I read a statistic the other day that shocked me, according to a recent study 90% of heart patients faced with the need to make changes in their lifestyle choose to die rather than making change. That shocked me until I stopped and thought about it for a moment. No one likes change and if forced to, I would have to admit that I dislike change as much as anyone. The simple reason that I dislike change so much is that I like to be comfortable and I have gone to great lengths to organize my life in a way that is comfortable for me. Change means that I will have to leave that comfort zone. I will have to do things that might make me uncomfortable and disturb my carefully maintained equilibrium. Do you have the same problem? I guarantee that you do and if you want me to prove it just let me come over to your house and start rearranging it. You would very quickly discover that change makes us very uncomfortable.
I think that this basic aversion to change is what hinders the church in America from being effective. The statistical evidence has been mounting over the last decade to show that the church is in decline in America. In our own Southern Baptist Denomination, nearly 90% of our churches are either plateued or declining. Sadly, much of the reason for this decline is the failure of the church to engage the emerging culture around it. No one can doubt that we are experiencing one of the greatest cultural shifts in the history of our nation and perhaps even the world. But unfortunately, the church has largely stayed in the 1950’s ministering to a culture that does not exist anywhere except in its own four walls. This failure to engage the culture has resulted in a devastating decline in evangelism and conversions.
Last week on this blog we began a discussion about what it means to be missional in Metropolis. Part of this involves being willing to change so that we can engage the culture we live in. We will discuss specific changes in future articles but I think it is important to understand the difference between principles, methods, and preferences. One of my favorite professors in seminary was Dr. Elmer Towns. He was famous for drilling the following saying into the minds of his students, “Methods are many, principles are few, methods may change but principles never do.” Often this distinction gets forgotten in the church.
There are principles that we should be willing to die for and that are never up for compromise. For instance, we believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. This is a principle that we are not willing to ever give up. We believe in the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone. These are all principles that we should never give up. They are the foundational, fundamental issues of our Christian life.
Our methods represent our principles as applied to culture. Methods will change as the culture changes. We may not like that and it may make us uncomfortable but it is true. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22 “…I have become all things to all men, that might by all means save some.” What Paul is talking about in this passage is his willingness to set aside personal preferences and adapt his methods to reach his audience. For instance, when Paul was preaching to Jews he went to the synagogue, dressed like a Jew, talked like a Jew and started his gospel presentation in the Old Testament law. But in Acts 17, when he preached in Athens, Paul adapted his methods to fit the context that he was preaching in. He went to where the Gentiles met, the Areopagus. He spoke the language they could understand, even quoting from popular Greek poets and philosophers. He started his presentation not in the law but in their misunderstanding of who God is and creation. In other words, Paul was not afraid to change in order to preach the gospel. He understood that the principles of the gospel never change but the methods of presentation will.
So what does this have to do with the church? Simply put, we must be willing to embrace change if we are going to be effective in reaching our community with the gospel. While we will never compromise our principles we should always be willing to change our methods and sacrifice our preferences. To be on mission with God, Abraham had to leave his hometown and his fathers house. To be on mission with God, Paul has to be willing to give up his personal preferences and become the missionary to the Gentiles. To be on mission Jesus had to leave the glory of heaven and become a servant. To be on mission we will have to change. We will have to be willing to sacrifice personal preferences for the sake of reaching the lost and dying of our community with the gospel. I leave you with the words of that famous hymn writer/theologian Bob Dylan:
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.