If there is any group of people on the planet who should be enthusiastic about change and transformation it ought to be Christians. At the heart of the Christian message is the change brought about by the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ. God has done all that was necessary to transfer his people from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son. That’s change on a massive scale. By the mighty power of his Spirit, God changes the lives of individuals as he brings them to new birth, works in them to produce genuine repentance and faith, and unites them to his Son and all he has accomplished for them. Once again, a monumental change. We look towards that day when the universe of suffering and brokenness, selfishness and abuse, disease and death, will be transformed into a paradise in which every tear is wiped away and multitudes from every tribe, language and nation join together around the throne of God and rejoice in the salvation he has won for us and given to us so freely. You don’t get change on a bigger scale than that!

Christians are not frightened of change. We’re excited by it and the possibilities it brings. But we are not naive about change either. Not all change is good. The change that we human beings effect can be good and beneficial or, tragically, the exact opposite. Sometimes it can actually be both: it brings about a result we gladly embrace but at a terrible cost. Think about the decision to defend the world against the tyranny of Hitler’s military might and genocidal rage in the second quarter of the twentieth century. Victory over Hitler and his allies was a good thing that brought great rejoicing, but the cost was horrendous – millions of lives lost in the war, and much else besides. On the smaller scale we can all think of changes we’ve been involved in that have brought good and bad together, sometimes in such equal proportion that we are not at all sure we would do it the same way again if we had the chance.

So the Christian attitude to change should not be caricatured as one of fear, reluctant acceptance, or, on the other side, as one of enthusiastic and unreflective embrace. It calls for both understanding and wisdom. For that, we need some measure beyond ourselves against which we might test any proposal for change or assess the changes we have adopted without really realizing what we have done. In God’s goodness he has given us such a measure in his word. Understood as a whole, with due recognition of both its unity as an unfolding account of God’s dealings with his world (given expression in a number of different literary forms or genres – history, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, law) and its particular focus on the life, words and work of the Lord Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of God’s purpose in redemption and new creation (i.e. it is not read flatly since the situation under the new covenant is not identical to that under the old), the Bible gives us a sure and certain expression of the mind of God. And what God gives us to know of his mind doesn’t ever need to be changed because he knows all things from the beginning and is always wise and always loving.

Perhaps it is an opportune time to ask ourselves about some of the changes that have occurred in church ministry in the last little while. It would be good to begin a conversation about whether those changes are all as good as we might have thought them to be. Of course in any one of these cases we might decide the answer is an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’. The change we are examining has brought us closer to a biblical pattern or principle than we have been before, or it has brought about a more effective reach into our communities with the gospel, or it has deepened and enriched the life of God’s people. We shouldn’t be afraid to say that if it is indeed true. We ought never to be merely reactionary or resistant to change simply because it is change. Yet we need to leave open the possibility that the change we have in mind hasn’t actually done those things and may indeed have, in one or more unintended ways, taken us in the opposite direction: away from biblical patterns and principles; less effective in reaching our communities with a gospel that challenges as well as comforts, summoning us to change rather than simply confirming us in the directions we are heading; or sapped the local congregation of energy, focus and life.

Could we perhaps reopen the discussion about (I have tried to be a little provocative with the questions we might be prepared to ask):

  • what it means to be a pastor-teacher? Have we adopted a one-sided view of this ministry? Has a world of increasing specialization shaped modern conceptions of this ministry in a helpful way? Has the search for effectiveness and efficiency led us to draw too heavily from secular wisdom and not enough from biblical wisdom? Or has the world of the executive pastor, portfolio ministry and the annual general meeting brought us closer to biblical principles if not biblical patterns?
  • what the priority of the local congregation really means and does not mean? Does this mean we have no responsibilities beyond the local group with whom we meet? Or is any sense of such responsibility a distraction from Christian discipleship and gospel mission? Is ‘independence’ a biblical way of thinking for a Christian person, a minister of the gospel, a congregation of God’s people, or even a fellowship or denomination? Might we not belong to more than one congregation in a particular location? For those in Sydney, have we rightly understood all that Robinson and Knox were teaching us?
  • the implications of the biblical idea that God’s people gather around God present in his word and by his Spirit, if we accept that is indeed a biblical idea? Does our understanding that God is always present with his people really require us to reject any suggestion that we meet with God when we gather around his word? Does the way a word like ‘worship’ has been (or is being) misused in some circles really mean we should never use it, or never use it of what we are doing when we gather with his people? What is the significance of worship as all of life (Rom 12) and the absence of worship language in the NT to describe what we actually do when we gather? Is there such a thing as ‘corporate worship’? Is church a purely horizontal or even predominantly horizontal phenomenon since all of life is lived coram Deo –before God’s face/in God’s presence?
  • the place of the Sunday sermon in the ministry of the word of God to his people in this particular place? Is an emphasis on preaching really biblical? Or is there something particularly appropriate about making the sermon the centrepiece, though not the only piece, of word ministry in our churches? What does preaching do that other forms of word ministry do not or cannot do? What actually is the relationship between preaching and pastoral care? How do we avoid the danger of preaching abstracted from real relationships or the cult of the celebrity preacher?
  • the evangelistic ‘temperature’ of our local churches? Are we concerned about those who are lost outside of Christ in our local community? Is evidence of that concern something we expect of each other? Is it an indispensable part of Christian discipleship? How do we kindle and maintain a global evangelistic mission among our people, particularly when there is increasing pressure from our culture to keep faith private? Can we maintain evangelism as a priority and do the work of an evangelist even if we are not a ‘big E evangelist’?

There is always the danger that when there is a perceived threat from without (e.g. an increasingly hostile culture – or at least increasingly hostile, and often self-appointed, spokespeople for our culture) that we will turn inward and become preoccupied by internal questions. I am not suggesting that for a moment. Nor do I retreat a millimetre from what I said at the beginning of this post: we of all people should be enthusiastic about change and the opportunities it brings. Yet I want to us also to face the hard question about whether some of the changes we have enacted, embraced or undergone in the past few decades have really promoted gospel mission and growth or, quite against all expectation and intention, actually hindered it. We want to see the world reached and men and women all over it saved. We are willing to make the changes necessary to realise such a vision. Yet as one man famously put it, ‘we need to be careful lest, in attempting to remove roadblocks, we instead dig up the road!’

This article was originally published on Mark’s blog, Theological Theology