“We’ve never done it this way before.” The old joke is that these words are ostensibly Baptistic and are the usual evidence of an impending church decline. It is true that refusal to change our methods while the culture around us constantly shifts is a sure death sentence for the church; the message of the gospel never changes, while our methods of delivering and embodying it do. Change is hard. There is something characteristically human about refusing change in favor of the comfortable or the familiar. But the nature of the church’s mission demands that we are ever ready to step into new territory, embracing necessary, biblical change for the glory of God and for the sake of the gospel.
The Israelites faced a similar dilemma under Joshua’s leadership. As they prepared to break camp and cross the Jordan River, God’s instruction was to allow the Levites to lead the way carrying the ark of the covenant:
“After three days the officers went through the camp and commanded the people: ‘When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God carried by the Levitical priests you are to break camp and follow it. But keep a distance of about a thousand yards between yourselves and the ark. Don’t go near it, so that you can see the way to go, for you haven’t traveled this way before.’ Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, because the Lord will do wonders among you tomorrow.'” (Joshua 3:2-5, CSB)
“You haven’t traveled this way before.” Those words may have caused a church split in some of our contemporary congregations. But not in the Israelite camp. They trusted the Lord’s leadership and stepped into the waters of the Jordan River with faithful expectation that God would deliver on His word. They were not disappointed.
Pastor or church leader, here are a few important, applicable things to learn from this text:
- New does not always mean bad. Several times in Scripture, God indicated that He was doing something new: a new song in Isaiah 42:10, a new name in Isaiah 62:2, a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31, a new heart and a new spirit in Ezekiel 11:19, a new commandment in John 13:34, a new creature in 2 Corinthians 5:17, a new Jerusalem in Revelation 21:2, and all things new in verse 5. I wonder how many times we miss what God is doing in us and around us simply because we associate new with bad. Can you imagine the painful disappointment on the scene, should the Israelites have responded to God, “No thanks, God. We’ll stay on this side of the Jordan because this is what’s familiar. We’re comfortable here.” God said, “You haven’t traveled this way before” (v.4). But what was ahead of them was infinitely more glorious than anything behind them.
- Wherever He leads us, God goes before us. The Israelites, at this point, had a concrete historical example of this truth from the pillars of cloud and fire which went ahead of their fathers (Exodus 13:21). Here in Joshua Chapter 3, God’s presence is again going before them as the Ark of the Covenant leads the way into uncharted territory. Whatever is new – ahead of you as a congregation – if you embrace it with faith and step into it from a heart of obedient surrender to God’s will, you’ll not find yourself alone there. God Himself has cut the path ahead and He will be with you every step of the way.
- Don’t get ahead of God. Necessary change is good, but often effective, biblical change takes time. The instructions were for the Israelites to keep a distance of about a thousand yards between them and the ark: “Don’t go near it, so that you can see the way to go,” (v.4). Substantive change in the church needs to be approached with care, always keeping our eyes on the Lord. Here’s some advice: if you see change ahead but you can’t see God in it, don’t go there. Or at least slow down a bit. Wait for God to give vision and clarity for the road ahead. Here’s the deal… wherever you go, the destination is not the prize; God’s presence is the prize. Church, if you can’t see God in it, slow down. Wait for God to give vision and clarity. Don’t get ahead of God.
- Before stepping out into the unknown, get spiritually prepared. “Consecrate yourselves,” said Joshua, “because the Lord will do wonders among you tomorrow,” (v.5). Sometimes we follow God’s lead in faith but we’re not spiritually prepared to receive what He has for us there. The church of Jesus should be stepping into every tomorrow with the expectation that “the Lord will do wonders among” us. So let’s be sure to stay prayed-up, cleansed from sin, and restored from unrighteousness (see 1 John 1:9). Don’t even think about following God into the unknown if you’re not spiritually prepared to meet with Him there.
- Don’t be so committed to yesterday that you miss what God has for you tomorrow. “The Lord will do wonders among you tomorrow,” Joshua reported. But while the guiding presence of the Lord was evident in the Ark’s procession, it wasn’t exactly like the pillar of cloud or smoke they knew only a generation before. And while the waters of the Jordan River stacked up for them to cross, it wasn’t exactly like the parting of the Red Sea. In fact, even Joshua himself, though being used powerfully by God, was unlike Moses in many ways. But that’s just the thing. Churches are often so committed to what God has done in their yesterdays that they completely miss Him in their tomorrows. Tomorrow will not look exactly like yesterday. The music will change. The architecture will change. The particular English translation of the biblical text with change. The outreach and in reach methods will change. No, you’ve never done it that way before. But that’s good… because God’s doing a new thing. If your expectation of tomorrow is that it will mirror the things of yesterday, you’ll never step into the Jordan River. And you’ll never step foot onto the promises that God has ahead of your church.
So, embrace the new things God’s doing in your church. New doesn’t always mean bad. God will never lead you where His presence does not go before you. Make sure you don’t get ahead of God. Be spiritually prepared, expecting every day for God to do a fresh, new work. And don’t be so committed to how God has worked in the past that you miss what He’s up to in the present and what He’s leading you toward in the future.
Grace and Peace,