It’s been a long time coming, but I have come to a conclusion that I should have arrived at long ago: methods matter.
For some, this may not seem like all that profound of an idea; others—especially those who share a love for the message of justification by faith like I do—may be a little skeptical.
I always used to assume that the only thing that mattered—the only thing—was the message. If we could just get the message right, then everything else would fall into place. If we could just have the opportunity to preach the message of God’s boundless love to a large enough audience, then everyone would be swept up in its current, and revival would break out. And I used to roll my eyes when people would talk about methods and innovation and the like.
But no longer.
I won’t recount the whole story as to how my thinking shifted on this, but the bottom line is that methods are critically important.
To begin with, there is no such thing as a methodless presentation of the gospel. Preaching is a method; writing is a method—and these are the two main methods we have traditionally used. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with these methods, per se, so long as we recognize that they are just that: methods—and so long as we realize that if our gospel message is to be coherent, the methods we employ must be consistent with the message we proclaim.
That is to say, the methods we use either validate the message we proclaim or they contradict it. Methods are the unspoken body language that are often louder than the message itself. As I shared last week, most of the time our methods are so loud that people can’t hear our message.
As an example: I make a big deal about the fact that Christ took on our fallen human nature. He incarnated Himself in our situation, taking on our flesh and blood and meeting us where we are—rather than expecting us to reach Him where He is. This is good and important and pivotal.
But the methods I employ often contradict this with the audience I am seeking to reach: many people, especially from younger generations, do not find it all that meaningful to travel to a building and listen to someone talk at them for 60 minutes. They would rather sit in a café and have a conversation about it. Yet in my presentation about Christ’s meeting us where we are, I am not willing to meet people where they are.
I am thus making the gospel literally “unbelievable” since I am insisting on my method instead of being willing to utilize their method. And we do this sort of thing over and over again.
The reality is, message and methods are two sides of the same coin. Our praxis must be consistent with our proclamation. Some of us have done a great job with the content, but we’ve failed to realize that the content must be presented in fresh ways that are in the language of those we’re trying to reach.
If we ignore the importance of methodology, insisting that the only thing that matters is the message, we run the risk of spiritualism—not realizing that the message must have flesh and blood.
This is essentially what Jesus meant when He said we can’t put “new wine into old wineskins” (Mark 2:22), lest the old wineskins burst and we lose both wine and wineskin. Instead, we must continuously put the new wine—the eternal message of God’s boundless love—in new wineskins—the changing methods that complement the message we’re proclaiming.
For so long, though, I had to turn a blind eye to such Scriptural ideas—as well as Ellen White’s explicit counsel. Just look up the term “new methods” in her writing and do some reading.
Here are just two:
New methods must be introduced. God’s people must awake to the necessities of the time in which they are living. God has men whom He will call into His service,—men who will not carry forward the work in the lifeless way in which it has been carried forward in the past” (Evangelism, p. 70).
“Whatever may have been your former practice, it is not necessary to repeat it again and again in the same way. God would have new and untried methods followed. Break in upon the people—surprise them” (Ibid., 125).
These are quite the eyeful! Yet we seem stuck in the same traditional rut, betraying the fact that maybe, just maybe, we haven’t really embraced the message of God’s liberating grace, or understood its full implications. If we did, it would it secure us enough in God’s love so that we would be freed to take risks and refuse to condemn others who may not do things the exact same way we do.
It’s no wonder that Paul said he sought to be “all things to all people” so that he could “by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). He, of course, didn’t compromise when it came to God’s law, but he was willing to employ whatever method necessary in order to share and show the message of God’s boundless love.
This may sound extreme to some, but Ellen White draws out this idea explicitly: “When the practices of the people do not come in conflict with the law of God,” she wrote, “you may conform to them. If the workers fail to do this, they will not only hinder their own work but they will place stumbling blocks in the way of those for whom they labor, and hinder them from accepting the truth” (Review and Herald, April 6, 1911).
This is a bombshell! Sometimes we may think people are rejecting our message when they may simply never actually be hearing it because we are using “practices” that are so deafening.
So if we are so serious and concerned about our message, we must be insistent on utilizing methods that will not be distracting to those we’re trying to reach. We mustn’t therefore set up a false dichotomy between message and method.
Of course, there is a caveat: just as we cannot be message-centric to the neglect of methods, we cannot be method-centric to the neglect of message. There are many who do indeed go to the other extreme. They place all the emphasis on utilizing the new and latest and most innovative methods, thinking that if we can just get the methods right, it will all happen.
But this is equally troubling. It is essentially formalism (as opposed to spiritualism, which is what the “message-only” approach is).
But as someone said recently whom I heard speaking: you can build a sailboat and put it in the water—but you can’t make the wind blow. Thus, we can have all the most innovative and relevant methods, but if those methods are devoid of the Spirit and devoid of the motivating love of Christ, then it’s a dead-end street.
I write all this as an explanation as to why I have been writing about methodology so much recently—especially ecclesiology and missiology. Basically, I’ve finally become a practitioner and not just a theorist. When I finally got serious about pastoring, and especially as we’ve been laying the groundwork to plant new churches, I realized that our message must have some body-language, else it won’t be effective.
And I also realized that when we set out to plant a new church that we would be starting with a blank canvas, and thus have the awesome opportunity to fill up that canvass with whatever the Spirit wanted. I didn’t just assume that the way we’ve always done it is the way that it always has to be done.
And I came to the poignant conclusion that if an alien were to land on earth and read the book of Acts in order to start a new church, they probably wouldn’t come up with what we’ve come up with (which is an ecclesiology that may have “worked” in the past but is neither eternally normative nor presently effective).
So, going forward, this blog—and other things I write for other platforms—will be equal parts message and equal parts method. At least that’s the goal.