Is It Time to Shift Our Paradigms?

By Dr. Steve Brown

Introduction – The Issue: A “Paradigm Shift”

More than six years ago I met Jeff Reid and Steve Kemp, who talked a lot about paradigms and paradigm shifts. As I listened to them, my thinking about the church, church history, Christian education, leadership development, hermeneutics and missions began to change substantially.

Jeff wrote several articles presenting a central idea around which specific issues orbited much like the planets orbit around the sun. He called these articles “The Paradigm Papers.” The central idea captured my attention, making a lot of sense to me.

Reid explained his core idea as “Church-based Theological Education” or C-BTE. Many of you have read this series of articles. To me the issues raised in the Paradigm Papers triggered a “Copernican Revolution,” theologically speaking.

In addition, Steve, who formerly served as the Dean of Extension Education at Moody Bible Institute, challenged me to consider the possibilities of doing theological education from a church-based model rather than the institutional model. Like many of you, I had been trained in the institutional model in preparation for ordination and pastoral ministry. I was challenged by the power of a different framework and struggled with the possibility of a “paradigm shift.” It was unnerving, especially in light of my work at BICS, where our passion is to not simply point young adults to acquire information about the faith, but to encourage them toward interior renovation and to develop skills to serve the church. Our platform was primarily designed on the schooling paradigm. It was the oxygen we breathed.

What I would like to do in this session is to travel through a discussion of this issue in two movements. My aim is to affirm the importance of the church-based conversation that has now been going on here in the Eastern Region for the last few years and to encourage its consideration and adoption by you, the leaders of AC churches in the Northeast, notorious for its hard-packed, rocky spiritual soil.

 Movement 1 – Defining the Issue

First, what is a paradigm? Let’s spend a little time unpacking the concept. It may not be safe to assume that what I mean by the term is the same way you understand it.

The Greek term means literally “to show side by side” In this sense a paradigm is a pattern, a model or an example. (

If you studied Greek, you are familiar with the concept of a paradigm. When a student looks at the inflections of the verb “luw” or “pisteuw” on a chart, he sees an entire model of the uses of the regular verb. From luw one goes on to recognize deponent and compound verbs, at least that’s the idea. Oh yes, I forgot — the student has to memorize the irregular of eimi for which there is no paradigm! A paradigm is a set of forms that show the various elements of a single stem in a language.

A paradigm can also be understood as a cognitive framework. In this sense a paradigm is a theoretical construction, by which one explains how something works. Consider the helio-centrism of Copernicus, for example — which brings us to the concept of a “paradigm shift.”

Scientists and philosophers, after thinking and working within an accepted conceptual model, may be presented with a set of problems unsolvable in standard ways. That creates a crisis forcing a leader, an organization, a movement, a culture, or, in our case, a movement of churches to look for solutions “outside the box,” to formulate, if you will, a new set of solutions. Often the crisis compels the invention of a new or different conceptual model. To adopt that new model is called a “paradigm shift.” The movement puts on a “new thinking cap” (Pearcey, The Soul of Science, p. 59), as did Copernicus when he suggested that the planets did not revolve around the earth.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn, a science historian, used the paradigm concept to analyze the various epochs, from Aristotle to Einstein, in scientific research of the physical world. He described these shifts as occurring not so much because of logic or hard data, but because of value decisions. Important for this morning is Kuhn’s definition of a paradigm. In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he wrote:

“the term paradigm stands for the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given community” (p. 175).

In 1988, Hans Kung, the controversial Roman Catholic Scholar, adopted Kuhn’s paradigm model of science history to analyze the various mega shifts in the history of theology. In his book, “Theology for the Third Millennium,” Kung underscored the revolutions that occurred in the church since the first century. One example he charted was the rumbling ecclesial “earthquake” of Luther when he shifted medieval canon law driven by Aristotelian philosophy to the biblical text alone. That, Kung believed, was the evidence of a shifting paradigm (p. 127). He was not wrong.

Those of you who have become acquainted with the church-based conversation, know that the paradigm concept is prominent and powerful. That is why Reed used the term “Paradigm Papers” to lay out his challenge for church-based prototypes for ministry, from education to missions to hermeneutics.

I hope by now it is clear that a paradigm is a conceptual model used to understand a complex reality. Using this kind of tool, a movement, in our case a network of churches, could begin to think about “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given community,” in our case, the churches of the Eastern Region. A paradigm may describe concepts already driving our thinking, or it can become a large-scale engine for change.

And here it is that we turn to the Bible. While Kuhn was trying to make sense of the history of science from his closed philosophical system, “below the line” (as Francis Schaeffer pointed out in “Escape from Reason”), and Kung was trying to make sense out of fragmented Western theology using Kuhn’s framework, we should read afresh the treatment of Luke and the apostles to discover “the models and examples, the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given community” (in Luke’s writing, the planters of the early church) IF, THAT IS, THE MODEL IS THERE IN THE TEXT.

The challenge is not to lay on the Bible our paradigm proposals but rather to see if the apostles laid down a single guiding example, an imperative if you will, for us to implement in our ministries. That, I believe, is a necessary, but demanding, project for leaders in the Eastern Region.

Roland Allen was an Anglican missionary in China for eight years at the turn of the 20th century. He believed that every new generation of Christians ought to resubmit their traditions to the Word and the Spirit of God. In his short book, “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours,” he wrote there are “certain principles which seem to lie at the back of all the Apostle’s actions and in which I believe we may find the key to his success and endeavor to show some at least of the ways in which the apostolic method might be usefully employed today” (p. 8, 9). I bring Allen into this discussion as an exemplar who believed in the necessity of probing the paradigm problem.

The question to answer is this: does the New Testament, by design, lay out “THE way of Christ and his apostles” to echo Allen, or is it an account of what happened with no particular normative force for the future church?

That is, does the New Testament lay down principles and patterns to plant and empower churches that must be followed, or does it simply recount “a” way a few fishermen, a revenue agent and a converted rabbi did it thousands of years ago? If so, the Great Commission project depends on imaginative innovations going forward.

Movement 2: The Hermeneutical Imperative Facing Advent Christian Leaders.


Was Allen correct? The only way to test his thesis is to go over the biblical texts once more to validate or reject his three observations 1) that a core strategy informed Paul’s ministry, 2) that this strategy is discoverable, and 3) that enough of the strategy is available to guide the church in the planting and establishing mandates embedded in the Great Commission. If these three elements can be discovered, it would be reasonable to assume that the Holy Spirit intends for us to accept them as paradigmatic, in other words as informing truth for our ministries today.

We believe the Bible is the Word of God. That is axiomatic. The concern here is what did the author/s (and the Author) intend for the church to understand and implement?

My observation is this: Advent Christians are facing a hermeneutical imperative. Given our fragmentation, can we reasonably expect to come to an agreement on something so crucial as the biblical mandate for implementing the mission of the church? Our Regional Superintendent is asking us to consider a fundamental shift in the paradigm of our ministries. Should missions, theological education, leadership development and all the rest be church-based in a radical departure from the institutional and attractional models we have relied upon for more than a century?

To consider these possibilities requires a serious reevaluation of the assumptions we accept as biblical. Multiple examples could be cited to illustrate the problem. Here is just one relating to world missions.

In 2005, Dr. David Dean published his history of Advent Christian Missions titled “Who Will Go for Us?” It is a lucid and triumphant account of the denomination’s work in other parts of the world, yet it illustrates the urgent need for Allen’s challenge.

Dr. Dean describes well the development of missions informed by an antecedent Western model for planting and establishing the church that was imposed upon the missions project. Our work in India was but one example with its compounds, buildings and ministries inflected by British and North American mentalities. Much effort has been made by our denominational leaders to deal with the effects of that old paradigm requiring difficult decisions, contentions with national leaders and not a little hand wringing to accompany the deliberations.

This was exactly the model against which Roland Allen opined in 1930. Now, missiologists believe that the western paradigm is spent, to be abandoned. It is no longer workable.

David Bosch, a missiologist at the University of South Africa before his death in a car crash in 1992, wrote in his book, “Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission”:

“There is no longer any room for the massive affirmations of faith which characterized the missionary enterprise of earlier times, only for a chastened and humble witness to the ultimacy of God in Jesus Christ”

(p. 354 – 355).

It is possible that moribund churches and mission models might be prods to look at ourselves less in celebration and more in humility. In his very important analysis of the problem, David Macdonald Patton, like Allen, a missionary in China, made this observation:

“It is natural to us to seek to defend ourselves: to admit, of course, that we have our failings, but to insist that much of our work stands and has been blessed of God. This attitude is the prime obstacle to the gospel in your heart and mine; and its name is pride” (“Christian Missions and the Judgment of God,” p. 51).

Paradigms can ossify as well as liberate a movement. But let that go, and let’s move on. Central to the discussion of paradigms is the correlative assessment of our underlying approach to interpretation. This is the heart of my concern. Advent Christians must work to construct a common hermeneutic framework. The wise man built his house on the rock. So should Advent Christians.

The literature on biblical hermeneutics is vast and varied from the “Expository Hermeneutics” of Elliot Johnson to the philosophical hermeneutics of Gadamer in his book, “Truth and Method.” The postmodern hermeneutic, which currently dominates interpretive theory, uncouples the author’s intent in the text by shifting meaning to the reader’s response to the text. So, the text no longer conveys intentional, objective, external meaning but becomes a “living” malleable document, much like the US Constitution is being interpreted by liberal judges in America’s courtrooms. Significant, conflicting outcomes in interpretation have been hard upon us in the church for many years and it is time to get at this problem straight away.

Dr. Fred Ehle Jr., a mentor to many of us, offered me advice he received from Dr. James Nichols, his mentor. Fred counseled, when interpreting the Bible “take it as it reads.” At first glance that advice seems naïve. But on reflection Fred meant the Bible is what God has revealed to us through the authors. God intended to communicate truth. That truth is knowable upon study, reflection and testing. In other words, the only valid interpretation is one based on the intent of the author.

One great present day exponent of this approach to the Bible is Walter Kaiser, the now retired President of Gordon-Conwell. His body of work is a tour de force in laying down the principles of getting at the meaning of the author. We would do well to inform our hermeneutic practice, beginning with Kaiser’s “The Promise Plan of God” for the overall approach to the Bible or beginning with his chapter Legitimate Hermeneutics found in the book “Inerrancy,” edited by Norman Geisler (p. 117 ‒ 147). (Helpful also is the work of E. D. Hirsch, “Validity in Interpretation.”)

                Twenty-five years ago Kaiser called upon church leaders to begin a “hermeneutical reformation” (Geisler, ed. p. 117). He declared:

“Much of the current debate over the Scriptures among believing Christians is, at its core, a result of failure on the part of evangelicals to come to terms with the issue of hermeneutics” (Ibid.)

In doing so he touched upon the problem that has infected Advent Christian DNA for 150 years. Once again, ours has not been a problem of acknowledging the Bible as the Word of God but one of interpreting the Bible. It is high time for concern, not over the inspiration of Scripture, but the over the meaning of Scripture.

Kaiser suggested axioms to guide such a project. Here are two of them to get the ball rolling. (Actually, Kaiser developed five axioms to guide hermeneutical reformation earlier in 1978. They can be found in the chapter, The Single Intent of Scripture in “Evangelical Roots,” Kantzer, ed., pp. 123 ‒ 140.)


  1. “God’s meaning in revelatory-intention in any passage of Scripture may be accurately and confidently ascertained only by studying the verbal meanings of divinely delegated and inspired writers.”


  1. “That single, original verbal meaning of the human author may be ascertained by heeding the usual literary conventions of history, culture, grammar, syntax and the accumulated theological context.”


On the issue before us: is a church-based paradigm embedded in the New Testament? One foundational treatment of the question is found in a chapter titled Acts: The Question of Historical Precedent by Fee and Stuart in the book “How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth.” They conclude that, yes, in the Book of Acts Luke intends for us to discern powerful precedents (paradigms, if you will) to inform and motivate each successive generation of the church to build its ministry “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).

Building off Fee and Stuart is this challenge: Let us commit ourselves to embrace the project of reading Luke and the apostles to validate the presence of a paradigm philosophy of church planting and expansion. Is there an identifiable pattern therein that guided the exponential growth of the church for nearly 300 years after our Lord’s ascension?

While the details and local forms developed by those pioneers may seem obscure to us, can we discover biblical antecedents to be employed wherever and whenever the church sprouts from the soil?

I think the BILD resources are helpful in getting at the issues, but I want to raise a caution. Advent Christians understand too well trendy treatments for church pathologies. Many of you have attended the national conferences featuring “successful” church leaders or read renovated practical theologies. But those approaches usually have not worked at home. There have been so many proposals; we have become cynical and hardened to the next great set of solutions to our problems. So, to heap more manuals or a shelf of books on you could stir up a hardened aversion to perceived programmed solutions.

But the church-based conversation has already begun in the Region. So as we cycle through the project, we would be wise to test the paradigm by a serious submission of our hearts and minds to a fresh reading of Paul and Luke. But as we do, keep in mind that our approach to biblical interpretation needs some repair and propping up. How we go about this is more important than shifting the paradigm.

Our present crisis is a powerful motivator to seek solutions. True. But prevailing models can be straitjackets of the status quo. Resistance to calls for change is in our DNA. But we should not reject opportunity out of hand. The best way forward is to go back over the biblical material to determine the presence and nature of the church-based paradigm. From there must arise the conviction and determination to change … or not.


An Exhortation


The theme of today’s event is “Paradigm Shifts.” To shift paradigms invites a revolution — to do so could be risky with uncertain outcomes. Is the Holy Spirit calling us to do that very thing? And to what is he pointing? How can we know what he wants?

My exhortation is to get behind the curtain to test our assumptions and current practices in a serious, large-scale submission to the Bible. There we should search for principles to address the dying present and sweep away the fragmentation that chains us to the theological DNA of the past.

Is it time to shift our paradigm? I say yes, it is overdue. And the place to begin is with a fresh reading of the New Testament followed by the courage to admit our failures and the determination to learn “The Way of Christ and His Apostles.”



Allen, Roland. The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: And the Causes Which Hinder It. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997. Print.


____________. Missionary Methods; St. Paul’s or Ours? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962. Print.


Barker, Joel Arthur. Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future. New York, NY: Harper Business, 1993. Print.


Bosch, David Jacobus. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991. Print.

Dean, David A. Who Will Go for Us?: People and Passion in Advent Christian World Missions from 1860 2000. Charlotte, NC: Venture, 2005. Print.


Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Continuum International Group, 1975. Print.


Hesselgrave, David J. Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 2005. Print.


Hirsch, Eric Donald. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 1967. Print.


Johnson, Elliott E. Expository Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990. Print.


Kaiser, Walter C. Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981. Print.


Kantzer, Kenneth S. Evangelical Roots. Seoul, Korea: Word of Life, 1983. Print.


Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, Ill.: U of Chicago, 1996. Print.


Küng, Hans. Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Print.


Paton, David M., and David M. M. Paton. Christian Missions and the Judgment of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996. Print.


Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2004. Print.


_____________. The Soul of Science. Wheaton: Crossway, 1994. Print.

Ratzsch, Delvin Lee, and Delvin Lee Ratzsch. Science & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2000. Print.


Reed, Jeff. The Paradigm Papers: New Paradigms for the Postmodern Church. Ames, Iowa: Learncorp, 1997. Print. Latest Revision: April 13, 15

One thought on “Is It Time to Shift Our Paradigms?

  1. This is a helpful perspective on the future of theological education. Like most forms of higher education, theological education is being pressed not only by increasing costs but by a growing lack of vocational opportunities for students coming out of college and/or seminary. Can we rightly encourage prospective pastors and students to enter theological education when vocational pastoral opportunities will not be available to them in the coming years. The reality is that denominations are shrinking and number of mid-size congregations (those ranging from 150-700) that have employed most pastors is shrinking dramatically. In the future, most congregations will either be large (over 1,000) or small (under 150). Large congregations look for specialists in specific areas. Small congregations need generalists, those who can engage in a variety of ministry practices. So we need to think about what kind of church-based theological education. Someone who engages in church-based theological education through Willow Creek, Saddleback, or one of the many larger congregations in the United States will not be well prepared for ministry in small congregations unless there is intentional hands-on practical experience in that setting, and vice versa. With any paradigm shift, there are always unintended consequences. As one who serves in theological education (at Gordon-Conwell Seminary), I know that we we do is not right for everyone. At the same time, I think going forward we will need a multiplicity of models for theological education, especially as the United States becomes much less Caucasian in the coming twenty to thirty years.

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