Years ago I heard a speaker remark that the seven last words of the church were, “We’ve never done it this way before.” I thought it was catchy, and to be confessional I even used it a time or three. After nearly three decades in ministry I think I would modify the seven last words of the church to, “We have always done it this way.” Let me explain. In my experience I’ve not found churches to be unwilling to try new things or undertake new ventures. Many churches are willing to experiment, even with a measure of risk provided the resources are available. The real problem is the refusal to let go of the things that have been done year after year after year. I suspect that the resistance to dismount the dead horses is based on a congregational felt need to have consensus. New things are permissible as long as the historical elements of the of ministry are maintained. This keeps the peace and approximates unilateral happiness.
Unfortunately, our need for short term peace comes with a long term price. Over the long haul resources are depleted and exhausted. Churches become slower and less responsive to immediate opportunities. Governance is heightened to ensure that everyone is treated equally. And, increased governance usually means fewer people are available to do the actual work of ministry. It’s hard to recognize this because many families live the same dilemma day in and day out–overcommitted and underbudgeted because we cannot stop ourselves from adding more activity without eliminating present activity. So what can be done?
1. Revisit the mission of the church. Sometimes we get lost on maintaining the clink and clank of church machinery to the exclusion of our real purpose: making disciples. Why do we exist? The answer to that question is the single most important guideline for our practice of ministry.
2. Understand the difference between history and tradition. History speaks of recurrent events in time. Tradition is more about culture, environment and style. It is critical to know the difference! Churches that refuse to stop certain programs and practices usually do so in the name of “tradition.” But its not tradition they advocate…its history. History is predictable, safe, and inflexible. Tradition, on the other hand, is like a fence that outlines the boundaries of a field wherein lies freedom and flexibility.
3. Take a programming fast to evaluate. I recently read of a church that intentionally closed its doors for an extended period of time to become reaquainted with God and one another. When they came back together they learned that there were things they were holding on to that they could live without after all. It also gave them the chance to explore new possibilities unencumbered by the weight of their habitual practices.
4. Commit to simplicity. Bigger is not better, its just more.
5. Find your niche. The church growth movement advocated becoming all things to all people to reach as many people as possible. Just as people have spiritual gifts, I believe churches have spiritual gifts. Find your niche and invest your resources. Its better to specialize in one thing and do it better than anyone else than do six things with mediocrity. If some other church has an outstanding program be kingdom minded enough to affirm it and support it. Don’t try to compete.