Transformation is urged or promised wherever we turn these days—transformation of the church, of the culture, and of the world. But the literature of transformation—abundant in print and on the Web—is mostly evidence that American evangelicalism is being paganized.

One example came through our offices recently. The book, published by a leading evangelical house, comes with endorsements from no fewer than nine nationally recognized evangelical leaders. It is "about churches that have the courage to embrace change and to confront adaptive issues head on," called "transforming churches." The book is "firmly rooted in solid research" and introduces readers to the "Healthy Church Index," which tells them about "the five key indicators of church health."

The book is noticeably deficient in Scripture, especially the New Testament, as if the divinely inspired writings are not something we should be rooted in when we think about transformation.

And the five key indicators? (1) Church members should be "experiencing real life change." (2) The church should have "a clear sense of mission" and a "compelling vision." (3) The church must "embrace change" to fulfill its mission. (4) Leaders should be "effectively … mentoring and mobilizing" members for ministry. (5) The church should be "effective in transforming" the local area.

Such vague, trendy organization-speak is not unbiblical: a lot of the advice is sound, as far as it goes. But it is sub-biblical. The book—like so many others in its genre—is rooted more in modern social psychology than in the Bible's spiritual realities: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).

Transformation is, in fact, a word used sparingly in the New Testament—only three times (in the English Standard Version). None of the verses have to do with changing the culture or the world. Though speaking to the church, they address it as a spiritual institution. One verse says our bodies will be transformed into glorious bodies someday (Phil. 3:21). Another is the well-known injunction of Paul to "be transformed by the renewal of your minds" (Rom. 12:2).

In the third, Paul describes the specific means and nature of our change: "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18).

Biblical transformation of the church focuses not on social dynamics of corporate life—on mission statements, adaptive change, or mobilizing members. Such organizational principles can help any social organism, Christian or not. But to focus on them is to major in minors.

In our managerial age, we instinctively look to "leadership principles" and "keys to effectiveness" to "master" dysfunctional congregations. Some of this arises from a sincere desire to help the church be the church. Yet some of it is pure hubris and vain imagination, thinking that with organization-speak we can transform the church. Worse still, organization-speak has a way of deafening our ears to the unique language of Scripture. Only that language can open our eyes to see "the glory of the Lord," the one reality that transforms us into Christ's image "from one degree of glory to another."

As long as our movement remains fascinated with social psychology, our churches will remain little more than clanging cymbals. The world is not longing to see more people conformed to the image of organizational man, but to see people transformed into the image of "the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5).

Related Elsewhere:

Recent editorials include:

When Tragedy Happens | After a massacre like Virginia Tech's, how we minister makes all the difference. (June 8, 2007)
One-Size Politics Doesn't Fit All | Evangelical social reform is a many-splendored thing. (April 23, 2007)
Abortion Overreach | Today's Supreme Court decision again shows that the all-or-nothing strategy is not the way to go. (April 18, 2007)
'Safe Sex' for the Whole Nation | Why mandating the HPV vaccine is not a good idea. (March 22, 2007)
Love Your Muslim as Yourself | We remain woefully ignorant about the world's second-largest religion. (March 16, 2007)
The Slope Really Is Slippery | Why we struggle to gain our moral footing in bioethics. (March 1, 2007)
What Would Wilberforce Do? | The 19th-century abolitionists have much to teach us about politics today. (February 19, 2007)
The New Intolerance | Fear mongering among elite atheists is not a pretty sight. (January 25, 2007)
What Iraq's Christians Need | Two strategies to build up the church in the war-weary nation. (January 22, 2007)
Go Gently into That Good Night | Fear of mortality lies at the root of our bioethics confusion. (January 2, 2007)

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