A friend recently visited us in Dallas and commented on the fast paced life in this city. Nothing new. I hear it, and say it, all the time. But this conversation didn’t stop there. He and I got to talking about the pace, not of lifestyle, but of change how rapidly things change from the way we “used to do it” to the “new way” of doing things. That’s certainly true in the technology sector where my son, who works in e-commerce consulting, tells me that a “generation” of web technology is 45 days in length. That is, in less than two months, the way we “used to do it” in web commerce changes, and what was new is now surpassed in speed, quality and ease-of-use, by what is newer. But our conversation didn't stay on technology. It moved to the things of the faith, the life of the church. Both of us are theological conservatives. That is, we both stand for conserving and preserving and communicating a high view of Scripture, a high and exalted understanding of God and His sovereignty over all of life, a stress on the role of the church as preacher and teacher of the Truth and as a genuinely new community of faith and love, unlike any other human community. As we talked, we began to realize something: being a conservative and therefore conserving the values of the faith does not mean, indeed cannot mean, an unwillingness to deal with change. Conservatives may not remain blind to the world around us.
Let me quickly explain what I do not mean. I do not mean that the gospel changes, adapting to a new age. The eternal gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and His blood atonement stands unchangeable and unchanging! I also do not mean that the duty to preach the Word, to disciple young and old, the longtime churched and the new convert alike, changes because the times change. I do not mean that since “generation X” doesn't easily make commitments, we should expect less from them, or dumb down the message of what it means to followJesus who called us to radical and life-transforming commitment.
But biblical conservatives must communicate the gospel freshly to this world, and it is a world that is heaving with change. Consider the following.
Consider the changes brought about by technology (and I’ll only mention a couple, since I recently wrote an article detailing many more). In the last few years, the explosion of the internet has resulted in virtually ubiquitous email. I serve with a total of 20 elders and deacons. None zero—are without email. Even more strikingly, of our congregation's approximately 200 different addresses, there are only about a dozen without email. Every college student has an email address. I know of no high school student in our church without one.
With the rising popularity of email has come profound implications. Negatively, people email with frightening rapidity, often blithely ignorant of the power of words so easily disseminated. When you can’t see someone's face or their reaction to what you say, it is easy to believe there is no other reaction than merely matter-of-fact intellectualism. But that's not true. Email words can hurt just as much as spoken words. Worse, people mistakenly assume that email communication reflects a healthy relationship. Also untrue. Nothing can replace the time and effort and love it takes to sit, to listen, to pray with another human. No amount of emails in one’s inbox can replace a friend, a fellow believer who cares with the love of Christ, in one's kitchen. No amount of emails can replace a loving and caring husband who is tender, who loves his wife, who listens to her heart as well as her voice, and who embraces her to show the love of Christ.
But email also presents positive benefits to the church’s ministry. It’s amazing how many people I can touch base with on a daily basis—often superficially, but communication nonetheless—while sitting at my computer. I just jotted a note to a daughter studying in Spain, another to a sister-in-law in California, and a third to a niece in Canada. All in 10 minutes. After I finish writing this article, I’ll write a meditation to the college students from our church, a group of over 20 young adults studying in almost as many colleges and universities. (They’ll have it by supper, and I'll begin to receive notes tomorrow morning telling me of their daily joys and struggles.) And then a quick note to notify the elders of the church to be in prayer today for an individual who is struggling with his faith today. All ten elders will be praying within a couple hours. It will take me 5 minutes.
Our church also has a web site. No, a web site cannot replace a visit to a church to worship the Lord together, a serious chat with a member or with an elder or pastor to ask questions about Bible teachings, ministry vision, or youth programs. Yet, a web site brings some opportunities. This week, I’ve received notes from people in California, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, the Philippines, and Western Romania. All these folks examined our web site carefully. Some ordered sermon tapes. Others requested prayers. Still others asked about the church, as they were contemplating relocating to North Texas. Others sought counsel about various circumstances.
The changes brought about by such explosive technology simply cannot be ignored if we’re to be good stewards of God’s gifts. The church must capitalize on the technology, “making the most of every opportunity, as Colossians 4 commends. I recommend, as a starting point, that you discuss with others in your home church the level of internet and email use by your congregational members. If you find it extensive, begin to explore ways you can use that technology for the Kingdom of God.”
Yesterday at lunch, a friend told me a story about a church member who was taking graduate level classes in sociology. Her professor boldly made the statement that, in the USA, ethnic purebloods were virtually extinct, replaced most certainly by “melting pot intermingling” by the time of the third generation from immigration. Being a proud Dutch Calvinist, she objected, tracing her ancestry back through the generations of pure Dutch blood. After talking with the professor for a long time, both began to realize how extremely rare was her heritage. He asked her to write a paper. While doing so, she also began to notice how easily such bloodlines bred a kind of ethnic arrogance, and how difficult it was for God’s people, who can so easily put a great emphasis on such ethnic purity, to accept without reservation people from “every race, tribe, and tongue”—especially when that diversity all occurs within the skin of one person! The change? Diversity used to be a plank in the Democratic Party platform. Now we have leamed that it is part of the pentecost dimension of the kingdom of God!
Or consider the comments of a new member of our church. She observed how unusual it was to see whole families in church together. By that she meant a dad, a mom, and children, all together. When my blank stare revealed a lack of understanding, she got even more urgent. “Surely,” she said, “you are aware that such families are a rare thing in America. And, from my sojourns in evangelical Christianity, such a family is just as rare in today’s churches. You just don't see fathers present, and certainly not strong, Biblical, faithful fathers.”
I, of course, immediately thanked God for the heritage of the covenant, and launched into a gratitude-laced monologue about the blessings of the faithfulness of generation after generation of Reformed people. She listened for a while, then said, in a quiet but firm voice, “I grew up in a broken home, so I look at a church full of strong families from another point of view. Think of how intimidating it can be to someone whose family has been decimated by infidelity, abuse, and brokenness. I’d be scared to death to visit this church. In fact, I still feel like an outsider after all these years.”
Yes, the American family has changed, and that change has been profound. But far from merely lamenting how terrible it has become, the church is called to be a change-agent with the healing power of the gospel. Our proclamation must redefine family God’s way. Our lifestyles must encourage and exemplify healthy covenant relationships. But our fellowship must not be closed to those who have not known what many of us grew up thinking is normal. It is not. And arrogance is not an option. The change demands that we change our attitude at the very least.
A parting thought...
The point of this article is not to lament the unraveling of the fabric of American or even church life, nor is it to celebrate the resources available on the internet. I have tried to present a balanced perspective, identifying some of the positives and negatives of modem technology, and some of the strengths and concomitant dangers of a covenant heritage in the middle of a devolving sodety.
My point lies in another direction. While the church today may not change the gospel if she is to remain faithful, it is clear that the world in which she is preaching and teaching and living is changing so fast as to make one's head spin. And those changes are profound ones, striking at the heart of how we live our lives. To be compromised by such changes without standing firm on the unchangeable Word of God is to be weak and unfaithful. But to ignore the changes, or worse, to universally condemn them as “liberal,” is foolhardy and arrogant. And arrogance, sad to say, is a temptation that too often follows on the heels of God's richest blessings.
Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, Texas, and a contributing editor of The Outlook.