No one likes change when it’s forced upon them. So in this three-part series, I’m suggesting three reasons why some congregational leaders might willingly choose to embrace updating how they do ministry. In the first entry I said one reason I’ve seen some congregational leaders willingly make significant changes is that they recognize that Jesus is calling us to grander purposes than caring for our members, continuing our beloved traditions, maintaining our facilities and surviving economically.
A second reason some leaders may willingly choose to do church differently is: how we’ve been doing ministry just doesn’t seem to be as effective as it once was. As the years slip by, worship attendance slides off. While visitors sometimes drop in, they seldom return. The youth group, once considered the congregation’s signature ministry, has now dwindled to a handful of youth meeting with a part-time youth director, whom the staff-parish committee is talking about letting go to save money. Members wonder why their children and grand children – the few who do go to church – are going elsewhere. The average age of the “young married” Sunday school is 58 years old. Those serving as leaders are beginning to tire and feel like the same people are doing everything, but who else will step up? When asked the Dr. Phil question (“How’s that working for you?”), the begrudging answer is, “Not as well as it once did.”
The challenge facing church leaders today is distinguishing which practices of ministry need to be improved and which practices need to be reinvented. Some practices certainly do need to be done better: with the excellence that people today expect. The sound system can’t crackle and pop and sound tinny. The nursery must be fresh and clean, well stocked and well staffed. But there are some practices that no matter how well you do them, they will never be effective today. Improve your 8-track players all you want, they are not going to cut it. Send out the slickest paper newsletter you can produce and it is still going to look quaint and old-fashion to those 35 and younger. Some practices need to be done with excellence, but some just need to be done away with. The challenge is figuring out which is which -- especially when those still part of a declining congregation usually like things being done pretty much the same way they’ve been doing them.
Jesus said, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.” (Luke 37-38) It seems falling in love with old wineskins was a problem in Jesus’ day, too. Eventually, congregations choose between serving new wine in new wineskins for a new day . . . or comfortably clutching their old and cracked wineskins while those outside the church (friends and family and neighbors) go thirsty for new life in Christ.
The VW Bug is the longest-produced and most-produced automobile of a single design ever. The final original Beetle (No. 21,529,464) was produced in Mexico, many years after sales had significantly dwindled and it had been removed from showrooms in most countries. Meanwhile, in 1998 Volkswagen introduced the “New Beetle” which has a visual resemblance to the original, but is wholly a different car. It is the Beetle reinvented for a new day.
That’s what needs to happen with how many congregations do church today: reinvent church for the people who actually live and work in our communities in 2010 – the people to whom Christ is now sending us in ministry. 1960 is never coming back no matter how well we serve up Christ’s new wine in 1960’s wineskins. The new wine never changes, but the wineskins must always change in a changing world as we seek to be both faithful and fruitful in Christ’s mission in our day.
John Wesley initially hated field preaching. It seemed undignified and improper compared to preaching in a robe from the Church of England’s high pulpits. In his journal Wesley describes watching George Whitefield preaching in the open fields to people who would’ve never dared to darken the door of England’s churches. Finally Wesley writes: “I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little [hill] adjoining the city to about 3,000 people.”
I close with these two questions: how is Christ calling your congregation to become “more vile” in order to reach the people in your community that will never sip the new wine of Christ from the old wineskins your congregation uses? And who are the George Whitefield’s through whom Christ’s Spirit is demonstrating new ways for our days?
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Office of Congregational Transformation