Editors Note: In its ongoing effort to support effective local church ministry and mission, the Outlook invites its readers to consider alternative models of church ministry being developed in sister churches around the denomination. This editorial combines with two other articles, Presbyterians and the “40 Days of Purpose” and Purpose-Driven and Presbyterian: One new paradigm at work, to provide analysis of the purpose-driven church paradigm
Many Reformed Christians shook their heads in dismay when Robert Schuller’s book, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Word Books, 1982), made its way into print.
How could he possibly think that attaining a good self-concept could replace the gospel’s drama of sin … forgiveness … redemption, they wondered.
How could categories drawn from pop psychology supplant terms used in holy Scripture, they protested.
The reformation he helped launch has been one not of theology but of methodology. That reformation commenced when he formed a church by visiting hundreds of Garden Grove, Calif., homes, asking folks, “Do you go to church?” and “If not, why not?” Based upon their responses, he shaped his drive-in church’s liturgy around people’s expressed desires rather than adhere to some of the classical traditions of the Reformed churches. In the process he jettisoned the language of Zion and replaced it with terms whose meanings were self-evident to secular people. He shortened or eliminated parts of worship perceived to be boring. In the process, communication effectiveness took precedence over confessional precision and biblical exposition.
In the process Schuller gave birth to a method of church building that has been emulated time and again. Although he seldom receives credit for it, many new paradigm churches, some of which count their membership in the thousands, carry to a younger generation the ideas pioneered by Schuller.
Are these new paradigm churches thrusting us into a new Reformation, a Holy Spirit-inspired Reformation? Or are such churches simply capitulating to the values of a self-absorbed, dumbed-down, conspicuously consumptive, trivialized secular culture?
It appears that the movement is promoting all of the above.
The genius of the new paradigm churches is the way they are applying anthropology and missiology. As all missionaries can attest, the promotion of the Christian faith requires its communication via the language, the customs, the cultures and the felt needs of those one is aiming to reach. Fifty years ago, Schuller took that simple fact and applied it to his own southern California culture, and a whole new way of doing church was born.
The essential danger of these new paradigms relates to the quality of the message conveyed. Are they compromising the content of the message in order to make the gospel palatable? If liturgy provides the primary conveyance through which worshipers encounter God, then can a worship service shaped by local customs provide a vehicle with sufficient oomph to rise above ground level and to ascend into the heavenlies? Of course, this is no new concern. In most eras the church has wrestled form with substance, present relevance with divine majesty. Equally pressing: are such churches promoting individualism, self-reliance, and even self-indulgence in place of costly discipleship?
One thing is sure. Many Presbyterians are applying parts or all of one or more of the new paradigms to their church’s ministry. Many others are resisting such adaptations. Few are disregarding them altogether, given their proliferation all around the landscape. Considering their success in drawing thousands, even millions of previously unchurched persons into the life of their churches, we would be foolish simply to dismiss them out of hand.
We all have much to consider and much to learn as we seek to be faithful Christ-servants in our local churches. To foster that, the Outlook introduces in this issue a new series of articles to appear periodically: “Changing Churches Paradigms.” This issue takes a close look at the Purpose-Driven model. Subsequent editions will consider models under such labels as Church of the Savior, Willowcreek, Missional, Emergent and others. Hopefully, each study will uncover ideas to prod greater effectiveness and faithfulness, while exposing pitfalls to be avoided.
While Robert Schuller cannot be congratulated nor blamed for the launch of all these church paradigms, he can be thanked for setting his sights on reaching more people for Christ, and in the process, for lifting the self-esteem of thousands.