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The Next New Thing Will Save Me

By the Rev. Zachary Bartels

I know a few Early Adopters. You know, the people who go out and buy the newest, sleekest cell phone with all the most ridiculous features the first day it’s available—not because they need a phone that can e-mail, play music, record video, and control whale behavior remotely using synthetic SONAR technology—but because they just like being ahead of the curve. And there really is a curve; I learned about it in seminary.

A communications scholar named Everett M. Rogers is fairly well-known for his “Innovation Adoption Curve,” which maps out five different groups of people and how they adopt new things (See Figure 1. . . I’ve always wanted to write that). The first group is the Innovators. These are the beta testers—the handful of people who come up with and adopt new practices, terms, disciplines, and technologies long before most people have ever heard of them. In fact most of us never hear about a lot of these innovations, because they never catch on. They come and go completely beneath our radar.

The Early Adopters are next. When it comes to new and somewhat risky ideas, Early Adopters are leaders, not followers. They try things out before they’re mainstream. If you have a LaserDisc player stashed somewhere in your basement, if you instantly took to the “New Coke” in the mid-’80s, or if you once paid $300 for a 1 gig MP3 player (only to see it selling for half that price six months later), you’re probably an Early Adopter. These are important people. Someone’s got to be the first person on the block to install indoor plumbing or solar panels or buy that first Model A or electric car. And Early Adopters pay for this honor by filling their attics and basements with expensive-but-worthless trends that went nowhere. My hat is off to them!

After the Early Adopters come the majority of people (broken into Early and Late Majority) who wait until the bugs have been worked out and they’re pretty sure this item or practice is here to stay. Then, finally, there are the Laggards. If you still listen to 8-track, you’re probably a Laggard.

People often assume that I’m an Early Adopter—probably because I’m relatively young and often seen with electronic gadgets. In reality, though, I’m more of a Late Majority kind of guy. Yeah, I ride the back of the curve. Look closely and you’ll see that I don't have a smart phone, but a Palm Pilot, which is a five-year-old model (an eternity in techno-years). I bought it on eBay for a song. In fact, that’s how I get all my gadgets—slightly outdated and dirt cheap.

You see, I know about things when they’re new; I just don’t embrace them. For example, ten years ago, it was rather cutting-edge to have a blog. (For you Laggards, a "blog" is an online journal for public consumption; you’re reading one right now). At the turn of the century, it seemed like everyone had a blog. In fact, there were more people writing them than reading. By 2003 or so, what was the point? Well, I just started my blog in 2008. That’s me. I usually start liking popular TV shows in their final season and restaurants right before they go under (which is why I can’t shut up about it when I actually like something before it becomes popular. For the record, I was listening to Switchfoot in 1997.)

In the end, though, I’m perfectly happy not being on the cutting edge. When I was pastoring up at Lake Louise this summer, a bunch of people were complaining about how their $400 cell phones couldn’t get a good signal, despite the unsightly cell phone tower marring the once-beautiful view of Spirit Mountain. They could record movies and communicate with the whales (um. . . fresh water whales), but they couldn’t make a call. My phone, however, worked fine. I made several calls without a dropped signal or even much static. By the way, the church bought my cell phone for me (the first one I’ve ever owned) in 2005 for $14.99.

So why did I learn about this curve in seminary? Part of it was that pastors should be able to identify the people in their churches that will be on the band wagon early (“A new Wednesday night service? I’m there!”) and who will drag their feet and hold out to the very end (“. . . but we’ve always had anti-communism Sunday the third week in July—ever since the ‘50s!”) But there’s more to it. There’s a sense that being a good pastor in today’s world means being an Innovator or, at the very least, an Early Adopter. It means learning about the latest trends and dragging your church on board as quickly as possible so the world will be impressed and want to get on board too.

Thing is, it’s not really working. Sure, there are a handful of giant churches who qualify as Innovators and there are a whole lot of smaller churches buying the kits and trying to be the Early Adopters. But I’m convinced that the church on the whole will always come out a Laggard when it tries to copy the world. Just think about it; if we’re following, we’ll always be a step behind. Introduce committees to the picture and you’re many steps behind. The church was even late adopting dangerous ideas like Gnosticism, Deism, secularism, and relativism. We might think we’re Early Adopters, but the world disagrees.

Case in point, earlier this week, a pastor proudly told me about how his church had become so “seeker-friendly” that they had not only done away with the pews and the pulpit, but with the sermon and communion! Now they don’t have crosses on the walls or sing songs that sound too churchy. They’ve redone their building so that it looks more like a convention hall than a sanctuary and come up with new non-intimidating words for sin, atonement, church, and discipleship.

But wait! LifeWay Research just came out with a study that found a 2:1 ratio of unchurched Americans prefer traditional church architecture over “contemporary worship spaces.” Should they do another renovation? Eugene Peterson, who produced The Message (a modern pop-culture pararphrase of the Bible), has even found that unchurched people don’t want a church that imitates their culture. They want a church with its own culture—a Jesus culture. In March of 2005, he told Christianity Today,

“I think relevance is a crock. I don’t think people care a whole lot about what kind of music you have or how you shape the service. They want a place where God is taken seriously, where they’re taken seriously, where there is no manipulation of their emotions or their consumer needs. Why did we get captured by this advertising, publicity mindset? I think it’s destroying our church. . . How do we meet [people’s needs]? Do we do it in Jesus’ way or do we do it the Wal-Mart way?...When you start tailoring the Gospel to the culture, whether it’s a youth culture, a generation culture or any other kind of culture, you have taken the guts out of the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not the kingdom of this world. It’s a different kingdom.”

Now, I haven’t got quite that level of beef with churches who try to reach a particular group with the Gospel. I’m not one to say, “God didn’t call you to do that!” Rather, my beef is with our attitude that it’s the church’s responsibility to be Early Adopters, that it’s our job to figure out the most relevant forms for our meeting together and then hurry up and implement them before they’re outdated (usually without any concern of alienating older saints in our midst).

It’s true that the Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt meet together on Sundays at 11 AM, sing hymns written between 1550 and 1940, preach from a pulpit, take an offering, and go home.” But the New Testament does paint a pretty clear picture of what churches should be about. Jesus told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20, NIV). The Book of Acts tells us that, from the beginning, the practice of the church was to preach repentance, warning people, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”; and that “those who accepted the message were baptized. . . They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:40-42, NIV)

In the Scriptures, we see Word and sacrament taking center stage. The emphasis was on preaching against the world’s corrupt culture (rather than embracing it), proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and meeting together for study of God’s Word, fellowship, baptism, holy communion, and prayer. Interestingly, music—which has become the most defining (and divisive) issue in the church today—isn’t even mentioned in these passages. However, Paul does exhort us to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 5:19, NIV).

So, what’s my point? Am I just taking this opportunity to complain about the state of the church and pine for the “good old days?” Have I become prematurely grizzled and crotchety in my 30s? I hope not. My point is that our Way, our Truth, our Life is not found by looking to the world for trends or by looking into ourselves for hot new ideas. It’s not found by looking forward to the next emerging movement, but by looking back at the man on the cross 2000 years ago, who changed everything when he tore the curtain in half and kicked off the “A.D.” portion of world history.

I think that J.Gresham Machen put it best when he wrote,

“If you want health for your souls and if you want to be the instrument of bringing health to others, do not turn your gaze forever within, as if you could find Christ there. No, turn your gaze away from your own miserable experiences, away from your own sin, to the Lord Jesus Christ as He is given to us in the Gospel. It is the same old story, my friends, the same story of the natural man. Men are trying today—as they have always been trying—to save themselves by their own act of surrender to Jesus, by the excellence of their own faith, by mystical experiences of their own lives. But it’s all in vain. True peace in God is only obtained in the old, old way: by attention to something that was done once for all, long ago, and by acceptance of the Living Savior who there once for all brought redemption for our sin.”

Spiritually, I don’t want to be an Early Adopter. I want to be the billionth guy in line, following the old, old way. Fads are fleeting, whether in the world or in the church, and will only keep people’s attention as long as we stay ahead of the curve. But we don’t have to stress about that. Because Christ is the ultimate Innovator. He made available a new righteousness, apart from the Law or our own efforts, which comes through faith in Christ to all who believe. (Rom 3:21-22). That doesn’t leave much room for a hierarchy of Adopters and Laggards. If you’ve put your faith in Him, that’s reason to rejoice; to sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs; to meet together for preaching, prayer, study, and sacrament; and to proclaim that old, old story that set you free to a lost world obsessed with the next new thing.

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