At the beginning of 1 Corinthians 9, the Apostle Paul asserts that as a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he has the right to demand the church pay him and help meet his needs. He chooses, however, not to exercise that right because he doesn’t want anything to hinder the work he’s doing for the Lord.
In verses 20-23, he continues with the theme of doing whatever’s necessary to bring others to Christ: “19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
Christians are called to have this same attitude. We are to do whatever is necessary to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ. God didn’t create the church to be a country club. He created it to do ministry in his name. This means the church needs to constantly evaluate its ministries to see if they are being effective. If they aren’t, the church needs to make changes.
Unfortunately change is hard. That’s why the question, “Why do we always have to be the ones to change?” is sometimes spoken by well-meaning Christians who have become too comfortable with the way their congregation does things.
Before we answer this question, we need to ask “Why is change even necessary?” People instinctively resist change if they don’t know why it has to happen. Let’s break this question into two parts. First of all, why is change necessary for us as individuals? Let’s look at the next few verses Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9 to answer this: “24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
We need to change as individuals if we aren’t running the Christian race in such a way as to get the prize when we die. This requires strict training, such as devotion to Jesus, prayer, studying the Bible and practicing spiritual disciplines. It also entails submission to Christ. Once we read the Bible, we actually need to do what it says. Running the race with Jesus also necessitates preaching the Gospel through both our words and our actions.
A question we all need to ask ourselves about running this race is: Does my life show I’m running the race in such a way that I’ll actually win the prize?
We all like to think we have salvation and will go to heaven when we die but does the way we live show we actually have Jesus inside of us? Everyone goes to heaven according to the world’s standard but Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14 – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Now let’s look at “Why is change necessary for congregations?” God offers everyone salvation through the work of Jesus on the cross. We all need this but there are barriers. God doesn’t automatically plant the gospel inside of us. People have to hear the gospel and be taught how to live it out. How does that happen?
The church builds a bridge to help people overcome barriers and get to the cross. This is done through evangelism and developing patterns for worship. They include singing, praying, preaching, working to help others and training people how to live as Christians.
Many times the church is very effective at doing this. For example, in the not-too-distant past, people filled stadiums to hear Billy Graham preach and George Beverly Shea’s records were selling in department stores. Millions of people came to Christ through their ministries.
As great as these ministries are, problems develop because times change. Our society is currently changing faster than at any time in our history. I’m only 46 years old. When I was growing up, there were no cell phones or computers and we only got two and half TV channels because one channel didn’t come in half of the time. Now cell phones are a necessity for most people. Computers control almost everything that runs. We can get hundreds of TV channels if we want to pay for them.
These changes in society change the people who live in them. Many people are now more interested in checking their cell phones during dinner than they in talking with their family members. Computers allow us to communicate with each other without actually having to talk face-to-face. Remote controls and cable TV have shortened our attention spans. We flip channels when the six minute segments of commercials interrupt our program and sometimes we forget to go back to the original program we were watching.
Changing people brings changes into the church. People are no longer interested in filling stadiums to listen to preachers. George Beverly Shea’s style of music is no longer found in the music sections of department stores. The church is no longer the main source of social interaction in our American culture. This shows society has moved so much that most people are no longer walking across the bridges the church built decades ago.
This creates a major problem. The message of the cross hasn’t changed and even though society has changed, people still need the Lord. What should the church do when it comes to this point?
The solution is rather simple. We do the same thing Paul did in our scripture lesson. We figure out the culture and build a new bridge that’s relevant to a new generation. In his commentary, Richard B Hays writes, “Paul’s slavery to Christ is expressed in the form of submitting himself in various ways to the cultural structures and limitations of the people he hopes to reach with the gospel.” The church has to relevant to the current culture if it wants to keep reaching people with the gospel.
As simple as this sounds, it can be very difficult to do because it takes money, time and energy to build new bridges. Due to the fact that many Christians are unwilling to do this, many churches try to force people across the old bridge they built decades ago rather than try and build a new one. After all, that’s “the way we’ve always done it.”
How do people in a changing society react when this happens? They simply ignore the old bridge and refuse to cross it.
Congregations who fail to recognize this are getting smaller in number and older in age. Many of them sit around wondering why the “young people just aren’t interested” in church anymore. Sadly, many of these congregations are already past the point of no return. Their resources and numbers are so depleted that, barring a miracle, they couldn’t save their congregation even if they suddenly wanted to build a new bridge.
God will let churches that refuse to change decline and then die a slow and painful death. This brings us to a very important point we must never forget: Most congregations don’t die because they quit being faithful to Jesus. They die because they become irrelevant to people.
What does all of this have to do with us as individuals? We must never make our bridges an idol. Faithfully running our race with Jesus and reaching others with the gospel is our biblical mandate. We aren’t called to hang onto the way our congregation has always done things.
Christians honor the past but they don’t worship it.
What does this have to do with our congregation? After all, the attendance at Snake Spring Valley is up and great things are happening. This is true but I want us to think about our ministries. Are our ministries relevant in reaching people with the love of Jesus Christ? If they aren’t, should we make adjustments or just abandon them in favor of ones that are more significant? Many ministries which God gives the church are only necessary for a season. Then something else is needed because times change.
Even though things are going well right now, the world is still changing and moving forward. We have to keep building new bridges so we can bring new people to Jesus. If we fail at this, we too can become irrelevant in the not too distant future.
So, getting back to our original question: Why do we always have to be the ones to change? Because God commands us to.