“The message is always the same, but the methods can change.” That seems to be a mantra of contemporary evangelicalism. As with most Christian mantras, there’s a lot of truth to it. Otherwise it might’ve been rejected out of hand. And as with most Christian mantras, there’s a lot of danger in it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be so popular.
What’s the truth in it? For starters, there’s a necessary emphasis on relevance. The church is meant to be a city on a hill, not a city in the clouds. To say that we should be willing to diversify our methods while keeping the message the same is simply to say that we should tweak our negotiables in order to communicate our non-negotiable. There’s also a healthy emphasis on sensitivity (which is the attitude that fuels the pursuit of relevance). We ought to be sensitive to the culture in which we live, just like a young missionary is attentive to his new surroundings — not for the sake of imitation, but for the sake of impact. Refusing to sing anything but Victorian-era hymns with anything but a pipe organ while seated on anything but wooden pews cannot easily avoid the charge of cultural insensitivity. Even if your message is rock-solid. This kind of method-focused statement also helps battle traditionalism because it implies that methods aren’t infallible. The Bible is full of traditions, but it doesn’t teach traditionalism.
Another helpful aspect of this mantra is its emphasis on the timelessness of the message. The fact that changing methods can communicate an unchanging message is a bright indicator that the message crosses cultures and customs and eras, which is exactly what the gospel does. Jesus Christ is absolutely relevant for every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, from the beginning of the world ’til the end of time. It is neither right, safe, nor necessary to dress Jesus up to fit the culture. He doesn’t need your help to be relevant. He’s relevant like a king on his throne is relevant.
So there’s truth in the proverb that “The message is always the same, but the methods can change.”
But what’s the danger in it? One danger is the possible deemphasis of the message. When you read “The message is always the same, but the methods can change,” you naturally sense that the focus of the sentence is on the rightness of methodological diversity. With this focus, the message can quickly become a forgotten foundation. And in the world we live in, forgotten theological foundations become cracked and brittle very quickly. Another danger of this maxim is the assumption that the message in question is right. It’s only good that the message stays the same if the message is accurate, because the value of an unchanging message is only proportional to the accuracy of that message. Unchanging error is not virtuous. Furthermore, considering what Jesus and apostles told us about the invasiveness of error, is it really wise to assume the message and to spend most of our time working on our methods? I think Jesus would say, “Never.” No one fights for what’s assumed, and we have to fight for the gospel.
One more dangerous element of this declaration about message and method is the sneaking assumption that methods are just implications. In other words, it seems like a lot of people have unthinkingly concluded that the Bible only talks about what to do and never about how to do it. This is a mistake. The Bible isn’t silent about methodology. Quite frankly, I don’t think God trusts us to just take the propositional content of His truth and communicate it to the world in whatever way we see fit. Obviously He hasn’t prescribed every method for us, but He’s certainly given us some clear direction.
So while there’s truth in the proverb, “The message is always the same, but the methods can change,” there’s also danger.
We live in a day of changing methods. Preaching methods, counseling methods, discipleship methods, ministry methods, evangelistic methods, church methods, missions methods, music methods, administrative methods, leadership methods, and method-formulation methods. Our methodological trajectory seems to change as sporadically and spasmodically as a 16-year-old doing her driving test. With a stick shift. Adjustment, Development, and Modification is the trinity that we unknowingly bow to. Because if you change it, they will come. Evangelical Makeover is the hottest show in town.
I think that the same-message different-methods construct is a good one. I think it communicates an important point. But it has to be nuanced. If it’s not, people will take it and apply it in whatever way they want, and no one will notice because they’re defending their newfound methods with the old proven mantra.
Is it possible to preach the content of a pure gospel yet dilute that same gospel by the method you use? Absolutely. And this type of dilution might be more dangerous than more-obvious dilutions because it’s so subtle. Mudslides get our attention, but erosion doesn’t.
A professor of mine recently said, “The way I present something is a commentary on its value.” I think that’s profound. In the same way, methods are a commentary on the value of the message. They shape it and color it and position it. They are not insignificant. Because at the end of the day, you can’t separate your message from your method.