Is it worth asking how much methodological flexibility God grants in a local churchs corporate service? Methodological flexibility is a cornerstone of the seeker sensitive church model, a model that values the freedom (flexibility) to craft a service (methodology) that will most directly pique and engage the interests of unbelievers. The motives are to be commended, but intentions notwithstanding, faithful church leaders must ask: Are there biblical principles that regulate the shape and flow of a corporate service? Does God leave churches to decide how to conduct their own worship services, or does He Himself tell us in His Word how He is to be approached in worship?
Some people argue that the government and worship of the church should be limited to those activities specifically warranted by Scripturethey refer to this as the regulative principle. Others hold that innovations may be introduced so long as the Scriptures are not violated. The Westminster Confession of Faith, trying to make sense of this important question acknowledged,
that there are some circumstances, concerning worship of God and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.
William Cunningham, in the early 19th century, argued that Scriptures self-attestation as the sufficient and perfect rule of faith and practice applied to the practices of the church services and, as a result, he made the strong conclusion that the Biblical arguments in their entirety were, quite sufficient to shut out the lawfulness of introducing the inventions of men into the government and worship of the Christian Church. In other words, he said Scripture leads us to believe that methodological flexibility is not appropriate when it comes to corporate worship. It should be noted that the heart of Cunninghams point is a commitment to the Word of God. He writes, The great source of error in religious matters is that men do not fully and honestly take the Word of God as their rule and standard.
Nonetheless, if Cunninghams position seems too stringent, we should recognize that there was disagreement within the Puritan camp over this very issue; for example, John Hooper, a Bible expositor of the 16th century, wrote:
Nothing should be used in the Church which has not either the express Word of God to support it, or otherwise is a thing indifferent in itself, which brings no profit when done or used, but no harm when not done or omitted.
In introducing the notion of a thing indifferent Hooper shows the importance of Christian prudence. First of all, a thing indifferent he argues, must have an origin and foundation in Scripture. Second, it must be neither commanded by Scripture nor prohibited by it. It should be something to use or not to use, as shall seem useful or otherwise to the conscience of the person using it. Third, its utility for the church must be apparent and fourth, it must be established with evangelical tolerance and freedom, not with a violent tyranny. So, where Cunningham practically shuts the door on methodological flexibility, Hooper seems to leave it slightly ajar so long as the methods practiced have a clear root in the Word of God.
While Hooper and Cunningham were not concerned about drama and contemporary music, theatre seats and topical sermons, their thoughtful discussions regarding Scriptures role in establishing the parameters of a corporate worship service is largely missing from churchs today. Perhaps most interesting to our 21st century ears is the fact that Hooper and Cunningham were not primarily interested in what results a corporate service might produce. Their ultimate concern was that all that the church would do would be faithful and honoring to the God of the Universe who revealed the Book that formed the church. We need to be reminded that hundreds of years ago, church servants like Hooper and Cunningham were concerned with where the methodological flexibility of man would take the church.
This flexibility has led to services at some seeker-sensitive churches that begin with a jazz ensemble, one corporate song, a drama, several musical numbers led by a full band and followed by a thirty minute, humor-filled, topical sermon. Is this a biblically permissible way to reach the lost, or a tipping of the hat to the techniques of the culture that have little or nothing to do with Scripture? Thoughtful church pastors must care about the answer to this question to the extent that they care about the authority of Scripture. It seems that any church professing to take the Word of God seriously must take the questions raised by the regulative principle seriously.
The question lovingly posed to those advocates of seeker-sensitive churches is this: Does the seeker-sensitive model of church life take seriously enough the significance of the regulative principle or is it ignored as an impractical theological fancy? I lovingly submit that our God may have intended our corporate worship services to go without the glitter of some of todays gatherings so that the Word of God would shine forth as the brightest diamond among smaller gems. Might this be reason enough to be less concerned with methodology flexibility and more concerned with the centrality of the Word? May our congregations and congregational leaders carefully consider these important questions.