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Volume 17, Issue 5: Poimen

Novelty and Endurance

Joost Nixon

Pundits and church-growth experts have been asking for many years, what is the key to church growth? Studies have been conducted, doctoral theses defended, and niche marketers flown in from Manhattan. The data are in. Now, combine them in a large pot, bring to an initial boil, reduce the heat and simmer on low, uncovered, for three hours. When the egg timer beeps, what you have left staring at you from the bottom of the pot is the essence of modern church growth theory: Novelty. The factors that cause churches to grow nowadays all have this one thing in common.

Our culture is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Need some background information for a report on nuclear power? Google it. Locked out of your car? A lady in Detroit can unlock it via satellite. Want to see pictures of the grandkids? We'll take them on the camera phone and zip them right over. And these are just technological examples. The same rate of change affects other aspects of culture as well.
When the world changes at such a breathless pace, if you cannot keep up, you are doomed to deepening disorientation. Those that can keep pace become so comfortable with "new and improved" that they begin to wear innovation like an old sweater. In fact, they require innovation as a condition of their patronage.
In ministry, it is axiomatic that whatever we do to get people to church, we have to do to keep them there. If we draw people to church with a dog and pony show, we can only retain them if we continue the dog and pony show. And the law of diminishing returns informs us that each show has to outdo the last. But what if what drew the crowd was not a dog and pony show? What if the draw was novelty itself? Well, then the axiom dictates we must continue to provide novelty, in growing portions, in order to retain the crowd. This generates fads as churches compete to provide the latest, most cutting edge "worship-experience" for modern evangelicals. Witness the purpose-driven fad, the emerging-church fad, the home-church fad, and the endless Holy Spirit fads of the Charismatic movement. Phil Johnson has dubbed this phenomenon "The Fad-driven® Church."
And now for some introspection. There has been a spike in attendance in Reformed churches in the last decade. We might ask, why? Well, there are many good reasons to exit modern evangelicalism. Many report having grown sick of the superficiality of the worship, the man-centered gospel, the general absence of content. Others resent being referred to as "giving units" and having to watch their pastor preach through binoculars. It does not hurt attendance, of course, that Augustine and Calvin, out of favor for so very many years, are now the mode. Calvinism has become hip.
Is it our novelty that draws the numbers? On the one hand we are unapologetically Calvinistic. But on the other, we have a well-developed culture of celebration. Yes, we sing the psalms. All of them—even the ones with words like "dung" and images of broken teeth. We do not blush, but sing them robustly in four-part harmony. Is this not odd? But there is more. We consider Christian education worthy of great familial sacrifice. And we make bold to declare the supremacy of Christ over every government, family, and burger shack. Not convinced of our weirdness? Okay. We like reading Leviticus and the hinterlands of Exodus. We treasure them with the rest of Scripture. And all of these "distinctives" mean that we are weird (or, if you prefer, novel).
But if we are novel, what distinguishes us from the Fad-driven® Church? To answer this question, we must first pose another. Why did you first come to a Reformed church? For some, it may be that it seemed "cutting-edge." It was interesting because it was all so new (though really quite old). But if this is so, in order to "retain" you, your pastor must trot out the next innovation. And if he is truth-driven, and not novelty-driven, he simply cannot do it. This does not mean a Reformed church cannot change—the motto of every church ought to be semper reformanda, "always reforming." But the changes do not occur for the sake of change, but in pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness.
What this means, practically, is there are some things we began to pursue years ago which no longer savor of newness. However, because they are true, good, and beautiful, we must continue the chase. Perhaps the novelty of psalm-singing has worn off, and the pursuit of covenant community has grown tiresome. Or maybe the regularity of discipling our children has become a drudgery, and the pursuit of the Word old hat. These are lofty pursuits, and they are not simple or easy. Expect your flesh to groan at them sometimes. But when it does, ask yourself what first brought you, truth or novelty? If it was novelty, then you must chase the latest fad. But if truth, beauty, and goodness drew you, then endure. For what separates us from the Fad-Driven® Church is joyful endurance. Tenacious pursuit. No distractions. Eyes on the goal—for this year, five years, five hundred years—in style and out. "And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap, if we do not grow weary" (Gal. 6:9).

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