The church with a kingdom-focused and sanctified imagination will be more equipped for both internal discipleship and external mission. Such a church will possess a kingdom-focused and sanctified imagination that engages with the best scholarship and practice and continues to think first and foremost about how to advance the mission of God. Such a church will need, then, a research and development department. In fact, I would argue all healthy churches need a research and development department.
The death knell of a church is found in those seven odious words: we’ve never done it that way before. It is one thing to be cautious about new ideas, new methods, and creative doctrines. It is another thing entirely to be complacent. Churches that are unwilling to consider the new become enslaved to traditions. Traditions, of course, have their place. Traditions are wonderful, even I would argue significant for the church. But complete resistance to change is not simply about tradition. J.R. Briggs and Bob Hyatt speak of “methodolatry,” the worship of our methods, our approaches, and our explanations. The authors write:
While the nature and values of the gospel remain the same, their expression should always be changing. Stubbornness to change can lead to methodolatry and make the gospel inaccessible and undesirable to others. God and his mission are often full of surprises, so mission-focused leaders hold plans loosely and continue to ask what he desires. (Eldership and the Mission of God, 33)
We must be willing to think creatively and contextually so that we can continue to communicate the deep truths of God in ways that are accessible to modern man. This is the goal of creative theology and best practice ministry. Such thinking requires, however, a research and development department in the local church.
It’s not that we need an actual department in every local church. The language is more symbolic than literal. What we do need, however, is a church culture that provides people the latitude to think outside the box, to ask questions, and to work-out new ideas. This culture must also be willing to provide theologians and pastors the time to reflect and study. Business within ministry keeps many pastoral staffs from advancing their practices and thoughts. A “research and development” mentality will seek to encourage creative theological work and provide professionals the time to dedicate to it. A church that seeks to cultivate such a mentality will reap many great rewards.
Among the rewards to the church will be increased clarity in doctrinal teaching. Creative work within the area of theology seeks to help us understand more fully the depths of doctrinal and Scriptural truth and, therefore, apply them more thoroughly to our lives. In conversation with Dr. John Frame, he once told me that theology must be creative because it is continually seeking to apply Scripture to the questions of the day. He wrote to me then, saying:
Every application requires us to look at Scripture from a fresh angle. And of course as theology applies the old doctrines, it applies them to people today and therefore must apply them in the language of its contemporary readers. If this is done well, the doctrines will sound fresh.
We see this very thing happen in the Scriptures as Nathan utilizes a story to bring King David to repentance (2 Sam. 12:1-7). Of this technique Dr. Frame writes:
What happened to David? In one sense, he knew Scripture perfectly well; he meditated on God’s law day and night. And he was not ignorant about the facts of the case. Yet he was not convicted of sin. But Nathan the prophet came to him and spoke God’s Word. He did not immediately rebuke David directly; he told a parable – a story that made David angry at someone else. Then Nathan told David, “You are the man.” At that point, David repented of his sin. (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 156)
Therefore, artistry and nuance play particular roles here. Nathan did not simply repeat the law; he told a story. That story had the effect of shaking David out of his rationalization, of helping him to make different patterns out of the facts, to call things by their right names. We need to be more sensitive to those circumstances and occasions when such methods are appropriate in theology. (158)
Creative theological work has the amazing ability of elucidating truth in new and fresh ways. Not changing the truth, mind you, but making it accessible to us in a way that we had not previously seen.
In addition, creative theology helps us to correct the errors of past work. Kevin Vanhoozer has done this quite exquisitely in my opinion as it relates to the doctrine of God’s impassibility. In previous generations the doctrine had been so formulated as to leave the impression that God is a stiff, unflinching, and unmoved God. He cannot express compassion and care for us because He is “unchanging.” Dr. Vanhoozer very clearly saw the tension of this expression of “impassibility” with the actual language of Scripture. He offers than a development of the doctrine that affirms the historical Orthodox truth, God is unchanging, but without the impressions of God as a “stone column” – as Aquinas suggested.
Creative theology, then, serves the church by giving us greater more careful and precise doctrinal articulations. We need this and the church ought to do all it can to support this. It will improve both church-wide education and preaching.
Another benefit will be contextually relevant ministry. Churches that never take the time to consider best ministry practices and doctrinal articulations will eventually find themselves irrelevant to their communities. Ed Stetzer and David Putman tell of a particularly sad example of this in their book Breaking the Missional Code. They write:
A church that is a good example of living among cultural change is in Miami near Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), the center of what is now the Latino community. Calle Ocho was not always the center of Little Havana. At one time, it was part of the culture that existed in Miami before the Cuban influx. Then, Batista fell and Castro came to power. One million Cubans moved into the neighborhood and, suddenly, that little church was no longer part of its community; it was a colony in the midst of another culture. It had to decide to change and reach its new neighbors or die. Like most churches, it chose to keep its culture and lose its community. (5-6)
Churches that never consider the impact they are having, how effective their missiology is, and how clear their communication is within their context will eventually become irrelevant to their community. Many churches will be less intentional about their resistance to change than the church in Stetzer’s example, but they will nonetheless succumb to it because they aren’t intentional about examining their practice and theology. Business in ministry will prevent them from assessing their current work. Churches that are contextually engaged will need to take time not simply to work in the ministry, but to work on the ministry. A research and development mentality can help with this immensely.
One final benefit to highlight is greater ecumenical investment. Distinctiveness is an important part of church culture. Our doctrinal and philosophical differences are not irrelevant; and yet, the church is the church universally. If we can all affirm the same gospel message we are part of the same family, despite our differences. I am absolutely convinced that the church ought to strive for more Evangelical cooperation. A research and development department can help us do that.
One of my frustrations with much of Evangelicalism is its inability to see past the differences we have with one another. We are unable, then, to learn from each other and work together. A research and development department, however, has time and latitude to pursue deeper conversation with diverse people. A church that believes in the value of creative theology and best ministry practices will give their theologians and pastors the space to have dialogues and conversations that other churches will fear. They will seek to listen to God’s truth revealed everywhere, not simply within their own tradition and their own denomination. This is not an invitation to be open to every idea and every voice. Heresy is still heresy. It is, however, a plea to be willing to listen, to diversify your influences so that you do not take for granted the truthfulness of your position. Diversity in conversation partners strengthens us all.
Whether your church creates an actual research and development department or not you should strive to create a culture that embraces it. We need sanctified imaginations that are not afraid to dream, to analyze from fresh perspectives, and to articulate in new ways the great unchanging truths of God’s Word for our changing world.