The Missing Trait: A Response to “11 Traits of Churches That Will Impact the Future"

— Ryan J. Ogrodowicz

An article written by Carey Neuwhof, “11 Traits of Churches That Will Impact the Future,” contains eleven characteristics of churches he believes “will have a significant impact a decade from now.” Society is rapidly changing, he notes, and so the church needs to accommodate and act according to the change. He limits that change in his premise, “Don’t get me wrong, we don’t need to change the message. Just the method. One is sacred. The other is not.” The logic here is easy and common. Method lacks divine quality, so we’re free to experiment as long as the message remains intact. Experimentation is for adapting to culture-to capture its fleeting attention for the sake of getting people in the doors. Method is the bait leading to the more important message. The latter is sacred; the former is not, at least according to the author.

The premise gives the illusion no relationship exists between message and method other than the latter should lead to the former. Method leads to the message rather than being derived and governed by the message, a subtle but noticeable difference.

Traits #1 and #3 pertain to a pastor’s ability to make decisions over and above the preferences of a congregation, all compassionately done for the sake of the unchurched: “When you learn to say no to the preferences of some current members, you learn to say yes to a community that is ready to be reached.” And such decisions need to be done in haste. “Can your church or organizations make quick decisions? If not, amend your constitution so you can. If the congregation needs to vote on everything, just realize this is going to be your Achilles’ heel when it comes to making the changes you need to make.” Allow me to translate: a pastor’s preferences override the preferences of the congregation because when it comes to outsiders, he knows best and should make decisions over and above a pesky voter’s meeting.

There is no disputing that voter’s meetings slow things down, and that a top-down approach is more expedient. But congregational votes exist for a reason. They keep sinful pastors in check from doing something potentially harmful for the church, and they give everyone an opportunity to see what’s going on, pray about the matter, consult Scripture, discuss, pray again, and vote. It’s a process, but one that forces Christians to exercise patience, prayer, discipline, and the consultation of Holy Scripture before casting an important vote. Under Carey’s model expediency certainly wins, but at the cost of a congregation’s Christian duty to make sure things are done in decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40).

Trait #2 appeals to outsiders with the call to be “outsider focus.” “Churches that become passionate about people outside their walls will be far more effective than churches that are passionate about keeping the few people they have inside their walls.” Translation: be more passionate about outsiders than those you already have.

As a pastor, I am passionate about keeping God’s sheep, and unapologetically so. Jesus tells Peter three times in John 21 to feed his sheep. Who are the sheep but the ones the Holy Spirit has called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by the gospel? The pastor is charged to feed the sheep, and what they are fed makes all the difference. A congregation should never be taken for granted and neglected for the sake of outsiders. They need constant care, feeding and protection because the devil is always seeking to devour the sheep of Christ. Christians of all stripes face trials and temptations, sin, and the devil, and so every week they need God’s forgiveness and healing by his grace in Christ. Rather than calling pastors to focus on one group or the other, Christ’s words are simple: “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). And when the pastor feeds by teaching the words of Jesus, Jesus is present (Matt 28:20).

A top-down power structure allows for change and experimentation in the worship service. Being able to quickly tailor the experience to meet a changing culture is the goal pastors can reach when they are free to play with the service unhindered by congregational preferences. In trait #9 Carey extols the “high value of experimentation” while dismissing anything reeking of tradition. Experiential trial and error will help the church to discover what works and what isn’t “producing results.” As to the nature of those results, we’re left to speculate. This relates to the final trait “a tailored experience, not a tailored message.” Here the reader is brought full circle to the original division of method and message only now “method” is replaced with “experience.” It’s no surprise that Carey, given his penchant for change and adaption, emphasizes the experience of the church goer; appealing to an evolving culture is the thrust of the article. Granted, first impressions are important, for people do cast judgments based on experiences. Cold shoulders and unfriendly faces don’t bode well for visitors, Christian or not. Furthermore, a worship service done in a sloppy, haphazard manner can be a stumbling block, and certainly not indicative of the pastor charged to do his best to be a “one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). There are no biblical commands for vestments and candles, stained glass and organs, and so churches can opt to remove such “obstacles” to appeal to those more inclined towards bands and spotlights, jeans and suits. As long as the message remains the same, the church is at liberty to tailor the experience, or so the argument goes.

Against this premise, an intimate relationship between method and message does exist, to the degree that one can affect the other. When churches begin emphasizing experience and change in order to appeal to culture, doing whatever it takes to tickle the senses and offer something palatable to the masses, such methodologies can affect the message. I’m not convinced the attempt to be relevant can be as easily segregated from the sacred message as Carey and others suggest. If a church spends all her waking hours appealing to people’s perceptions and emotions, discussing change and relevancy, who is to say this approach won’t bleed over into how the message is handled? Relevant experience runs the risk of leading to a relevant message; and by relevant I mean making the hearer comfortable and smug, confident and proud, without fear of sin and need of a savior. This flies in the face of the sacred message convicting of sinners, cutting to the heart, and showing our desperate need for a gracious savior given by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. When pastors do things like zip line in church, host erotic dancers, and talk about sex after the blaring music of Ozzie Osborne, are we really supposed to believe such experiments have no effect on how people perceive the message? (See for examples). The quest for experimentation has no boundaries as churches conjure up more relevant ideas to capture culture’s attention while promising to deliver the sacred message. We’re told the secular is supposed to point to the sacred. I’m not buying it.

Churches so intent on appealing to culture overlook a key tenet in secular business models: packaging matters. In trait #11, Carey makes the point that despite how we experience receiving a gift, the gift is the same. The experience of online shopping as opposed to going to the mall doesn’t affect the gift itself. It’s true: diamonds are diamonds whether they come in a refined case or brown paper sack. But that’s not how jewelry companies think and rightly so. The reality is the wrapper prompts us to judge what’s behind. Look at books. Dust jackets don’t just protect, but they exhibit flashy advertisements enticing the would-be reader to pick up the book and investigate. Jewelers don’t place diamonds in zip lock bags and paper sacks, but in felt cases of silky, cushioned insides highlighting carefully placed gems. Steve Jobs labored over the packaging of the Macintosh because in his eyes the box pointed to and underscored the content. To him it was worth redoing a box some fifty times before finally settling on a polished result ((Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 134)). I doubt Zondervan, Tiffany & Co., and Apple would fall for anyone arguing that the way a gift is packaged and experienced for the first time doesn’t affect the product.

On the contrary, it matters a great deal and not because of the content, but also on account of the person engaging the content. This is a matter of subjective versus objective. How a subject perceives the object is important. If someone on the street approaches me with a brown bag full of shiny crystal-like stones and says they’re real diamonds, I’m going to be reticent to believe. Take me into a high-end jewelry store, and I’ll have no trouble believing the carefully displayed, tested, and marked stones are exactly what they’re claimed to be. There is a mindset in the church that the holy, sacred message, the oracles of the almighty living God, should be seen as a precious diamond despite being wrapped in contemporary trappings such as high-powered rock bands, spotlights, videos, theatrics, and erotic love. This type of packaging and experience does little to convey to the hearer that a holy God is present, to whom we offer “acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28–29).

Change may be in the wind, but a certain constant aspect of human nature cannot be overlooked: people are sinners. People are corrupted by sin from conception, in rebellion to God, wicked and unrighteous the moment their life begins. All this talk about change and accommodation shrouds the paramount problem of man that is his sinful nature. Those who are lost live in darkness. Those who live in unbelief live with the “wrath of God” upon them (John 3:36). Those dead in trespasses will not be born again by gimmicks, charades, and staying on top of trends, but by the Holy Word of God-the efficacious, powerful Word that gets no press in Carey’s article and other articles of the same vein. “11 Traits of Churches That Will Impact the Future” painfully fails to highlight and unpack the intimate relationship between message and method, thus creating the perception that methods can be derived from a source other than the sacred message. Not one of Carey’s traits mentions the nature of preaching and its impact. And perhaps that’s the greatest travesty in this. The Greek verb from which the English “to preach” is derived occurs some sixty times in the New Testament! One would think that a church serious on impacting the world would at least give a passing mention of the nature and importance of preaching. Sadly, of all the traits suggested, rightly handling and preaching the “word of truth” is not one of them.

God’s word has always been put into the mouths of his servants to strike the heart of the hearer. His word, capable of bringing creation into being, also creates what doesn’t come from within the flesh, the miracle of faith (Rom 10:17). If a church wants to make an impact, then she should emphasize and labor to preach the word, the sacred message through which the Holy Spirit enlivens hearts to believe and trust in the mercy and forgiveness of God. And this impact will be anything but pretty. The world never takes kindly to the word of God and Christian conviction. Just look at the martyrs. Or Jesus when he says “I chose you out of the world; therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). When the world hates the church, she’s doing something right. The article left me without the sense that the word of God undergirds these traits even though their goal should be to highlight and convey the word of God to a sinful world. Perhaps this is telling in and of itself. I wonder if there’s the assumption that every church has the message down pat, and so there’s no need to discuss it. Or maybe we’d rather avoid discussions on scripture and doctrine. Then again, it may be we lack faith in the efficacy of the word, hence the nauseating emphasis on methods and practice coming out of many religious circles.

The world is going to change, but sin remains the same. The world will always rejoice over Christian blood. The devil will roam to devour, and cosmic evil will threaten. Despite how culture changes, there is real danger facing the church that man cannot overcome. We desperately need to know what our true weapons are and be equipped for battle, because when it comes, the wisdom and musings of man are destined to fail. The word of God stands forever. It can never be absent in the church’s discussion on impacting the world.

The Rev. Ryan Ogrodowicz serves as pastor of Victory in Christ Lutheran Church in Newark, Texas.

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