By Eddie Pipkin
Last week I wrote about avoiding the pitfalls of fast-fashion thinking when it comes to ministry. Even as we grow, change, evolve, and adapt, we can’t be constantly lurching to the next new thing. Capricious leadership and mercurial strategies are not biblical – they’re not good policy in the secular world either. Change for change’s sake can be exciting (or maybe just a ready source of colorful drama), but our calling prompts us to commit to long-term goals of growth and development. The trend-of-the-moment can be fun, but it’s rarely foundational. On the other hand, if we are loyal to our core values and core identity, and if we are smart about keeping our spiritual heritage and our guiding principles front and center as we ride every new wave, we can thrive in the short-term and the long-term.
Of course, there are some basic parameters that must be set in place for such a strategy to be effective;
- We must have an understanding of our core values and core identity. These are two different things, by the way – obviously they have overlap, but values are aspirational in nature and identity is who we are now (based on the history of who we have been). The identity part begins with a data set: demographics are key. But also, our history as a ministry and our context in the local community play a part. These things should be written down, and they should be promoted and shared and regularly revisited in creative ways. They are our story, and the retelling of stories not only centers and inspires those of us who have been around for a long time, but they are critical information for those who have newly joined us on the journey.
- We must be clear about our spiritual heritage. Our ministry – whoever we are and wherever we are – was not born in a vacuum. We are part of a great continuum of faith. This is a history worth celebrating, even as we carry it forward into a newly imagined future. Even if we choose to jettison troubling aspects of the past (and this can be true in a global sense or in a hyper-local sense), we should hold on tightly to the “best of’ what has come before. There is a long line of spiritual heroes and deep theological thinkers who blazed the trail to get us to where we are now, and it’s part of our task as leaders to tell their stories – to make them relevant for a new age and a new generation.
- We must have eyes that look with equal passion forward and backward, embracing the new with excitement while remaining grounded in the “best of” the story that has gone before. This applies to liturgy, to music, to programming, to discipleship, to preaching, and to outreach. In none of these areas should we abandon the investment people have made in getting us to where we are now – nor should we randomly jettison everything that certain people (and groups of people) love about how we have done things in the past. At the same time, we should not leave things set in stone – this is literally the definition of a fossil.
Rich Wilkerson of Vous Church in Miami recently told a story about his four-year-old son’s birthday party. Rich and his wife were planning the child’s birthday party and told the kid he could pick the theme for the party, so this high-energy little boy said he wanted to have a Spiderman Pirate party. “Spiderman Pirate?” they asked. “Is that even a thing?” Well, it’s not a thing yet in popular culture, not even in the Marvel extended universe, but it became the newly conceptualized theme at this kid’s party. This family embraced these two previously unlinked worlds and came up with something fun and unique, a distinct vision that honored a distinct and locally contextualized sensibility (a four-year-old’s unfettered imagination).
There is a great argument to be made that our neighborhoods should be filled with Spiderman Pirate churches: each church recognizable to a visitor as a place where Christ is worshiped and followed in ways that are familiar, but each church unique in their living out their local story and sensibilities.
If you haven’t taken the time to really figure out how to tell your story as a congregation, that’s a great starting place in working to obtain this balance. It’s hard to be the new you if you were never quite sure who the old you was.
- Scrapbook it. Invite people to bring in pictures and share stories that they think share the best parts of who you have been in the past and are in the present.
- Memorialize it. Give all those stories a grand narrative and record in a form that can be shred. Write it down. Publish it. Use all the best forms of modern creative media to give it a variety of tellings, then make those tellings easily shareable. Give them a tweak and an update as needed.
- Create a special narrative team. You could offload such a comprehensive creative project on staff as one more chore for which they are responsible, or you could hand it off to one super-creative and invested individual, which could produce some stunning results, but it’s a great project to assign to a diverse team (diverse creatively and diverse viewpoints, as they work out the story of your people).
If you haven’t taken the time to figure out your core values moving into the future, that’s a great starting place in working to obtain this balance.
- Vision statement. I am not, in general, a huge fan of vision statements. Local churches can get so caught up in months of crafting such a statement that the process becomes one of those things that feels like something major has been accomplished in the real world. Vision statements are, however, useful and necessary as a starting place for the real ministry that will be accomplished in the real world. So, every ministry should have one. Just try to keep it simple, a core identifier of your core identity and core value with which you want the greater community to identify you.
- Moving beyond the vision statement. But the true value of any vision statement is how it is applied. If it is not consistently and energetically integrated into the life of your church, it’s of no use to anybody (and in fact, can be detrimental if it is a publicly stated value that you are not living out). [A side note: If your church is struggling to apply its vision statement in meaningful ways, that’s a great clue that your vision statement is focus-grouped word salad, as opposed to a passionate statement of identity and aspiration.] A clear and simple vision statement, routinely used as a filter for decision making and ministry application, is a powerful tool for guiding the passion of your people.
- Branding your values. When we are clear about our values and how we intend to energetically live them out in communities, we should message, message, message our own folks and the general public. This keeps our folks focused and gives the general public access to what we have to offer. Signage, social media, wearable merchandise, sermon shout-outs, event promotion: all should stay enthusiastically on message.
Reach into the past to embrace the future.
- Worship is a workshop, not a monolith. Worship is the most dynamic place to experiment with the interplay between past and present. Prayer styles can vary, and prayer and liturgy can be crafted from the beautiful examples of two thousand years of history. Music, likewise, is a repository of theological history. Dramatic and visual arts have always had a place in the exploration of faith. Try things out. Help the new faith generations understand their heritage. Help the older generations feel the passion and relevance of how the new faith generations are interpreting and applying scripture and theological principles.
- Revive a traditional event. Take something from a previous era that is suffused in the glow of nostalgia and breathe new life into it as a revived and updated idea. Take those old events that are still happening but barely limping along and give them a makeover – note that this is most often done by bringing in new blood with a fresh perspective – but it is possible to keep the old guard that cherishes their leadership of an event while also bringing in that new fresh-perspective blood – it’s not easy, but it’s worth the journey.
- Rename and reimagine. Help bridge transitions between old and new, between traditional and modern, between has-beens and what’s-next by keeping names and exploring their deeper meanings. (Or conversely, maybe it’s time to keep the substance of the thing but rename it – here’s looking at you “morning greeting time.”) Announcements! Coffee time! Offering! Children’s Story! Ladies Group! Service Day! So many components of our ministries are old familiar players. Reimagining them can mean digging more deeply into why they exist and what originally brought them life – adapt those principles for a new day. A name change can be a big help in helping people rethink the purpose of doing a thing, especially if it succinctly names that purpose.
Make generational connections.
- Connect the old with the young physically. Get older generations and younger generations together to interact in person. This arrow can flow both directions, with each group visiting the other in their own favored contexts, and it can involve one group serving the other within the framework of those contexts (like the older generation serving youth dinner, followed by the younger generation serving at the monthly senior lunch gathering). It can also involve special events that are designed specifically to connect these two groups (“Picnic of the Generations” anybody? Or imagine a gathering in which the generations trade off dance style demonstrations.)
- Make generational connections narratively. Create frameworks for sharing stories across generations. This is a useful tool for sharing history (for instance, with social justice issues or even . . . history). It’s useful for mentoring. It’s useful for demonstrating how to deal with the struggles of life – each group can share their own unique generational struggles. It’s a wonderful tool for extending the discussion on worship themes as older and younger generations have forums to discuss their take on worship topics.
- Problem solve across generations. Generational approaches to service projects, creative endeavors, and brainstorming worship and ministry ideas can lead to powerful and unexpected results.
- Encourage cross-generational relationships. The ultimate success of cross-generational efforts lies in moving them beyond organized, formal gatherings and into the realm of person-to person connections. Older folks can “adopt” or mentor younger folks. Younger folks can, likewise, “adopt” honorary grandparents – that connection with younger folks and their families to older shut-ins is particularly potent.
Note that this cross-pollination of perspectives holds exciting possibilities for getting together any distinctly differentiated groups in your local church.
- The theologically diverse.
- Introverts and extroverts.
- Culturally diverse communities.
- Economically diverse communities.
- The healthy and the suffering.
- Vegetarians and meat-eaters.
- Those whose faith growth is bookish and those who live their faith out through hands-on projects.
Imagine that your church embraced a year-long project in which every month was featured a tailor-made gathering that got these disparate groups together in fun and informative ways. What a blast that would be! How amazingly it might help people connect. And how clearly it would signal a core value to the community in a non-preachy way.
Widening perspectives and gaining compassionate insight into one another’s lives is one of the strongest approaches to discipleship as demonstrated by Jesus, but it doesn’t happen by accident – or, that is, it shouldn’t happen by accident. It definitely is not a guarantee that connection is happening just because people are sitting in the same rows together in a worship space for an hour a week. We can build stronger, more connected communities by intentionally sharing a wide range of life and faith narratives and intentionally putting people together to share and do work together.
What are the ways that your church connects different perspectives and different life experiences in ways that value all and benefit everyone? How do you celebrate the best of the old while embracing the best of the new? How do you encourage dialogue that softens the blow of change while involving all in the form that new and relevant adaptations take?