“Methods are many, but principles are few. Methods always change. Principles never do.”
That may be one of the most well-known leadership quotes of all time. While usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, it’s actually based on the following longer (and non-rhyming) quote from Harrington Emerson.
“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Unfortunately, that helpful and true quote has morphed into something else in recent years – something that is neither helpful nor true. It can be found restated in several ways, including:
- “Methods don’t matter, only principles do.”
- “It doesn’t matter how you get them here – just get them here.”
- “We’ll do anything short of sin to reach people.”
But is it really true that methods don’t matter?
While methods can and must change regularly, we cannot presume that methods are always morally neutral. They’re not.
The method matters. A lot.
The means by which a message is communicated has a huge impact on both the meaning and the perception of the message. Or, as Marshal McCluhan so famously and succinctly stated it “The Medium is the Message.”
But what does that mean for us as leaders – specifically church leaders?
Even methods that seem benign can be hazardous when used in the wrong way. The wrong method/message combination will often dilute a good message, sometimes it can undermine it, and a truly off-kilter method can change the message entirely.
The Means Must Honor The Message
Because methods can and must change, we often discount the impact of the method to such a degree that we often fail to see the damage it may be causing.While it is important for us to adapt our methods to ever-changing contexts, it is essential that we use methods that honor the principles we’re trying to convey. Click To Tweet
While it is important for us to adapt our methods to ever-changing contexts, it is essential that we use methods (what McCluhan called the “medium”) that honor the principles we’re trying to convey.
So how do we navigate the minefield of updating our methods while honoring and reenforcing our principles? Here are seven considerations:
1. Start With The Message
While I love to draw from a variety of sources to get ideas and illustrations, I work very hard to make sure that the starting point and the underlying foundation for all my church communication is the truth of God’s Word.
It’s too easy to see a movie clip, read a clever quote, or find a banger of an illustration and try to build a message around it.
When we do that, not only does the medium outshine the message, it often replaces it entirely.
2. Know Your Context
Some methods that work in one place can fall flat (or worse) in another place.
If you’re a Baby Boomer, or even a Gen Xer, you can well remember the once-size-fits-all culture that came to maturity at the height of the initial phase of industrialization. Off-the-rack products like clothes, food, and entertainment options flooded the marketplace. Then they made their way into church leadership.
We went through a generations-long era when a copy-and-paste approach to everything from Sunday School curriculum to hymnbooks to Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes weren’t seen as a cultural adaptation, they were considered the “right” way to do things.
But just as a continued advancement in technology has allowed once-size-fits-all to be replaced by high-quality personalization, copy-and-paste no longer works in church contexts either.
This is actually good news because it’s requiring us to see and know the community we’re ministering in. What works in one church context no longer works everywhere – if it ever did.
3. Consider The “Tone”
How we communicate is as important as what we communicate. Even the best message can be misunderstood or even changed if we say it the wrong way.How we communicate is as important as what we communicate. Even the best message can be misunderstood or even changed if we say it the wrong way. Click To Tweet
In every communication we have to ask ourselves, does the method (the tone) match the message? Or is it so different from the message that it confuses the listener/watcher/reader?
4. Build Adaptability Into Your Method
If methods really are changeable, we need to build adaptability into them from the start.
This is not just a challenge for those who are using older methods. There are just as many circumstances of church leaders being so enamored with the new, cool method that they refuse to change it no matter how poorly it may be working.
5. Learn From Others Without Copying Them
How many times have we all seen the following reality in a leadership conference?
The speaker may be sharing one great principle after another while people listen with various stages of interest. Then the speaker mentions a new method or (I’ll call it) “gimmick” and almost every head in the room drops as they scramble to write it down for later use.
The cool new method almost always seems to generate more interest than the eternal principles.When we repeat a method, we're copying. When we apply a principle, we're learning. Learning is better. Click To Tweet
When we repeat a method, we’re copying. When we apply a principle, we’re learning. Learning is better.
So how do I know if I’m learning from others instead of just copying them? When we’re copying methods, they’ll look the same from place to place. When we’re learning principles, the results will look different from context to context.
6. Use The Right Assessment Tools
We need to give less credence to the size of the crowd as a foundation for assessing church health.
And while we’re at it, can we please say goodbye to our obsession with finding a way to create the right “vibe,” “buzz,” “mood” or “feel?”
None of them are the right way to assess the value of a church service or event.
Instead, we need to ask longer-term questions to be sure we’re assessing things based on biblical principles.
- “Are people growing in their faith?”
- “Are we making mature disciples?”
- “Are we having a positive impact on the lives of people outside our church walls?”
- “Are we helping people stay strong when their faith is challenged?”
These are just a few of the questions that can help us assess ministry the right way.
7. Re-assess Your Principles, Too
It’s not as easy to distinguish between principles and methods as we’d like it to be.Keep re-assessing both your principles and your methods by constantly measuring them against the plumbline of scripture. Click To Tweet
So, my final encouragement to you is this; keep re-assessing both your principles and your methods by constantly measuring them against the plumbline of scripture.
Principles don’t change. But our perception and application of them does.
Sometimes, what we think is an eternal principle is little more than a cultural bias that runs so deep we can’t see it.
There’s always something deeper to discover in God’s Word.
Question your presuppositions.
Even (especially) when we’re certain about something, approaching God’s Word with a humble heart is always the right approach.
(Photo by Alice Dietrich | Unsplash)