The church faces a challenge in 2013. How do we grow? Where do we go? How do we avoid irrelevancy? What changes should we make? What doctrines should we emphasize? What aspects of Christianity should we deemphasize? These are not easy questions to answer, nor do Christians all agree on what changes should be made, if any. Yet we all share a common goal — to glorify God in the way that we participate in the advance of his kingdom in our day.

And how do we do this? In our pursuit, we are faced with two main choices — imitation or innovation.

Imitation

In the imitation model, the church tries to imitate aspects of life or culture that may be appealing to people. What is it in the culture that attracts people? Once we decide on that, we “redeem” it and use it within the church. After all, if it works as an entertainment for people outside the church, it’s going to work to get people into the church. The imitation model spawns sermon series with “Fifty Shades” spin-offs and Avenger movie clips. Oscar weekend prompts Oscar-themed church events. Worship services take on the look and feel of a rock concert. Relevance is the watchword.

When the church growth movement was in its heyday, we were told to pull down the steeples, remove the crosses, and ditch the pews. The logic was simple. If the church looks less like a church and more like a corporate headquarters or shopping mall, it may be more likely that non-church people will show up, hear the gospel, and become believers. Good, and good, right?

Imitation has a few positives. For one, it stems from a pure desire — to attract people into church who would otherwise not be there. The attractional model has long been the church’s modus operandi — just get people inside the church. Some people would argue that we should do just about anything to get people inside the church. Imitating aspects of pop culture seems to do the trick.

There’s another potential positive. The imitation model does manage to purify some of the baser elements of cultural sensations. While “Fifty Shades” sermon series may have a salacious connotation, no respectable pastor will enter into divulgences like the book series. Calling it “redeeming” the culture may be a bit of an overstatement, but for the most part many churches do manage to keep it positive.

These are both good things. However, is there perhaps an even better way?

Innovation

Innovation is a second option for advancing the church’s mission. Innovation is as ancient as imitation. In fact, it can be argued that innovation is the very life of Christianity in every age.

Calling it “innovation,” has an off-tune sound to it. “Innovation? The faith?! May it never be!” some may think. What we’re talking about isn’t tweaking doctrine or adjusting orthodoxy by degrees. Instead, innovation derives alternative methods for spreading the truth, rather than merely taking the cues from the culture.

Maybe calling it “contextualization” will help explain. Contextualization is the practice of applying ancient truth to one’s contemporary situation. We live out God’s Word in real life. We cannot separate what God says from what we do in our day.

Let’s look at a simple example of contextualization. When the apostle Paul told the Thessalonians Christians to greet with a holy kiss (1 Thessalonians 5:26), he probably meant an actual kiss — not just a metaphor for shaking hands. Kissing was probably an acceptable and even commendable form of friendly greeting, even as it is in some cultures today. Kissing isn’t all that popular in Western Christian circles. Why don’t we kiss? Contextualization.

Contextualization is what has guided the church through its long and storied past — sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. Contextualization isn’t inspired. Sometimes, we go awry.

While cultural adaptation or imitation may have a pragmatic advantage, innovating our methods in a new age may have overall advantages.

At its core, Christianity is not about imitating the culture. It is about transcending the culture, about forming new cultures, and about reshaping the world in which we live. Imitation offers a warmed-over version of what the world already has. Instead, we need the revolutionary truth to reshape everything that we do — from the way that we make music, to the way we evangelize, to the way that we worship, to the way that we live our lives. Church ought to be wholly other. 

We can’t escape the culture, nor should we try to. Culture often suggests an acceptable way of living our lives. The whole idea of contextualization is the application of truth within a culture. That’s not the same thing as imitation. Culture’s power ought not dictate the practices of Christianity — requiring slavish adherence to cultural norms that some churches pursue. When we tie ourselves to a single cultural expression of Christianity, we run the risk of belittling the Bible, elevating tradition, and living in accordance with man’s practices rather than God’s prescriptions.

This is neither safe nor wise.

The world doesn’t need a regurgitated and sanitized sermon series that is a spin off of Fifty Shades. What the world needs is the refreshing boldness of the gospel. Read your Bible and rethink everything else. Read your Bible, and reach conclusions. Innovate Biblical practices into everyday life. Innovate church traditions with refreshing Bible practice. Innovate your imitating church into a powerful force for change and redemption.

We yearn for hope. We yearn for a refreshing effusion of life, joy, and redemption. We yearn for an awakening. Perhaps the path is not found through imitating the world, but through innovating our worn-out practices in line with God’s Word.

About The Author

Daniel Threlfall

Daniel Threlfall has been writing church ministry articles for more than 10 years. With his background and training (M.A., M.Div.), Daniel is passionate about inspiring pastors and volunteers in their service to the King. Daniel is devoted to his family, nerdy about SEO, and drinks coffee with no cream or sugar. Learn more about Daniel at his blog and twitter.

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