From the beginning, Christians gathered together for worship. Believers gathered together for fellowship and received instruction and direction for mission as well. They celebrated the Lord’s Supper. They also sent out workers to plant other churches, sometimes nearby, often far away. This process reflects a movement that will continue until the Lord returns.

Most churches reflect a life cycle. They are birthed and grow. Sometimes they multiply other churches. Occasionally, churches start to decline. In some instances, they experience a “comeback” and return to a thriving life. They experience growth. I pastored a church in the inner city of Detroit. Before I arrived, it had declined by 67% during the previous decade. It was located in an area that was culturally changing, from Anglo to African American.

When I asked my denominational leaders for guidance about how to turn around this urban church, I was told, “We don’t know how to help a church in that situation. We end up closing them. We have already closed several inner-city churches in Detroit.” However, God had a plan. The challenges were a declining church that seemed to refuse to grow and neighbors that refused to come. The process drove me to continue my education by studying the discipline of missiology, even as I continued serving that church. That congregation, by God’s grace—and Scripture teaching about mission—began to thrive. Today, several decades later, it is a healthy, thriving, growing African American church. Hundreds of believers pack the sanctuary for worship, now led by an African American pastor. I visited there not long ago. Without knowing who I was, the members made my experience “one of the friendliest churches I have ever encountered.” I was the only white guy in worship!

A Reflection of Churches from Around the World

As my career led me to help other churches in North America—as the “Church Doctor”—I had the opportunity to also teach at pastors’ gatherings around the world. In these travels, I was invited to preach at numerous congregations on five continents, often with an interpreter. In my journeys, I was also able to visit a variety of other churches as a guest.

During several trips, I had the opportunity to visit some of the most famous historic churches in Europe. I was fascinated by Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, long before its recent fire. One of my favorites in Germany is the cathedral at Cologne. The huge and somewhat different cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, is one of the most unusual churches in its architectural presentation. In England, I worshiped at Westminster Abbey. One of my London favorites is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Each of these historic sites of faith is still a functioning church. Yet the faithful are few, while the tourists are many. Even the Sistine Chapel in Rome is primarily a historic site. All of this raises the question: What happened to the functioning part of so many churches?

From a very different perspective, I have preached in numerous churches in Africa. For example, after teaching for a week at one of our many conferences in Nigeria, I was invited to preach at a “young” church, just a couple of years old. My wife was with me for that trip. We were told that it was a new church, so I expected a relatively small group of worshippers. They were renting a former warehouse. We were shocked to discover a few thousand people seated on benches for the three-hour worship service. The energy in the room was beyond description! With the service going on so long, I asked the pastor, “How long should I preach?” I was prepared for 20 minutes, but thought I could cut it short. He replied, “Preach for an hour; they are used to an hour.”

On each trip to South Korea, I visited the Yoido Full Gospel Church, each time introducing a few Americans who were with me to one of the largest Christian movements in recent history. The church is the size of an American football stadium, with a roof. It fills all the seats for worship, several services each weekend. It is mind-boggling! Headsets provide interpreters in several languages.

One of my favorite church experiences, however, was in the Amazon region of Brazil. Manaus is a huge metropolitan city that is inaccessible by roads. Yet, there are thousands of vehicles on the city streets—all shipped in by boat far up the Amazon River. Our daughter was with me on one of those trips. We provided a conference for pastors who came from all over the Amazon basin. Many were from the city of Manaus, but most of them came by small boats from up and down the Amazon River.

After the conference, our team boarded a boat that would take us to several villages where small churches were established. After several days and numerous stops, we landed at a small village hidden deep within the jungle. It was Sunday, and I was asked to preach using my Brazilian interpreter, Everaldo, who translated my sentences into Portuguese.

As we made our way toward the church, we had to open a gate to a cleared area of the jungle that was fenced. I asked, “Why is there a fence around the church?” Everaldo said, “So the cows don’t get out.” “Why did they build the church in a cow pasture?” I asked. He explained: “They eat the jungle vegetation. If they didn’t, in one or two weeks, you couldn’t find the church!”

As we approached this little church, I discovered that it was elevated off the ground, to protect worshippers from snakes. It had a roof, because in the jungle, it rains every day, several times. The “walls” were just two-by-four studs. The seats were rough-sawn benches with no backs.

After the service began, Everaldo told me when it was time to preach. As we stood at the front, three feet away there was a bare-breasted woman nursing her baby. Her other child, a toddler, laid on the floorboards and fell asleep. About five minutes into the message, the toddler wet his cloth diaper. A yellow stream was making its way to my feet.

Your Worldview About “Church”

How do these stories impact your understanding about how to do “church”? All of my different “real life” stories could go on and on—with churches in Scotland, Ireland, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Belize, Thailand, and Cambodia, even Eastern Orthodox Churches in Russia, Kazakhstan, Romania, and Bulgaria. Most recently, I could share stories of the Coptic churches in Cairo, Egypt.

Form and Substance

A “worldview” describes how you understand the world and the way the world works. When you travel and interact with the people, it expands your worldview—even about “the right way to do church.”

Some elements of church are biblically nonnegotiable: the truth of Scripture, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Trinity, salvation through Christ alone, discipleship, etc.

However, when worship intersects with a particular culture, other aspects of worship are negotiable—for good reason. You must speak the language of the people you are trying to reach if you want to be effective. While content of faith is sacred—and you can’t change it—the packaging should fit the people you are trying to reach. That includes everything except the content. It explains why, in Jesus, God showed up as a person—a divine/human person. It reflects why missionaries—like the Apostle Paul—say things like “I have become all things to all people, so that, by any means, some might be saved” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

This is the difference between form and substance. The substance of the Christian faith must not change. If it does, the church dies. On the other hand, the form of delivery must change. If it doesn’t, the church dies. Whole movements of faith have become sterile by watering down the substance—the truth of Scripture. Likewise, many Christians have confused substance with form—containers that no longer connect to the audience you are called by God to reach. Believers can easily get stuck in “the way we’ve always done it” and implode the faith movement. Remember the scribes and the Pharisees?

Contextualization and Syncretism

When Jesus was born, God joined the context of His people. Jesus was a real man and real God. If He wasn’t God, His mission wouldn’t mean anything. If He wasn’t man, no one would listen.

In mission school, they teach the fundamental concept of contextualization. The containers you use to share the unchanging truth about Jesus must be indigenous to the people you are trying to reach. You speak the language they understand. If you want to die on the hill of words like “thee” or “thy,” those who are already believers will love you for being warm and fuzzy to “the way we’ve always done it.” However, you will ultimately become “missionally impotent.” You will contribute to the decline of the Christian movement.

It’s not just words like “thee” and “thy.” It’s pews, not chairs; it’s European-style buildings. It’s dress codes, music styles—all the containers that make the real Jesus “foreign” and “irrelevant” to those who are far from God. And some of the casualties will be your children and grandchildren!

When Jesus became flesh, He made an irrevocable statement about how the faith movement works. And it changes, from culture to culture, generation to generation.

Some Christians travel a different destructive path that, likewise, erodes the power of the Christian movement. It is called syncretism. In an attempt to make Christianity “easy” for non-Christians, some try to “sync up” with the culture in areas the content of Scripture clearly identifies as unchristian. As nations drift from authentic, biblical teaching, some believe that part of the “offensive” elements of Scripture should be watered down or reinterpreted to “sync up” with the culture. At first, it may appear effective. “Christianity lite” may attract some, but the lack of depth eventually leads to shallow Christianity. The Gospel is an “offense,” by its own description. Christians are not called to be offensive, but God’s truth cannot be compromised. Syncretism removes the backbone from the body of Christ—the Church.

The proper approach to contextualization without syncretism releases the power of the Gospel. A great mission thinker once said, “Methods are many; principles are few. Methods always change; principles never do.” Contextualization is a mission principle demonstrated by Jesus—who came in the flesh. Syncretism is a method to try to “soften” the reality and the cost of following Jesus. To understand the difference is a nonnegotiable commitment to the truth of Scripture. You can’t improve on God’s approach in Jesus. This is powerful for the way you “do” church.

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