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Tradition, Fads and Silver Bullets

Why programs seldom produce expected results, and what to do about it.

Everybody knows what happens in a church service. Right? In fact, with only minor variations, the “order of service” is remarkably similar across denominations. And, most congregations hardly vary anything year in and year out. Drop a total stranger into just about any congregation at a random point in the assembly and he could probably tell you what’s going to happen next.

Why are our church assemblies the way they are? For the most part, tradition. We have a sermon as the filler in our “hymn sandwich” or its “contemporary” equivalent because that’s what we’ve always done. If someone were to ask why, most people would be at a loss to answer. It is something which just is.

Tradition and Fads – What’s the Purpose for What We Do?

Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with tradition. Tradition may be what holds a group together and gives it stability in a rapidly changing or hostile environment. The traditional feasts and rituals are one of the things which has enabled the Jewish people to retain their unique identity through a very turbulent history. The Apostle Paul exhorts the Christians in Thessalonica to hold onto the traditions he had taught them (2 Thessalonians 2:15). And, he praises the Corinthians for keeping the traditions (1 Corinthians 11:2).

Where we get into trouble is when we allow our traditions to replace or interfere with what God has told us to do. Jesus got upset with the religious leaders of His day for that (see Mark 7:1-13). One of our problems today, I suspect, is that we are so steeped in our traditions of what should happen during our church assemblies that it has anesthetized us to the purpose of it all. A fundamental question, and one which is rarely asked is, “What is the purpose of our church services? What are they supposed to accomplish?”

In addition to tradition, we are afflicted by fads. Every few years there seems to be an idea or practice which sweeps through the churches – often across denominational lines – which grabs everyone’s attention and then, after a while, fades away. Bus ministries come to mind. Anyone still remember using film-strips in evangelism campaigns? How about the programs where we were taught to ask, “If you were to die tonight…”? Remember when everybody started projecting sermon points and Scripture on the screen?

The Silver Bullet Syndrome – A Cycle of Ineffectiveness

Why do we succumb to fads? I suggest that it is because we are looking for something which will miraculously fix the problems we see in our congregations. Church X is growing or has the reputation of being able to reach this generation. Naturally, others are curious about what they are doing to generate that success and try to copy it. Second tier adopters, in turn, report some success in using the method or program. Still others start to copy the second-hand adopters in the attempt to replicate their success. Soon the idea or practice has spread all over and congregations everywhere start to think that if everyone else is doing it, it must have validity and be the thing to do. It’s the “silver bullet” syndrome. One congregation finds a way to slay the particular “werewolf” which is plaguing them and everybody else decides that the same bullet will slay theirs too.

Unfortunately, it seldom proves as effective in other places as it did in its original setting. Why not? In her article, Life of a Silver Bullet, Sarah A. Sheard points out one reason copy-catters don’t get the same results is that their environment is not the same as the original adopters. The underlying problems the solution is intended to solve may be different.

Let me cite an instance I know about. A large and growing congregation became concerned about people “falling through the cracks” and started asking everyone in their assemblies to fill out an attendance card so they could get a handle on when people went missing. Another congregation looked at what this church was doing and decided to copy it. “After all, since they use attendance cards and are growing, we’ll start growing if we use them.” What they apparently didn’t take into account is that something intended to solve a specific problem in a congregation of 500 is simply not applicable to a congregation of 30 or 40. In a small congregation where everyone already knows everybody else, you simply don’t need a card to keep track of whether someone is missing. The cards were irrelevant in their situation, and certainly did not produce numerical growth!

There is an even deeper problem with “silver bullets”. I was asked to help start the congregation I attend because of a paper I wrote in which I explained some of my ideas and convictions about the church. It is my understanding, and I believe accounts written at the time bear this out, that my paper served as a catalyst in facilitating the start of the congregation. During the kerfuffle which led to my resignation as an Elder, my co-founders told me that they never had agreed with my paper. I was shocked and dumbfounded. If they hadn’t agreed with what I wrote, then why in the world did they ask me to join with them in founding the congregation? It made no sense.

After pondering a long time I think I finally understand. In my paper I wrote that it would be possible to implement much of what I suggested and still miss the whole point. Apparently, this is what my co-founders did. They saw the things I recommended, such as speaker rotations and participatory assemblies as techniques rather than reflections of biblical principles. Either they didn’t agree with the principles or, more likely, were blind to the principles behind the practices.

After we started the congregation I was puzzled by resistance to adopting even more of what I thought was a natural progression from the principles I see in Scripture. Now it makes sense. If the others didn’t recognize the principles to begin with, it is no wonder they couldn’t see what I suggested as a logical outgrowth or expression of those principles. It’s no wonder they became dis-enchanted with the things we had already implemented. The practices, and therefore the results from the practices, didn’t match the philosophical model they were operating under. Frankly, in view of their failure to embrace the principles behind the practices, I’m amazed at the spiritual growth and progress we did see in the congregation. To me it is a tremendous validation and affirmation of the concepts that so much was accomplished in spite of my co-founders’ not accepting the principles behind what we did. What could have been accomplished if only they had!

This is the main reason “silver bullet” solutions seldom work. People try to implement a system, a program or a method without understanding or buying into the principles behind the system, program or method. It’s like trying to build a house with no foundation. It might look pretty for a little while but it isn’t long before something settles and the doors go out of plumb and start to stick. Soon cracks appear in the walls and, before too long, the entire structure comes apart.

What’s even worse is a partial implementation. People take a concept and try to patch it onto some other structure. When things don’t pan out as expected they blame the concept rather than understand that they failed to buy into the beliefs and principles behind the concept. (Jesus had something to say about this in His parables of the wine-skin and old clothing. See Matthew 9:16-17 and its parallels in the other Gospels.) Having decided that the concept doesn’t work, they abandon it and start looking for another “silver bullet” to solve their problems. And, the cycle repeats itself.

Put Principles Over Method

How can we avoid the “silver bullet” syndrome? By continually putting the emphasis on principles rather than method. By always asking, “Why are we doing this?” By considering the purpose for everything.

It would be easy for me to give you a list of what I think we ought to be doing in our assemblies and how we ought to be doing them. But a list of methods and practices without a discussion of the principles behind them would be, at best, another clip of “silver bullets”.

My personal conviction is that the church needs to adopt not only the doctrine of the New Testament church, but its practices as well. But I have come to realize that it would be entirely possible to adopt those practices and still miss the whole point – and, therefore, miss the power and effectiveness of the practices.

Principles to Consider

Rather than hand you another “silver bullet” I’m going to ask you to consider just three broad principles which should inform our practices.

1) In 1 Peter 2:4-10 Peter writes that Christians are a “holy priesthood”. Ask yourself what priests do (as described in the Bible, not some ecclesiastical tradition!). Do the people in your congregation have the opportunity to function as priests?

2) Look at the “one another” Scriptures. I don’t have a precise count, but there are probably over a dozen such passages. Make a list of the things we Christians are supposed to be doing to and for each other.

3) Think about what it means to “equip” in passages such as Ephesians 4:12.

Here’s the question: If we really bought into the principles of the priesthood of all believers, one another and equipping, how would it change what we do in our assemblies? I suspect that our assemblies would be radically different than they are now. While there may be different expressions of these and other principles which should affect what we do, my guess is that what we came up with would be a lot closer to the church practices we read about in the New Testament. Not because we copied them, but because we came to the same conclusions the first Christians did when they implemented the principles I’ve mentioned.

But, in any case, whatever you do, whatever practices you adopt, whatever methods you decide to try – start with the principles first! Practices and methodologies must flow from principle. Otherwise, they are just another “silver bullet” doomed to ineffectiveness.

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