. 

Ever thought about how the Bible does not fit the criteria of new equals superior?  It is to no surprise, then, that rarely is the Bible mentioned in substantiating the new.  God has not only given us a mission, he has revealed how the mission is to be pursued.  And just in case you are wondering, the Lord gives us his perspective on this theory in Jeremiah 6.16,
“Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls."
Ironically, this generation of Presbyterians is not the first to utilize this theory.  The New Side and New School Presbyterians in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries already have introduced this theory.  The new methods that are emerging today (you guessed it) are actually reacting against these earlier innovations.  The New Schooler's in Presbyterianism today find that they are no longer new enough.  What seemed to be effective then, is now no longer deemed effective.  Maybe the fact that it is no longer deemed successful should direct us to see that it wasn't actually effective back then either.  Or, maybe we should just embrace the idea that since it is Christ who has promised to build his church, Christ apparently arbitrarily changes the methods he uses.

In my opinion, the new equals better theory has already been tried and found wanting--the new New Schoolers state this themselves.  Let us, then, not fall prey to this subtle pride and arrogance, which has been committed by the people of God throughout her history (just start reading in Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve tried to improve upon God's means for accomplishing the church's mission).  Rather than approaching the mission of the church from the perspective of out with the old and in with the new, let us pursue a more humble and wise approach of stick with the old, and test the new until it has proven itself to be true, wise and trustworthy.


  1. A nice essay, and we should heed the wisdom of it. Thanks, David.

  2. Amen!
    The church will never win the world by competing on the world's playing field.
    More importantly, we have a guidebook for how a church should operate - which needs to be followed.
    May God bless you and your ministry.

  3. I'm going to stick my neck out here and say that the first thing this makes me think of is: What IS the biblical model for missions and advertising the church?

    I'm sure it has something to do with word and sacrament, but what does that mean SPECIFICALLY? You should write your next blog post on that.

    Or get Jeremy to do it ;)