Change… what we must and must not do
1 Aug 2012
Recently I celebrated one of those ‘milestone’ birthdays that most people commiserate, I turned 40. Turning 40, however, gave my wife and I a great excuse to get together and party with friends, family and people I had gone to school with many, many years earlier. There was much laughter, considerable food, and moments of great embarrassment. Of particular interest to most were the photos of different eras. By the end of the night we all agreed that the 1970s and 80s represented one of the great declines in the history of clothing apparel. Terrible pastel coloured outfits, puffy shirts, thin leather ties offset against the horrid haircuts of this era made for a good night of laughing, even if at my expense.
Changing trends in clothes, music taste and hairstyles are a part of life. What is acceptable and popular today is soon dated and on the way out. The moment you buy a phone or computer, a newer, faster, sleeker model is available. Change is inevitable and must be taken seriously.
For those of us committed to taking the message of Jesus to the world, we too need to think long and hard about the role of change in the work of God. Discussions of how we do church, how we do missions, how we preach, how we dress, what music style we should play in the service can lead to division and separation but they can also lead to growth. As Christians we must wrestle with change. But what are we to make of it? In reading the Bible there are two things that stand out.
First, change is often deemed as appropriate and necessary as God’s work expands. The early Christian communities were often situated in complex and diverse cities. In these cities, like our own, things moved at a rapid pace. Throughout the book of Acts we see the followers of Christ showing great ingenuity and change as they moved from context to context preaching the gospel. The apostle Paul, for example, would often be in a synagogue on the Sabbath sharing with the Jews, and on the others days of the week he could be found in a city centre chatting with Greek philosophers. Paul, like other New Testament examples, changed his life, his speech, and his practices to reach people. He comments in 1 Cor 9:22, “Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone; doing everything I can to save some” (NLT). For Paul, the style and circumstances of sharing Christ were open to change. Whether in a synagogue, a Greek metropolis, or a Roman prison, Paul used what he could to leverage the gospel message. Change, for Paul, was appropriate and necessary.
Second, not only do we observe that change is often appropriate, we also observe that the essence of the Christian message must not change. In the New Testament the writers often talk about the gospel they “received” and “passed on” (1 Cor 15:3). The gospel message was not the clever invention of the apostles, rather, it was the truth of God proclaimed. The biblical terms of ‘evangelist’ and ‘ambassador’ designate roles of proclamation and representation. The disciples did not have liberty to create the message, they were simply declarers of it. The style of the declaration changed, but the essence did not. Paul, for example, when asked by a Philippian jailer, “What must I do to be saved?” simply answered “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:30–31). When talking about the process of salvation to a jailer Paul was straight forward and succinct. In sharing about the same process of salvation with the Ephesians, however, Paul uses 12 verses to state the very same idea (Eph 1:3–14). The essence of the message was the same in both accounts, it was about the salvation that comes through Christ. The language, the explanation, the context, however, dictated the best way of expressing that timeless message. Style issues changed even in Bible times, but the central life-penetrating heart of the gospel remained constant.
As we follow Christ and seek to make him known we must work hard to change with the culture. We are not to be shaped by the world, but we must live in it and seek to communicate the good news to it in ways that connect. The way we take, tell, and show the message will change and look different and that is ok. The message, however, is not our own invention, it is the timeless and ever stable message of salvation through Jesus for God’s glory. That is truly worth celebrating. And that must not change.
-Dr Malcolm J. Gill
Senior Lecturer, Sydney Missionary and Bible College
Pioneers Australia Board Member