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.