11 Innovations in the Local Church

11 Innovations in the Local Church: How Today’s Leaders Can Learn, Discern and Move Into the Future by Elmer L. Towns, Ed Stetzer, and Warren Bird is a very useful survey of 11 various innovations that have occurred in the local church in the last decade or so. The 11 innovations are:

  1. Organic House Churches
  2. Recovery Churches
  3. Multi-site Churches
  4. Ancient-Future Churches
  5. City-Reaching Churches
  6. Community Transformation Churches
  7. Cyber-Enhanced Churches
  8. Nickelodeon-Style Children-Focused Churches
  9. Intentionally Multicultural Churches
  10. Decision—Journey Churches
  11. Attractional Churches

The purpose of the book is summarized in the following:

I have become convinced that two of the biggest issues for evangelicals in the next 10 years will be ecclesiology and missiology. Ecclesiology (“study of church”) helps us to understand what a church is and how it should function. Missiology (“study of mission”) helps us to see what methods and ministries will be most effective at reaching our community. (p. 235)

The authors provide a reductionistic, though operative, definition of what a church is:

Our working definition of church is “an assembly of professing believers, uniquely indwelt by Jesus Christ, under the discipline of the Word of God, administering the ordinances and led by spiritually gifted leaders.” This definition of church is an irreducible minimum. We need to measure all innovations by the seed of this truth and ask the question, “Does this innovation bear the marks of a New Testament Church?” (p. 18)

The authors are more critical of some innovations over others.

For example, concerning multi-site churches, Stetzer poignantly declares:

One reason that many of these multi-site churches are growing is that they are “better” than the churches already in a community. They offer more quality and people are attracted to such. But at some point, the gospel cannot and must not attract people simply because we do it better. it must ultimately be about Jesus, the gospel and sacrifice—and that does not require a video screen and a national structure.

As a missiologist, I (Ed) always ask if it is reproducible. If something can’t reproduce, it has natural limits on its ability to expand and influence. For some models of multi-site churches, multiplication of leaders can be hard. You can always start another site, but what about creating new leaders who develop other leaders? It is comparably easy to start another campus, but it is quite hard to grow another Andy Stanley! (pp. 93-94)

I found the chapter on Nickelodeon-Style Children-Focused Churches to be intriguing and worrisome. Regarding Andy Stanley’s children’s program, UpStreet, in that church:

The leadership believes that they only have a short window of time before a kid becomes a teenager (only 364 weekends). They say that every kid must realize three things: (1) They need to make wise choices; (2) they can trust God no matter what; and (3) they should treat others the way they want to be treated. Therefore, every week they try to get across one basic point that will lead to wise choices. They want every phrase, every story and every song to somehow highlight one of those three choices. (p. 168)

UpStreet gets across those choices in an eerily mechanistic way.

While the kids are in UpStreet and the adults ate in their worship hour, the leadership divides the 70 minutes of UpStreet into the following:

• 10.6 minutes getting ready to listen

• 12.4 minutes listening

• 15.1 minutes singing

• 6.3 minutes praying

• 24.9 minutes hanging out with their group and talking about everything they’ve learned

The leadership says, “We’re never sure what happens to the other .7 minutes, but we’re sure it’s a meaningful time.” (p. 169)

Interesting. The authors question the missional effectiveness of such children’s programming in an increasingly secular/post-Christian ethos.

The children’s ministry does reach Christians seeking a church and, to some degree, the interested unchurched. However, our culture seems to be increasingly secular, which makes us question why more churches are focusing on the interested unchurched segments of society. Generally, people who are open to being reached by a “better version” of church have already responded. What is needed now is a new way to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit of those with a religious memory who hope their children will have a religious upbringing. (p. 184)

Elmer Towns recalls his experience of coming back to the US from Laos and the cultural difference of Christianity in each.

When I looked at their faith in Christ through the eyes of their own culture, rather than through the eyes of my American culture, I began to realize the bias I was bringing with my questions. Back in the United Stares Christianity is the dominant faith. Many people think oft heir country as a Christian nation, and they even think of themselves as Christians because they live in a culture that they perceive as heavily shaped by Christian values.
As a result, in American evangelism we emphasize a crisis decision in order to help people distinguish a living faith from a cultural Christianity. One view involves a faith relationship with Jesus Christ and the other labels you a Christian solely because of the place you were born or the good works you’ve done. (p. 198)


When people are forced to make a salvation prayer too soon, they only repeat empty words and are therefore nor truly born again. He claimed that when preachers used a call to salvation only as a formula, their converts didn’t possess eternal life. They entered the church and were baptized, and many times they were persuaded that their soul was secure, but they were actually lost forever. Billington believed that American church rolls were filled with names of people who claimed to be Christian but were never saved. (p. 208)

The call for attractional churches to deal with consumerism was refreshingly powerful.

It’s simply not possible to lead an attractional church without appealing to people—and lost people are often “appealed to” by attractional churches. We live in a consumer-oriented society, and appealing to consumers is both a part and a result of being an attractional church.

So the question is not whether consumerism exists or whether churches appeal to consumers. Instead, the question we should be asking is, What will churches do with consumers (the unchurched) when the Bible calls us to a life of sacrifice and service? Attractional churches with conviction will lead the uncommitted consumer to become a committed disciple. (p. 229)

Regarding City-Reaching Churches they state:

Simply put, Christians and their churches need a vision that’s bigger than their neighborhood. They need a vision to reach a city, its people and its potential. That so means reaching more than just people who look like us; it means engaging men and women from every tongue, tribe and nation (see www.peoplegroups.info for a helpful tool to identify the “nations” within a city).

If you don’t read the entire book, the last chapter is well worth your time.

Yet all of out innovations, whether bold or common, haven’t done much good in terms of addressing the Church’s deeper issues. After 50 years of sprucing up our churches and spicing up our worship, the culture is less reached and those who go to churches are less committed. There is something wrong and innovation has not “yet” answered the deeper issues. And yet church innovation still matters.

Some assume that because methodological innovation is not working, there is something wrong with the gospel and the Scriptures. Thus, they innovate their theology. The logic goes like this: If we just changed our view of the atonement, sexuality or Scripture, that would “fix” the problem of the Church. Beyond the obvious difficulty that such a solution is theologically problematic, there is another problem: It doesn’t work! It’s been tried many times before. The Modernists of the early twentieth century tried to accommodate Christianity to modern science; they ended up scientifically correct but spiritually bankrupt. In the 1960s, some of the mainline denominations tried to think outside the box in the name of relevance. Sadly, many ended up irrelevant because they had no message other than the often fuzzy message of culture—do good, try’ hard, be “spiritual.” After they innovated away the Scriptures, even the unchurched were no longer interested. (pp. 236-237)

Jude 3 tells us to contend. First Corinthians tells us to contextualize. They both matter. The focus here is on what to contend for and what to contextualize in the innovated church. Are there some things for which we are to contend with the church? Yes. There are theological, moral, spiritual and communal issues for which we are to contend. Are there some things to contextualize and innovate in the church? Yes. The challenge is to know which is which. Our challenge to you is to sort that out for your particular context. (p. 238)

Whenever Christian people decide that the church does not matter, they end up following the world’s agenda and the church is soon marginalized to irrelevance. However, whenever the Christian people decide that the world does not matter, they end up in sectarian irrelevance. Both are dead ends of Kingdom growth. Instead, the church must be viewed as both essential for the gospel but also essential to the world.

The church matters to the mission of God, in every era and in every culture. In theological terms, though the missio dei is larger than the church, the missio ecclesia is to fulfill the mission of God in the world with the help of the Holy Spirit. The mission of the church is to fulfill the mission of God. The church is His hands and feet and lips in the world. Ultimately, we must not degenerate into a false sense of the church as “institution.” When the church continues to perceive itself properly and operate as the “people of God,” then the evangelistic mandate is kept alive through the missio dei. However, if the infectious attitude of the world that regards the church only as a religious or political establishment begins to hold sway among Christians, then the temptation faced is that survival of a local congregation or denomination is the ultimate goal. (p. 239)

If we did not innovate, we would still be meeting in synagogues on Saturday. Innovation is needed, but biblical discernment must come first. If not, we can innovate away what church is. Churches often wish to do ministry out of the box. That can be a good thing, depending on how you define the “box.” If by box we mean traditions (often past innovations) that have lost their meaning in contemporary culture, we can and should innovate so that the gospel can be more clearly presented. If, however, the box is the biblical church and its essentials, our innovation is compromise, not contextualization. (pp. 240-241)

Also, remember that a method that works in one culture may flop in another. Because cultures are different, it takes different methods to reach people in different cultures. The same thing can be said about time: Methods change over time. What worked 200 years ago, such as the circuit-riding Methodist preacher who focused on church planting, often doesn’t work today. Therefore, we need to remember the following:

• An effective method is always the application of a principle to culture, so look behind every method to see if it’s based on a biblical principle.

• The methods (innovations) mentioned in this book may not be effective one, two or three decades from now.

• These methods may not work outside the United States in a different culture.

• These methods may not work in every place inside the United States, because the American society has so many cultures that tradition may work in one place and not work in another. (pp. 240-241)

Bottom Line!

So what can you learn from this book? Always keep your focus on the gospel message. Don’t change it, and don’t let anyone else change it for you. But when they sing the gospel message by a different instrument, if you don’t like it, at least pray for those who sing it, and grow in Christ because of it. (p. 245)


About adoption through propitiation

I like theology. And I love my wife Katie. Enjoy my blog. View all posts by adoption through propitiation

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