Two sayings are on my mind this morning:
It’s easier to start something than it is to stop it.
When the horse dies, dismount!
This is the tension in institutional church life. We can start things. This is good because things need to be started. We can’t stop things. This is bad because some things need to be stopped.
I think the problem rests with our memory: we remember why we started the thing. Due to that memory, we can’t stop associating why we started the thing with the thing itself. So when the thing is no longer functioning, we still remember why we started the thing and that “why” is still important. Therefore we can’t stop doing the thing, because we feel like stopping means the “why” doesn’t matter anymore.
Example: A church starts a sunday school program for elementary kids. Why? To teach kids the bible. AWESOME! Sunday school becomes a smashing success. Eventually, however, things change. What was a smashing success in one era becomes an antiquated program in the next. The present kids and parents don’t participate any longer. Families (which can be fickle) head up the street to the church with the new kid’s worship ministry. Something needs to change. Yet, it is hard to stop doing sunday school the way we’ve always done sunday school. Why? Because teaching kids the Bible is good. Even when the way it was done is no longer successful at teaching kids the bible, we will continue to try because that is how you teach kids the bible (even if it isn’t any longer).
This pattern can be applied to most anything in church life. If you pay attention to all the activity in an institutional church, you will see things that people still do even though they don’t contribute to the current functioning of the church. The church can be humming along just fine. And if the church stopped doing x,y or z, the church would continue to hum along just fine. But x,y and z remain. Relics of a bygone era that demand our worship like a big golden calf. What needs to happen is separation. We need to separate the good “why” from the no-longer-functioning “what”. In other words; keep teaching kids the bible. Just stop doing it in the way that doesn’t actually work and start doing it in a way that does. No matter what area of church life you are talking about, this applies. Mission, worship, discipleship, service, member care…you name it, it applies.
I love music. I spend money on music. Why? So I can listen to it. I used to have a walkman. I used to buy cassette tapes. Now I have an iPod, iPhone and iPad. I still buy music, but not cassette tapes. I download it. Imagine if I equated listening to music ONLY with having a walkman and cassette tapes. Would I have access to fresh, new music? Nope. What I did intuitively is is adjust over time to change. My love of music and my desire to listen to it caused me to invest in something different than before that actually works now. We do this all the time in our lives without paying much attention to it. Yet in our church life, we continue to insist walkman’s are the way to go in an iPod world.
I suggest three questions:
1.) What does God want to do? [hint: read the gospels]
2.) How does the Spirit want to do it here and now? [hint: read your context]
3.) How can we organize our resources (decide what to start and stop) in order to do what God wants to do the way the Spirit wants to do it, here and now? [hint: be brutally honest]