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FIRST-PERSON: Sharing truth with an ever-emerging culture

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–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 Baptist Theological Seminary, personal computers were in their infancy, the Internet was just a crude academic network, and nobody had even heard of e-mail. Now I often sit in my pajamas and have e-mail conversations with people across the globe. The times, they are a-changing, and they’ll keep right on a-changing whether we want them to or not.

Our culture has moved past the MTV generation into the Internet generation, and yet many of us are just now responding to the TV generation! Our message of transformation must never change, but our presentation should be continually transformed, adapting to the new languages of our culture. One of the 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 25 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 adapt continually how you communicate those truths and purposes.

As an example, let’s look at evangelism, one of the five New Testament purposes of the church. In many traditional churches, evangelism remains confrontational rather than relational. There is planned visitation of this sort: “We’ll all come Thursday night and go knock on doors.”

Would it surprise you to know that in 25 years at Saddleback, we’ve never had a planned, organized visitation program? Yet we’ve baptized more than 1,000 people a year for the last decade! We reach them through relationship evangelism. 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.

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 and 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 and 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 don’t connect with people any more.

In a sense, we’ve made the Gospel too difficult for a changing culture to understand.

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 21st century, we must start thinking differently. Paul said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22b, NIV).

We Baby Boomers have tended to see the church as an organization, but the emerging generations are desperately looking for community (a major secret to Starbucks’ successful strategy: community in a coffee cup). We need to present the church as a place where you belong, a family where, as they sang on “Cheers,” everybody knows your name. Now, 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. We need to restate the eternal truths of the Bible in a fresh, contemporary way.

Emerging generations also are focused on the experiential, and that means we have to adjust the way we teach and preach. Rather than preaching simply for information, we also should 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, and not hearers only” (James 1:22, NKJV), 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.

I’ve never seen more people so hungry to discover and develop the spiritual dimension of their lives. They are hungry for symbols and metaphors and experiences and stories that reveal the greatness of God. Because seekers are constantly changing, we must be willing, like Jesus, 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.
Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

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  • Rick Warren