Church Sell-By Date

Al Shaw posed an interesting question on his blog recently. He was picking up on some quotes from John Wimber and Steve Timmis, both of whom suggested that a local church has a “sell-by” date, and after about 20 years or so, it needs to undergo substantial change so that in effect it becomes a new church. Here’s Steve’s quote:

Every church is ‘designed’ for a specific culture & generation. It has a ‘sell-by’ date which, if ignored, leads into institutionalism.

To explore this, I want to change the question slightly, and ask, “What would it mean if your church was currently doing things exactly the same way as 20 years ago?

No doubt some churches are doing just that, and interpreting this as a sign of their uncompromising gospel faithfulness. As is made abundantly clear throughout the New Testament, the gospel is not up for re-invention, or re-imagination. Our job is to faithfully proclaim what God has already revealed.

So point one is, the gospel doesn’t have a sell-by date.

Slightly more contentious would be the question of what elements of church polity and practice are timeless? This will depend on whether we view these things as being directly mandated by Scripture or not. These kind of questions include whether a church has elders or a “leadership team”, whether they have small groups or only meet as a whole church, whether the pastor or a “worship leader” chooses the songs and so on. Reformed churches have a tendency to see a biblical mandate behind almost everything they do, which can make them more resistant to change than most. And then there is the element of tradition – the longer a church has been going the more “traditions” it picks up, and the more resistance to changing them.

But even granting that Scripture does give us some guidance on the practicalities of organizing and running a church, I still think we have a remarkable degree of latitude given to us concerning the details of what form the meetings and ministries of a local church should take.

So my second observation is, we need to make a clear distinction between those things Scripture commands with regards to the local church, and the things that it allows us flexibility on.

If I look back 20 years, I see many societal changes, all of which the church needs to respond to in some way. There are technological advances. We used to sell audio tapes of sermons, but most people under 30 have nothing to play them on. There are changes in the sociological makeup of an area, due to factors such as immigration, or changes in the local employment prospects. The ‘outreach’ events from 20 years ago may no longer be relevant for the majority of the local population. There are cultural changes, such as the style of music people listen to and how they dress. I’m sure we have all cringed in churches where the music and attire seem to be stuck in the 1950s. There are moral changes, with Christian ethics being undermined in many ways, which the church cannot ignore, but needs to engage with and address. There are lifestyle changes, such as the way people spend their money and free time. Some of these will provide fresh opportunities for evangelism, others will require the church to be provocative by living out a distinctive counter-culture.

Check out the list of methods of evangelism I compiled here and ask yourself how many would actually be appropriate in your local context.

Which brings me to my final point, culture changes rapidly, and so a church that contextualised itself successfully in the past, will only reduce in evangelistic effectiveness if they refuse to make any changes to the way they operate.

9 thoughts on “Church Sell-By Date

  1. Some how always reforming without just being led by the latest fads, has to be returning again and again to the gospel, knowing that the gospel shapes everything but holding loosely to how we think that should look in practice.

  2. Mark – I agree with your clarification but I’ll add a bit more to the reference to John Wimber because while not contradictory, was slightly different than the point you are driving. John would say every denomination should plan its own demise. He would then elaborate that this is because every generation needs a fresh encounter with Christ. If not, the tendency is for the 2nd generation to simply propagate tradition and then the 3rd generation, sensing the emptiness in that, rebells. Or the older v. younger brother dynamic takes place where both (a la the Prodigal Son) miss the Father in their own brand of rebellion.

    Either way, the point was we need our own experience with the living God.

  3. Hmm. I’m not sure that it is about the age of a church or a denomination, but about the adaptability and willingness to ‘become all things’. I have seen baptist and anglican church that have been more willing to do this than newly planted churches using a paradigm that was fine in a ‘parent’ church 20 years ago but looked old already.

    Besides – this is a sort of foreign concept in scripture. The NT church in a town just was – it probably ebbed and flowed and adapted, but remained the church in that town. We should be careful that we down form our ecclesiology around denominationalism.

  4. Rick, thanks for the clarification. I agree with us needing our own experience of the living God. I’m not sure planning our own demise is the answer, but I can see there is some truth to his observations about the second and third generation.

    Ian, you make a good point about denominationalism. I do think though that realistically there will always be multiple local churches in a large town, and these will naturally have different characteristics reflecting the gifting and personalities of both its leaders and its wider membership.

  5. Mark

    The point I was making is that the idea that a church can have a ‘sell by date’ is foreign to the NT. In the NT there was only one church in a locality – so how could it go out of date? I just think we should be careful about allowing a disposability of church, and of allowing churches to stagnate rather than the much more challenging, difficult and lengthy process of staying around and being change within a church.

  6. Excellent reflection and excellent question about “what would it mean if we were doing the same things as 20 years ago.”

    Any further thoughts about how to discern when inertia has got so ingrained that it becomes structurally unalterable? What do you think are the tipping points where a church moves imperceptibly from being dynamic and progressive to passive and reactionary?

  7. excellent question Marcus. Its one worth pondering. One thing that churches can do is to regularly review their different ministries and small groups, as well as the way they run their Sunday meetings. Sometimes a ministry can simply become stale, and needs some reinvigoration. This can require pastoral sensitivity, especially if there is a need for a change of leadership.

    One thing that I think is a real danger sign is a stagnant membership – if there is no one new joining, (and to a lesser extent if there is no one leaving to serve the Lord in other places, meaning that there is no new leadership needed), the church is in real danger of losing inertia.

  8. I recently read another quote by Steve Timmis to the effect that every local church is culturally contextualised – in just depends what era that culture is from!

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