The need for innovation in the church
By Alejandro Medina
Recently a Mexican marketing organization gave a prize to the Chipotle Pizza company for an impressive innovation in its products. What the company did was to add chipotle (a Mexican chili sauce) to the traditional Italian sauce. The result proved a big success among the Mexican people.
Today innovation is an important goal for all kinds of companies. Specialists in business say that entities that do not innovate have a high risk of fading away. The commercial sector places a high value on those companies that include some kind of innovation in their products, in their image, or in other aspects of their business.
A church too must learn the art of innovation in its work methods. The gospel must be preached in new and different ways to a changing society. People are waiting for the Christian message, but sometimes they do not respond if we keep presenting it in the same old way. Perhaps if we put the same message in a different dress, people will receive it with open arms.
One day John’s disciples came and asked Jesus: “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matt. 9:14, NIV).
John’s disciples were not bad people, but their relationship with the Pharisees sowed doubts in their minds about Jesus. Thus they approached the Lord in a suspicious attitude, not particularly looking for truth, but trying to confound Him with their questions.
It’s sad when religious duties, instead of leading us to confirm one another in love, lead rather to debates and conflicts. Here John’s disciples, following the practices of their ancient predecessors, misinterpreted religion by coming to use the tradition of fasting as a way to repair the damage of sin and secure a favorable answer to their prayers. Fasting for them had become a process of justification by works. It had become a way of calming a severe God (as they conceived Him) by sacrifice.
“We fulfill the norm and you do not.” This is the position of many Christians with a misconception of religious life. They have a tendency to conduct their external spiritual practices in an ostentatious way, glorifying themselves (as it were), not only before men, but in God’s presence as well (see Rom. 10:3).
“But how is it, [Jesus,] that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
The Lord had an answer: “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse. Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matt. 9:15-17).
His answer was concise. Legalistic attitudes are incompatible with divine grace, like unshrunk cloth in an old garment or new wine in old wineskins. The Lord says that salvation comes by faith, not through human rites or practices. Formalisms and legalisms have a tendency to create controversies between believers. The concept of salvation by works nullifies the gospel message. It’s like pouring new wine into old wineskins. There is no compatibility!
The gospel needs to be adapted to meet the current needs of a changing world. The message (the new wine) is not the problem. Rather it’s the old “wineskins” we continue to use.
What are people looking for? Take the matter of the home as an example. Marriage problems are becoming more serious and more prevalent every day. Are we speaking to that issue? Then there’s the professional sector. Do we make such people feel excluded from the biblical message—when we give the impression that the gospel is only for the unsuccessful, only for those whose lives have failed? And what about the youth? How well are we addressing their needs?
In adapting the gospel to the needs of modern society, we must not reduce it to local customs or traditional practices. That kind of attitude actually closes the door of heaven to many. But we should not kill the creativity of church members, especially that of the youth. We need to provide space for people to express their faith in different ways. We should encourage new wineskins for new wine.
In preaching the gospel we need to incorporate elements that are part of the daily life of the people—science, for example, or technology, or the arts. The point is not to insist that the “old wineskins” are the only way to know God and preach His Word.
In practicing innovation we do not forget good order. I’m not advocating inventiveness for its own sake. We cannot sacrifice the sacred elements of Christianity for vulgar practices. What we want is simply to enrich the expression of our faith for a sophisticated, modern society.
When the first missionaries came to Mexico (specifically to Chiapas) about 50 years ago, they instructed the believers that preachers must wear white shirts in the pulpit; and until today there are some rural congregations that insist on following that “commandment.” They have a little closet in the pastor’s office with white shirts of all sizes. So when a preacher appears not wearing a white shirt, they open the closet and give them one.
Last May I preached in a Hispanic Adventist church in Dallas, Texas. The congregation rents from a Methodist church. The Adventists use the building on Wednesdays and Sabbaths, and a group of Pentecostal Afro-Americans uses it on Sundays and Fridays.
So what happened to the Methodist people, the owners of the property? The answer is that only two of them (two elderly men) have survived. The rest are gone. And when you go to the church you can see that everything is old: the pulpit, the windows, the pastor’s office—everything. It’s like traveling back to the past.
What happened there? I don’t quite know. But I suspect that innovation was lacking. I suspect they did not explore different ways to retain their people, especially the youth. The incompatibility of the church with modern life finished them off. But now you can see there a growing, innovative Hispanic Adventist congregation, preaching the gospel with power.
We should not fear innovation. If we know the fundamentals of Christian beliefs, why stay anchored to old practices without any meaning for us? But we should remember that it’s not change in itself, but change to provide believers with opportunities for fresh spiritual expression.
In Jesus’ ministry I see innovation to meet the religious reality of His time. He was a friend of women—that was new. And He was a friend of the poor. The biblical message was the same, but His way of transmitting and teaching it was different. And He is our model.
Alejandro Medina is editor in chief of the Mexican Publishing House in Mexico City, Mexico.