“Relevant” is a big deal in our world. If you’re not relevant, you’re not…well, relevant. You’re not important. You don’t get a hearing. You don’t matter. But, how do you know if something is relevant—is it just a personal, individual thing? Or, are some things relevant whether you know it or not? We’ll come back to that.
We live in difficult times—our Judeo-Christian values, not to mention our Christian message is increasingly rejected. America is becoming a post-Christian, secularized nation.
This is not news to most of us. The question is, “What should we—the Church—do about it? Should we go “Amish” and separate ourselves? Isolate from the world around us? Not an option. We need to understand our times, re-evaluate the ways we’re presenting our timeless message to the people of our times—in a word, we believe we need to innovate!
It’s important to define our terms. What do we mean by “innovation”?
Some synonyms for “innovation” are modernization, addition, alteration, departure, deviation, modernism, modification, mutation, newness, shift, variation, cutting edge, latest thing, leading edge. We don’t mean all these things. None of us wants a “mutation” of Christianity. We want true, pure, authentic, historical, orthodox Christianity. So, what does “innovation” have to do with it?
Let’s start with Luke 5:36-39.
36 And He was also telling them a parable: “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. 38 “But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 “And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’ ”
This passage has been used to put a lot of strange words in Jesus’ mouth (so to speak). We don’t want to mishandle this passage and make Jesus say something He didn’t intend to. In other words, Jesus didn’t say, “New is always better!” What Jesus did say was that His way—God’s way—is always better! New and old has little to do with it, really. It is clear that Jesus brought a new way of life. His way (grace) and the way of the Pharisees (legalism) could not be mixed. God’s way and man’s traditions can’t be mixed. Eventually it will self-destruct if we try to mix them. Jesus’ way was new to the Pharisees, but it is not new to us. The point is, we need to be certain we are truly walking in the way of Christ and not clinging to old traditions just because they’re old.
Look at 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 now:
20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. 23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
Obviously, Paul did not “become all things to all men” in sinful ways. At the very least, this passage teaches that we have great flexibility. In other words, Paul adapted his forms and methods to those he was seeking to serve, and we must do the same.
Let’s also look at Acts 10:1-33.
1 Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, 2 a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, “Cornelius!” 4 And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 “Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; 6 he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants, 8 and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. 9 On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; 11 and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, 12 and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. 13 A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” 15 Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky. 17 Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate; 18 and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 “But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.” 21 Peter went down to the men and said, “Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?” 22 They said, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you.” 23 So he invited them in and gave them lodging. And on the next day he got up and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. 24 On the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter raised him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am just a man.” 27 As he talked with him, he entered and found many people assembled. 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. 29 “That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me.” 30 Cornelius said, “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments, 31 and he said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 ‘Therefore send to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.’ 33 “So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
The vision Peter received here did not reveal a new plan to him. He was re-taught the original plan: “make disciples of all the nations” which includes Gentiles! Peter was not given a new plan here, but was reminded of his original instructions.
The point of all this is that “innovation” does not just mean “new”. It can also be a “shift” back to the original plan! The original plan can be so neglected and ignored that it seems entirely new!
Dangers, Toils and Snares
There are some dangers we have to avoid when we start trying to be innovative. The main one is the tendency to neglect God’s timeless message. The Bible, truth, the Gospel can be “shifted” in order to appease culture! We are definitely not talking about that kind of innovation. We’re talking about evaluating our forms, not our functions. Our functions are to pray, worship and glorify God. We must evangelize the lost, strengthen believers and raise up leaders. But, the New Testament does not define the forms these functions must take. For example, does the strengthening of believers have to take place through sermons and lectures? No! Those are options available to us, but we all know we can be strengthened through small-group discussions, books, or a conversation with a fellow believer over a cup of coffee.
The benefits of innovation are numerous. But, one of the major benefits is we will be more effective in reaching the people of our time with God’s timeless message. We can easily talk ourselves into changing the things that must never change in order to be considered “relevant” to the people we’re trying to reach. But, the fact is, God and His word are and always will be relevant. We have a responsibility to communicate its relevance—which often requires innovation.
God can do whatever He wants. He always works despite our failures, mistakes and limitations. But, He has invited us to participate in His work. We get to invest our lives in eternally significant work as His stewards. The task of the steward is to be faithful and wise.
By recommending innovations, we are not saying all Christians today who do things differently are wrong and we’re right and anyone who disagrees with us is in sin. We love much about modern traditions and forms (today’s paradigm). But we have a stewardship—we have things God has commissioned us to accomplish. If our personal preferences hinder us from doing that, we must be willing to set aside those personal preferences for the cause of Christ and the good of others.
We’re not into being different just for the sake of being different. Simply put, we’re all about rediscovering The Way of Christ and His Apostles.