Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Spirit of Grace Ministries
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The Changing Church

Changing Church

by Dennis Pollock

When I was a boy, church was a pretty big deal. We knew that when Sunday came around we would be going to church – period. Excuses for non-attendance were almost non-existent. Unless someone in the family were deathly sick, we would all be there. We would also attend Wednesday night services frequently. Occasionally we might be permitted to skip these, but not on Sundays. Sunday was mandatory.

Secondly we would be dressed in our Sunday best. As a boy that meant a little “blazer” sport jacket for me and my nice dress slacks. Ties were also required. At least I was allowed a little color in my jackets, but my dad always dressed in good old conservative dark-colored suits with white shirts and distinctly unflashy ties. In my youth I never remember him wearing a colored shirt – that was far too radical. At church the service was predictable and just as conservative as our dress. Hymns and songs were sung out of hymnals, most of which had been written decades ago, and in some cases centuries before. There was no “contemporary worship” in those days, at least not to my knowledge. Our feeling about worship songs was that if it was good enough for Paul and Silas (or at least Luther, Isaac Watts, and Fanny Crosby) then it ought to be good enough for us!

While still in my twenties I became the pastor and founder of a small church in a little town in Missouri. Things were changing drastically in the church world. This was the time of the charismatic and Bible teaching revival that swept our nation and much of the Christian world. The cassette tape had radically changed nearly everything, and Christians were buying and passing along cassette tapes with sermons, teachings, and songs right and left. Dress had become more casual in most churches, and most of our men came to church without jackets and ties. Some women wore slacks to church, which didn’t seem to bother anyone too much.

Cutting Edge

We were proud to be on the cutting edge of technology in those days. What this meant was that we used an overhead projector to place the song lyrics on the wall, so that we could read the words without looking down at a book, and could raise our hands to the Lord as we desired. Most of the lyrics were hand written, but a few of the songs had been done by a special process which gave us typed words on a page using a genuine font. We recorded my sermons on a tape deck and reproduced them using our $300 tape duplicator, of which I was especially proud.

New worship songs were coming fast and furiously to the church in those days, and it was exciting stuff. We joyously sang songs like “I will Enter His Gates,” “As the Deer Panteth for the Water,” and “I’ve Got a River of Life Flowing Out of Me.” Although the church never grew too large, God blessed our little gatherings and often we felt His presence in sweet and moving ways.

Fast forward to today. The church has continued to evolve and morph into new forms and styles. Dress has become more casual than ever. Pastors sometimes preach to their congregations wearing jeans and t-shirts. People walk into church wearing shorts and carrying a latte in their hands. Worship services include flashing lights, dazzling multimedia displays, and worship leaders looking more like rock stars than church staff. Songs tend to be more complicated, melodically, than the simple choruses we once sang. What was known as the “altar call” has virtually disappeared from churches today. In the old days pastors considered it their duty at the end of every sermon, regardless of its topic, to invite sinners to come to the front of the church and give their lives to Jesus. Today, embarrassing invitations to be saved are rarely given.

Distinctions among the different denominations have dissolved significantly, especially among the larger churches. It used to be that you could tell you were in a Pentecostal or Charismatic church if you saw people raising their hands in worship or encouraging folks to be filled with the Holy Spirit. You knew you were in a Baptist church if they sang out of a hymnbook, rarely mentioned the Holy Spirit, and never dared to raise their hands in worship. But today Pentecostals and Charismatics have blunted their emphasis on the Holy Spirit, whereas Baptists and other non-denominational churches are singing lively songs, and allowing or even encouraging people to raise their hands. The times, they are a-changing!

Always Changing

Perhaps at this point you may suppose that I will spend the rest of this devotional decrying all the changes and arguing for a return to the “good old days.” You would be wrong. The truth is, the church has always changed, has always needed to change, and will always be in a state of transformation until the return of Jesus Christ. For Christians to expect to convert and minister to today’s generation with styles and forms their great-grandparents used and loved is both naïve and foolish. God has built within us all an instinct for new and fresh experiences, new styles, and innovative ways of doing things. This psychological inner yearning for the new has resulted in huge improvements and progress for the world and has been a driving force behind bringing men and women from the days of shacks, poverty, and plagues to our modern world of convenience, beautiful homes, and high technology. Contentment with the status quo has never been a very great thing, either for the secular world or the church.

Charles Finney was an eighteenth-century evangelist that the Lord used mightily to bring the American church out of the throes of cold, dead, hyper-Calvinism into white hot revivals and evangelicalism. Finney was constantly criticized for “new measures.” Many of the old-school believers thought it entirely heretical for Finney to challenge sinners to come and sit in an “anxious seat,” a bench especially designated for sinners wanting to be saved. He should do like all the other ministers and let God save them in His own way and time. They thought it terrible that Finney preached extemporaneously, rather than reading his sermons, like every proper minister ought to do. Finney had this to say about the “new measures” which some felt so offensive:

If we examine the history of the church we shall find that there never has been an extensive reformation, except by new measures. Whenever the churches get settled down into a form of doing things, they soon get to rely upon the outward doing of it, and so retain the form of religion while they lose the substance… When (God) has found that a certain mode has lost its influence by having become a form, He has brought in some new measure which would break in on lazy habits and wake up a slumbering church. And great good has resulted.

Even without the evidence of church history or simple logic and reason, all we would need to do would be to look around a bit to convince ourselves that new styles and new ways in the church tend to be more productive than clinging to the old ones. Search for the churches which sing the same songs they sang in the early twentieth century, and where everyone dresses in the old ways, the preacher preaches in the old style, and sitting in that assembly is equivalent to stepping into a time machine and traveling back 100 years. Of the churches you find who are determined to hang on to the old ways, you will notice that they all have two things in common: they are all small and they are mostly comprised of old people. They may try to excuse their lack of size and impact on the idea that people are just too carnal these days to appreciate a great church, but in truth they are simply out of touch.

Foundations

BibleWith this being said, there are potential dangers inherent in the changes we find in the churches, of which we need to be acutely aware. First, change for change’s sake is not necessarily a good thing. The church of Jesus Christ is precisely that: we are the church of Jesus. He is our Lord and He is the Head of the church. In our changes we need to make sure that we are being directed by Jesus as He reveals His mind through the Holy Spirit. And we had better make sure that change does not equal compromise! There are certain Biblical mandates given to the church that are relevant to every generation, and can never be abandoned. In our rush to keep up with the times and impress the world with how cool and hip we Christians can be, we sometimes rush headlong into a mode of ministry that is hardly recognizable as the least bit Christian. We value laughs over truth, we prefer dazzling multimedia presentations over the Bible, we place the contemporary over the eternal, and put success ahead of holiness. Dress in jeans if you will, sing the latest songs as you please, but do not dare to stray from the church’s foundational principles. Here are some of the unchangeable, non-negotiable components that serve as foundations for the church of Jesus Christ:

The Word of God
– Paul told Timothy: “Preach the word!” This instruction applies to every minister of the gospel. Men and women will never hear the word of God on the evening news, they will never learn Biblical truths through watching professional sports programs, and they certainly will never come to a knowledge of God by tuning in to the TV talk shows. It is incumbent upon the church to be a disseminator of Biblical truth. The church must be the one place people can go to learn the real story about God, His Son, and His plan for mankind. The Sunday sermon must be first and foremost a clear exposition on some aspect of the Bible. And this must include the “whole counsel of God,” not just the sweet parts: the promises and the threats, heaven and hell, the love of God and the wrath of God, the provision of the Father and the discipline of the Father.

Exaltation of Jesus Christ
– More than any other thing, the church is commissioned to introduce men and women to Jesus. This can never happen when we tightly close our mouths about Him, or mention Him only in passing, as though He were an afterthought. Christians have no business attending, supporting, or in any way encouraging any church where Christ is shoved off to some dark corner. No matter how clever the sermons, regardless of how appealing the personality of the pastor, no matter how many insightful principles of successful living he addresses, at some point he must open his mouth and talk about Jesus, the Savior of the world. Not only must he encourage the unbelievers to receive Jesus as Savior, he must also feed the believers with frequent teachings about Jesus our Keeper, our Shepherd, our Wisdom, the Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, and the Upholder of our souls. Christians need to hear about Jesus just as much and just as often as non-Christians. All over our nation Christians are puny and starving for lack of the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ.

Worship and Prayer
– There is a significant difference between the church and the movie theater. When we go to the movies we go there to be entertained. We don’t expect to pray there or worship. We want to see an interesting movie, with appropriate amounts of action, romance, and humor. We normally judge a movie by a simple criterion: how well was I entertained? It cannot be so in the church of the Lord Jesus. Certainly we want our services as interesting as possible, and by all means we should strive for excellence in all we do. But we can never turn church services into entertainment. What we truly want is for people to experience God in our gatherings. We cannot simply have our musicians, drama team, pastors, and others strive for technical perfection in their respective ministries and yet neglect prayer. Where there is prayer and worship, and where Jesus is honored and exalted, the Holy Spirit’s presence will manifest His approval, and hearts and lives will be touched. Jesus has declared, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”

In the church, methods will change, styles will evolve, and approaches will differ. We would be foolish not to recognize this, and embrace the inevitability of change. Still, we must cling tenaciously to the truths and the gospel which the Bible so plainly declares. Like our Savior, they are the same yesterday, today, and forever!


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