In ministry, some things must never change, but others must change constantly.
Clearly, God’s five purposes for his Church are non-negotiable. If a church fails to balance the five purposes of worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism, then it’s no longer a healthy church, and it’s in danger of becoming simply a social club.
On the other hand, the way or style in which we fulfill these eternal purposes must continually be adjusted and modified because human culture is always changing.
For instance, when I first started Saddleback Church, fresh out of Southwestern Seminary, computers were in their infancy, slow and cumbersome and capable of very limited functions. The Internet was just a crude academic network and nobody had even heard of email. Now I often sit in my pajamas and have conversations with people across the globe.
In addition, you can get on a plane and within a few hours fly to almost anywhere in the world, and that means there’s even less of an excuse for not being involved in foreign missions, even if just for the short-term. The times, they are a-changing, and they’ll keep right on a-changing whether we want them to or not.
And that’s why at Saddleback, any time a new tool becomes available, we embrace it. Before the world wide web, there was Gopher, and Saddleback used it. And we’ve used the web, Facebook, Twitter, and every other major social media tool since.
Our message must never change, but the way we deliver that message must be constantly updated to reach each new generation.
In other words, our message of transformation must never change while the transformation of our presentation should be continual, adapting to the new languages of our culture.
Consider this: the word contemporary literally means with temporariness. By nature, nothing contemporary is meant to last forever! It is only effective for a while and only relevant in that particular moment – which what makes it contemporary.
What is considered contemporary and relevant in the next 10 years will inevitably appear dated and tired in 20 years. As a pastor, I’ve watched churches adopt many contemporary styles in worship, programming, architecture, music, and evangelism. That’s okay, as long as the biblical message is unchanged.
But whatever is in style now will inevitably be out of style soon, and the cycles of change are getting shorter and shorter, aided by technology and the media. New styles and preferences, like fashions, are always emerging.
Let me give you a word of advice. Never attach your church to a single style – you’ll soon be passé, and outdated. One of the secret strengths of Saddleback Church is that we’re constantly adapting; we’ve changed styles of worship, programming, and outreach many, many times in the last 36 years, and we’ll continue to do so because the world keeps changing.
The only way to stay relevant is to anchor your ministry to unchanging truths and eternal purposes but be willing to continually adapt how you communicate those truths and purposes.
In 36 years at Saddleback, we’ve never had a planned, organized visitation program. Yet, we’ve baptized over 47,000 people! Our church has grown simply by inviting one person at a time, friends from work, from school, and from the neighborhood, and from social networks.
Our members are constantly on mission to bring their friends and neighbors to our weekend services, where we reach out to non-believers – particularly those who have no real church background – by singing songs they can embrace, by voicing prayers that help them relate, and by preaching messages they understand. We make Christianity available on an introductory level to any visitor to Saddleback.
You might wonder if we attract these visitors by watering down the Gospel, but we don’t; we simply communicate it in ways that non-believers understand! Jesus drew enormous crowds (called multitudes) without compromising the message. He was clear, practical, loving, and he presented his timeless message in a contemporary fashion.
Lost people have a need for meaning, a need for purpose, a need for forgiveness, a need for love. They want to know how to make right decisions, how to protect their family, how to handle suffering, and how to have hope in our world. These are all issues we have answers for, yet millions are ignoring the message of Christ because we insist on communicating in ways that make little sense anymore.
In a sense, we’ve made the Gospel too difficult for a changing culture to understand. Let me give you this analogy: Imagine a missionary going overseas and saying, “I’m here to share the Good News, but first you have to learn to speak my language, learn my customs, and sing my style of music.” You can immediately see why this strategy would fail!
Yet, we do that all the time in a culture that is in radical flux. If we want to reach people in the current century, we must start thinking differently. I believe the most overlooked requirement in the church is to have spiritually mature members – members who unselfishly limit their own preferences of what they think a church should look like in order to reach lost people for Christ. As Jesus said in Luke 5:38, “New wine must be poured into new wineskins!”
Here’s a simple tradition to break in the 21st century: stop thinking of the church as an institution. Emerging generations are desperately looking for community. You and I may know that the church is a community, but emerging generations have never seen it that way. They’ve seen a list of rules, not a loving community. This is a prime example of an opportunity to restate the eternal truths of the Bible in a fresh, contemporary way.
Emerging generations are also focused on the experiential, and that means we have to adjust the way we teach and preach because most traditional churches focus almost exclusively on the intellect. In the 21st century church, we not only want people to know about God, we also want them to actually encounter God.
Of course, this means rather than preaching simply for information, we should also preach for action. Our message is not meant to just inform, but to transform the lives of those in our congregation. In almost every single sermon I preach every point has a verb in it – something to do. What are you going to do now that you know this godly truth?
Why do I do it this way? Because God says, “Be doers of the word, not hearers only,” and our entire Purpose Driven process at Saddleback is designed to move people, not only into intimacy with God, but also into service for him, where they’ll experience a deep and broader faith in the midst of community and ministry.
Since planting Saddleback, spiritual seekers have changed a lot. In the first place, there are a whole lot more of them! There are seekers everywhere! I’ve never seen more people so hungry to discover and develop the spiritual dimension of their lives. That’s why there’s such a big interest in Eastern thought, New Age practices, mysticism, and the transcendent.
Today seekers are hungry for symbols and metaphors and experiences and stories that reveal the greatness of God. Because seekers are constantly changing, we must be sensitive to them like Jesus was, be willing to meet them on their own turf, and speak to them in ways they understand.
Remember: the world changes but the Word doesn’t. To be effective in ministry we must learn to live with the tension between those two.
My prayer is that God will use you the way he used David, as described in Acts 13:36, to serve God’s purpose in your generation. We need churches that are both Purpose Driven and post-modern; timeless and timely at the same time! May God use you greatly and may you fulfill his purpose for your life.
Wow! Thank you Pastor Rick Warren for such an amazing article. Indeed we ought to move with the times in terms of communication; yet as you rightly wrote, we should keep the truth of the Gospel intact. In other words, the Church should be able to contextualize the message, i.e. adapt the message to the circumstances and the receivers of the message.
“Here’s a simple tradition to break in the 21st century: stop thinking of the church as an institution.”
How does one not think of church as anything but an institution? It’s a 501-3c organization run by one leader and a board. There are paid staffers and patrons. Each week people file in, face forward and listen to professionals speak.
Sounds like an institution to me…
Dr Elmer Towns said: methods are many…principles are few. Methods may change…principles never do
Good stuff. Encouraging read. Let’s all get our heads out of the sand of “this used to work,” and engage people with the gospel where they’re at today.
My my, this is such a wonderful article I’m in tears. My heart bleeds for the churches in our area who are stuck in the 70’s.
Thank you Rick, I come from a traditional background but always knew we had to change with the times. Your artical is a welcomed breath of fresh air.