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Changing Directions

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, June 22, 2017

Changing Directions

One of the key issues for any organization, particularly the church, is not the efficiency of the organization (which is doing things right), but its effectiveness (which is doing the right things). The church must rethink its current processes in order to determine if it will effectively fulfill the Great Commission. As the ancient Chinese proverb says, “If we do not change direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.”

The church is far more than a human enterprise that rises or falls on the management and organization we bring to its efforts. All our efforts are worthless apart from the energizing presence and power of God (See Ps. 127: 1). Yet we must avoid a pious irresponsibility that produces passive believers who, as pastor Rick Warren says, “use spiritual-sounding excuses to justify a church’s failure to grow.” The balance is found in Proverbs 21:31: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” Victory rests with God, but we must prepare the horse to the best of our abilities.

Rethinking may mean that the church has to change. Difficult as this may be, it is absolutely essential. It will prove ruinous if the church allows itself to maintain a business-as-usual approach. The change a church undergoes, however, cannot be merely cosmetic. It must go beyond “tinkering” – making small adjustments here and there to structure and format – to “restructuring” – introducing new models and changes to adapt with our ever-changing culture.

At the same time, change does not have to mean compromise. Interestingly, even such a dispassionate observer as the Atlantic Monthly noted that innovative churches “may be market-driven, culturally sensitive and cutting-edge, but this does not make [them] ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ on the fundamentals.” Author and pastor Gene Getz reminds us that this was the pattern for the New Testament church. He notes that what the early Christians said was consistent; the way they said it and how they went about such things as ministry or evangelism varied from situation to situation. They considered the directives as absolute, but their methods were relative and merely served to accomplish divine ends. There is no reason this first century paradigm cannot continue to operate in the church of the 21st century.

But along with a rethinking of processes, the church must rethink its attitude.

As I’ve often written, I fear that the contemporary church has become marked by a narcissistic attitude that places the individual needs and desires of the believer at the center of attention. The attitude is that the church exists for me and my needs; I do not exist for the church and its needs. As a result, the desire is not to learn how to feed ourselves – much less to feed others – but to be fed. Ministry is that which happens to us, not something that we make happen for others. Worship is evaluated by what we get out of it, not by what we give to God through it. Unless confronted, this attitude will inhibit the growth and effectiveness of the church far more than even the most archaic and dysfunctional of processes.

And this may involve the greatest rethinking of all.

The church is on a mission; it has a cause. The purpose of the church is to fulfill the Great Commission. We do not grow in Christ for our own sake, but for the sake of the cause.

And this is the attitude that must be recaptured for the church: people willing to step up to the plate, to become part of something larger than themselves – something that will live on for eternity. The church is the hope of the world, and unless we rethink our processes and, more importantly, our attitude, we will lose this generation for Christ.

One of the great scholars of the Renaissance, Erasmus, told a mythical tale about Jesus’ return to heaven after His time on earth. The angels gathered around Him to learn what had happened. Jesus told them of His miracles, His teaching, and then of His death and resurrection.

When He finished, Michael the archangel asked, “But Lord, what happens now?”

Jesus answered, “I have left behind eleven faithful men who will declare my message and express my love. These faithful men will establish and build my church.”

“But,” responded Michael, “what if these men fail? What then?”

And Jesus answered, “I have no other plan.”

There is no other plan outside the church for God’s redemptive work. It rests in our hands and in our hearts.

So let the rethinking begin… and begin now.

James Emery White

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church (Baker). Reference the endnotes for additional source information.

Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church.

Gene Getz, Sharpening the Focus of the Church


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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