In 2006 an approach to church ministry began to gain popularity. It was called a “two-handed” approach to ministry. One closed hand represented the theology of the church and its grasp of biblical truth and principles. The hand being closed symbolized the non-negotiable aspects of theology. One open hand represented the methodology of the church. How a church communicates and practices biblical truth, how it worships, its appearance, etc. are all things that are negotiable and flexible and should therefore be culturally contextualized. This “two-handed” approach was also used to describe two extremes. It described the classic “fundamentalist” approach to ministry as viewing both its theology and practice as non-negotiables (symbolized by two closed hands). Conversely the classic “liberal” approach to ministry was described as viewing both its theology and practice as negotiables (symbolized by two open hands).
This approach to ministry leads churches into what could be described as theological conservativism, but practical or cultural progressivism. It has grown in popularity since 2006 and has been embraced more and more by church ministries today, even within historically “fundamental” churches here in America. However, this model of church ministry is not a biblical model, and therefore is not glorifying to the Lord.
This approach essentially has two aspects. One aspect could be described as theological conservatism. This is evidenced by things like an elevation of the gospel, a renewed thirst for doctrinal robustness, and greater carefulness in expositional preaching. There is also a greater awareness of reformational truth, confessional Christianity, and of the need for theological strength in Christian musical texts. In these things, we can rejoice.
However, the other aspect is a cultural progressivism. This is evidenced, for instance, by a progression from higher standards of holiness to more of a freedom of personal preference. Many cultural issues are viewed as being morally neutral, whereas in previous generations, they were viewed with sharper moral clarity and distinction. Issues such as the use of modern alcoholic beverages, pop music (in its multiple and various forms), dress and appearance, and worship methodology in corporate gatherings of the church are “hot-button” topics of discussion today. Cultural progressives view them as not addressed specifically (or at least as specifically as some propose) in the Scriptures and therefore fall under the umbrella of “personal preference.” This cultural progressivism stems ultimately from a belief that one’s culture is, by and large, neutral. Because this is so (the argument goes), methodology in church life necessarily changes in order to embrace and reflect the latest trends within one’s culture.
This kind of approach to ministry produces churches who believe the gospel, but who don’t view culture accurately. Culture is the product of humanity and therefore is tainted by sin. Because of this truth, no aspect of one’s culture is morally neutral because humans are moral beings. Therefore, in church life, how we do a certain thing is just as important as the thing itself. For instance, to say that we must worship God as a church family (a non-negotiable theological principle) but how we worship God (a negotiable thing) is a neutral issue reveals a lack of understanding of the biblical nature and teaching of worship. Cultural trendiness, which is what this leads to, by necessity rules the day in such a “two-handed” approach to ministry. This is often couched in language as being “incarnational” or “missional” or merely trying to “reach people where they are” with the gospel. While sounding noble, these terms are not appropriate. Only God can be (and has been) incarnated. God’s mission and the church’s mission are not identical. Reaching people is noble and good, but it must be done in ways that glorify God.
While the elevation of theology is noble, the current cultural progressivism in churches is troubling. This “two-handed” approach to ministry has been adopted by many churches today, believing that while theology matters, methodology does not. However, methodology, while it does change with cultures and time, is not a neutral issue.
Our theology should be held with a closed hand. Theology and biblical principles do not change. What must be understood, though, is that our theology dictates everything that we do as a church ministry. Our theology of worship will dictate and shape our methodologies of worship. Our theology of the Great Commission will dictate and shape our practice of the Great Commission. Our philosophy/theology always determines and shapes our practice.
Methodologies, therefore, are not out of the realm of God’s concern. For instance, it is not biblically sound to say that God does not care about how a church worships Him. A study of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, reveals to us that God absolutely does care about how we worship Him. The “how” of our worship is just as important as the “who” and “why” of our worship. God cares that we worship the right object (Him), in the right way, and with the right heart. Therefore, the methodologies of our corporate worship matter to God. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to do things in the same way, in the same order, or even with the same songs, but it does mean that God cares about our methodologies of worship just as much as He cares about our theology in worship.
This “two-handed” approach to ministry is not biblical, and therefore does not bring glory to God. God’s glory is the ultimate end of the church. We are to do all to the glory of God. This biblical absolute governs all that we do in life, both privately and corporately. Therefore, even our methodologies, while looking different from one culture to another, must be submitted under the authority of the glory of God rather than cultural relativism. Methodologies have changed and will continue to change with time. However, those methodologies should not change without careful consideration of theological truth. The two aspects of theology and methodology simply cannot be separated one from the other.
Rather than a “two-handed” approach that views one hand as being essentially separate from the other, let’s adopt a “hand-in-hand” approach to church ministry, realizing that our theology dictates and shapes our methodology, and our methodology reflects and reinforces our theology. Churches in every age, in every country, and in every culture, need to be both theologically and culturally conservative. This kind of approach to ministry is informed and shaped by the Bible and is also glorifying to God. To Him be glory in the church both now and forever. Amen.