Longitudinal Studies

Longitudinal Studies2

I’ve said before that one of the great weaknesses of our culture is its obsession with the new and the novel. If it’s new it automatically is assumed to be better than the old. We believe that we are always improving. The latest is always the best. The future is friendly, as Telus would say.

This has had a great shaping influence in contemporary evangelicalism. We seem to be always looking for the newest and latest trend, looking for that instant answer that will solve all our ministry needs. There’s has to be an undiscovered new method or tool that will fix everything.

I own a lot of ministry books. Too many. Christian ministry book are so often like shampoo commercials. Use this shampoo and your dried out, frizzy and boring hair will suddenly glow and shine (and the lighting in the room will miraculously improve, as will your make-up and clothing and disposition). Your ugly hair and all the sadness that fills your soul because of it will instantly be replaced by amazing hair and will result in joy and happiness and sunshine and rainbows. In ministry it goes something like this: buy this book and you’ll unlock the latest secrets to growing your church and becoming an influential super-leader. Herein lie the newly discovered secrets.

A glance at my shelf and I see rows of books like this. Emerging Church. Multiplying Church. Sticky Church. Missional Church. Comeback Church. Breakout Church. Total Church. Vintage Church. Deep Church. And on and on it goes. Now listen, I’m not trashing these books. I’ve learned from many of them. I’d recommend some of them. There are things to be learned. I do spend a good deal time of time thinking and talking with my staff about how to do ministry better. We are always evaluating our methods and our activities and looking to improve. I am for innovation. I am for excellence. I am for improving our methods.

But sometimes it feels like we’re just throwing spaghetti against the wall hoping something will stick. We follow the latest fads and models, hoping that this will be the one that launches us to church stardom. This year we’re going to try to be a seeker church. Next year we’re going to be a missional church. Then we’ll try something new after that. Some guy in the American south grows a big church out of nothing and accidentally creates a new model for ministry. Something “works” in one place at one time, so we write a book about it, speak at a conference and tell everyone to do what we did. With a sample size of one. If it worked in one place at one time, surely everyone should abandon what they are doing and try it, right?

Longitudinal Studies

In research, there are two kinds of studies. There are cross-sectional studies which observe their subjects at one point in time. It’s like taking a single snapshot. Then there are Longitudinal studies which observe their subjects over many, many years watching development over decades. For instance, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research commissioned a 20 year study on aging called the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. These types of studies are much harder and more expensive, but seem to produce more reliable results.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but I see a connection with church ministry. Where are the longitudinal studies for church ministry? We’ve been at this for 2000 years, is there nothing we’ve learned that is of value before the year 1995? Is our culture so radically different that we must depart from everything that has been done before?

Yes, I know that our culture is changing and so must our methods. I have often been a champion of bringing the old gospel in new ways to new cultures and sub-cultures. I’m not against innovation. A church in the 21st century must have a good website. It would be wise to use communication mediums like twitter and facebook. I’d recommend a secure social media site like the City or the Table. A church should have its own mobile app. I value creativity, originality and artistic expression. I’m for all these things. But must we throw out everything that has come before? But let’s not ignore the longitudinal studies. Let’s not ignore what has come before us.

The Old Methods

I believe that the longitudinal studies would say preach the gospel, teach people the scriptures, call people into loving community, and make disciples. This is how the church has always grown. It’s not new or sexy. It doesn’t come with a new logo or a buzzword invented in 2013. But it’s proven.

People often tell me that you can’t grow a church by preaching through books of the bible expositionally. That statement is full of all kinds of wrong. It’s simply not the case in history or even in our contemporary culture. Preaching the Bible isn’t new or trendy, but the longitudinal studies would show that this is the best way to lead a church into health and growth. Re-read the oldest books on church leadership (1 and 2 Timothy & Titus), and you will find them packed with exhortations to preach the Bible, teach sound doctrine, pray hard and make disciples. Perhaps our obsession with the new and novel has blinded us from the proven and true because it isn’t as shiny?

The Christian publishing machine will ensure that there will always be a constant stream of new books promising instant growth. Some of these books may even be worth reading and learning from, even if the promises of the publisher ring false. But let’s also be reading and learning from those who have gone before. Read Lectures to my Students or The Preacher’s Portrait. Read the great biographies of Luther, Spurgeon, Bonhoeffer and others. Learn from the past as well as the present. Use innovation as you see fit, but never neglect the old ministry methods of prayer, preaching and disciple-making. The past is friendly, too.


One thought on “Longitudinal Studies

  1. Thanks Steve. It is encouraging to read this from a young man who has been immersed in a culture that screams the new is better. “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” or as one paraphrase says, “when it is convenient and when it is not.”

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