You would think that in a ‘culture of evangelistic opportunity’ the church would flourish, but it is not. Nearly every survey in recent years reveals that church attendance is down as a percent of the population and that churches have become more insulated from culture than ever before. While we’re singing “Rock of Ages” the world is racing toward a Christ-less eternity.
In addition, attempts to move the church forward in evangelistically engaging the culture with the gospel are often met with resistance. The favorite mantra of many in the church is “I Shall Not Be Moved.” No longer is the church interested in the Pauline model exampled in Acts 17 where Paul marched into a pagan environment and boldly engaged the philosophies and beliefs of the day with a clear presentation of the gospel. These days, most want to continue what was rather than face what is, to preach to the choir rather than engage a culture of unbelief.
Granted, while some of today’s newer models of cultural and evangelistic engagement are shallow and unbiblical, adopting new means of spreading the gospel without changing the gospel is essential. Throughout history the church has utilized cultural methods without compromising the gospel.
Here’s a brief list: 1) Did you know that the organ appeared in taverns in the middle ages as well as in churches?; 2) Did you know that during the Reformation the reformers adopted ‘bar tunes’ as melodies, inserting words of sound Christian doctrine so that the common people would sing the songs?; 3) Did you know that in 1780 when Roberts Raikes started ‘Sunday School’ he was first denounced as someone out to upset the traditions of the church?; 4) Did you know that in the 1960’s when bus ministry was at its beginning point many denounced the use of such secular means of reaching people as compromise with the world?; 5) Did you know that when ‘sound systems’ were first introduced in the church some decried that the church had compromised with the world?
My point is obvious — changing the gospel and in eliminating sound doctrine is inadmissible. In addition, preaching is the primary means God has ordained to spread the gospel. Yet, each new generation of believers is interested in using whatever means is available to communicate and spread the gospel i.e., music, technology, media, drama, etc. I see in many youth and collegiate-aged students a desire for sound and deep doctrine; yet they desire to place their methodological imprint on spreading the gospel.
As a result, we have reached an impasse in the culture of the church where we are divided over all the wrong things. In fact, we have arrived at a day where people in the church are more upset with the type of music that is offered up in worship than they are the type of Christ that is preached! Amazing! As Jesus noted about the Pharisees in Matthew 23:24, we are straining on gnats and swallowing camels.
We are straining on the gnat of methodology. Each new generation brings with it new methods of communication and organization. This causes conflict with the previous generations who are absolutely convinced that their way was the only way. This is why there is so much conflict in the church at this time over how the church ought to be organized for effectiveness. Should we be elder led, pastor led or deacon led? Is Sunday School the only form of small group interaction or does a Thursday night Bible study suffice? Should the church have ministry teams accomplishing one purpose or standing committees that deal with many issues? And what method of evangelism is most effective? Door to door? Event evangelism? Person to person? EE? CWT? Share Jesus Without Fear?
While we’re straining on the gnat of methodology we’re swallowing the camel: 1) of preaching that is topical and not exegetical; 2) of spiritual leadership that is personality driven and not spiritual in nature; 3) and, on traditions that are man-centered and not Christ centered. Methodology is important. But method is an ever-changing means for a never-changing goal of pursuing the kingdom of God and preaching the gospel to the nations.
We are straining on the gnat of music and worship style. Music is an incredible gift from God to the church for His glorification. The types of musical genres that are exampled in Scripture and that have been used throughout the centuries are multiple and varied. Yet, the pastor and/or music leader will receive more grief these days over the type of music in the church than he will the type of gospel that is preached from the pulpit. I have been in churches where the ‘right’ music was sung — both traditional and contemporary services — but where the preaching was horrendous and the doctrine was shallow and degrading of our great God. In other words, many will choke on a gnat of music and swallow unsound, unbiblical doctrine.
We are straining on the gnat of generational differences. The field of sociology has provided for us many good and wonderful perspectives on the cultural differences that dominate the interaction of how people relate to each other. There are differences in how people of differing ages and cultures approach life. However, these differences are often elevated to such a degree that many have bought ‘hook, line and sinker’ the concept that the generations cannot, ought not relate to each other and that cultural differences are impassable.
Yet, the gospel transcends all cultural and generational differences because in the gospel the most basic of human needs is satisfied with the only thing that can satisfy the human heart — God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. We will choke on the gnat that teaches that teenagers cannot worship with the elderly and that people of different cultures cannot serve together, yet swallow silent bigotry, insensitivity, ageism and the homogenous unit concept that has infiltrated the churches.
We are straining on the gnat of the traditional vs. the contemporary. I have come to personally despise the terms traditional and contemporary. Why? Because it robs each term of its best use! Tradition is best used to describe those things that carry over from one generation to the next and that seem to transcend cultural shifts. Contemporary is simply a word to describe what is current, new, altered and different. However, for some the term traditional has come to describe that which is resistant, stubborn, lacking vision and narrow-minded. The term contemporary has come to mean shallow, fleeting, temporary and meaningless. In other words, we will swallow unsound doctrine and shallow spiritualism, but choke on our differences, both cultural and generational. Further, both traditional and contemporary models of church life will choke on self-important and fleeting methods, and yet swallow the fact that some things never change but are often over-looked, i.e. doctrinal fidelity, spiritual fellowship, meaningful ministry, the glorification of God.
My deepest concern is that while we are choking on these gnats we are simultaneously swallowing some huge camels, i.e. unsound teaching, doctrinal ambiguity, personality-driven leadership, competition with the entertainment world and the adoption of unbiblical priorities that rob us of the joy of passionate, God-centered worship, personal evangelism and worldwide missions.
No matter the methods and techniques we utilize, we cannot, we must not abandon “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” At the same time, we must choose methods that augment and promote biblical fidelity and our missional, evangelistic purposes knowing that the gospel was never intended to be contained in old wineskins. I would rather eat a gnat — methods and styles that change from generation to generation even if they’re not my personal preference — than I would to swallow, as if unimportant, the great truths of Scripture that never change. It is time for the church to lift her head up from choking on the minimal and non-essential to see the fields that are ripe with the harvest of human souls.
Kevin Shrum is Senior Pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.