By Eddie Pipkin

Author Amanda Mull recently wrote about the unique approach of Americans to the first meal of the day, the one we know as breakfast. No culture on the planet has as restricted a definition of “acceptable breakfast foods” as Americans do.  There is a clear list of socially appropriate options when it comes to the morning meal – eggs, pancakes, donuts, etc. – and if you walk into your local diner at 7:00 a.m. and request a nice salad with grilled chicken and some green beans, you are guaranteed to get some strange looks.  It got me to thinking about the way we do so many things in certain ways in ministry – especially in our approach to what counts as acceptable worship – and how hard it is to think creatively and try out new ideas when we are so locked in to our perceptions of what worship and other ministries should look like.

In her article entitled “I Broke Breakfast” in The Atlantic, Mull breaks down the history of breakfast in America.  It’s a quirky tale which lays out the role of historically rural lifestyles and new modern marketing in creating the breakfast menu we know and love.  Nutritionally speaking, there’s no reason we can’t eat “dinnertime food” in the morning, but there is a long litany of habits and traditions – some that made a lot of sense at the time they came into practice – that we continue just because it’s what we know.  Ministry can be a lot like that.  Even when we intentionally seek out creative twists, we’re usually just tweaking around the edges: it’s like switching from blueberry topping on the pancakes to strawberry topping on the pancakes – it’s still pancakes.  Even in “contemporary praise worship,” the order in which things happen is often sacred and untouchable.  It’s just the way things are done, and we’re handcuffed by it.

Traditions and habits can lead to stagnant worship: The “children’s moment” is often completely disassociated from the sacred flow of the rest of worship service.  Prayers are often perfunctory and conducted in precisely the same manner from week to week (and you may think I am picking on the liturgical flow of traditional worship with that statement, but pay attention to the flow of your praise service, and see how often the language is looser but the format is rote).  Offertory songs serve as cover for passing the plate and “guest spots” for featured soloists to do their thing.  Greeting times are robotic; offertory prayers barely acknowledge the deep sacrificial opportunity at hand.

In another example involving outreach, I had a friend who was leading a nascent inner-city ministry that was being sponsored by an affluent suburban church.  The vision for the inner-city ministry was to partner with the people it was serving, giving them ownership, letting them be an integral part of the decision making, teaching them the skills to be independent and giving them the resources to empower their own community.  Unfortunately, the well-intentioned, good-hearted suburbanites could not wrap their heads around this model of ministry.  For them, helping poor people meant handing them used clothing and providing a food pantry; it meant giving them stuff from the abundance of the suburban resources.  Any other kind of resourcing and support felt alien (like barbecue ribs for breakfast instead of corn flakes).

So many aspects of our ministry decision-making are infected by habit and tradition (historical or institutional) that we don’t even realize it.  It is a great occasional exercise to break every process and procedure down and ask why we do it the way we do it and what might happen if we changed our approach – if nothing else we could be confirmed in the wisdom of doing it the way we’ve been doing it.  Such an analysis would remind us of these dangers:

  • Creativity is not just putting a new slipcover on the old couch. If you freshen up your fall carnival by adding a clown show (in hopes of drawing in more folks from the community), you still haven’t solved the problem of getting off your property and out into the community.
  • Innovation is not recruiting new participants to jump-start a tired premise. If your backpack ministry for the homeless is stalling out (because you have to drive five miles from your affluent neighborhood to get to the homeless), maybe it’s time to think more deeply about the issues of addiction, divorce, debt, and depression that are prevalent in your zip code and invent some ministry to address those needs, too.
  • Tradition can be powerful; tradition can be impotent. It’s not universally powerful simply because it is tradition. The key is to understand what drives the relevance of the tradition.  Communion will never fall from fashion – it is a fundamental celebration of our identity as followers of Christ.  On the other hand, beginning every worship service ever with an up-tempo praise song followed by five minutes of announcements is just inviting people to show up late.

I was delighted in the past week to encounter a series of articles about local churches trying out some new ideas.  All of these articles reinforced basic guidelines for breaking into fresh territory in their approach (whether by good fortune or by strategic initiative):

  • They are entrepreneurial. They embrace novel approaches and new ideas, not begrudgingly, but as a guiding goal  As long as an idea fits within the articulated vision of the church, and as long as there are people who are invested in making it happen, the church says “go for it.”
  • They are faithful to their context. The leadership of the church understands the unique characteristics that define the community in which the church lives and breathes.  It understands the strengths, and it understands the challenges, and it seeks to pursue the way that Christ’s love can best respond to each.
  • They honor the power of individual, Spirit-driven vision. Individuals are the source of vision (not committees).  People should be encouraged to formulate ministry dreams and empowered to inspire others and bring those dreams to fruition (which is the biblical model).
  • They aren’t afraid of hard work. Any creative vision, any powerful vision, will involve lots and lots of work.  Lack of zeal kill many a promising idea.
  • They aren’t afraid to fail. Like a restaurant trying out a new menu item, we understand whenever we undertake a new direction (large or small) that it may or may not work.  That’s okay.  That’s how innovation thrives.  (If we’re not failing, we’re not trying anything new.  Churches and their leadership should not be so terrified of failure (because that is distinctly non-biblical)).

As for those stories that energized me:

  • Here’s Sycamore Creek Church in Michigan embracing the arrival of the musical Hamilton to interact with people (as well as other connections to the arts and injections into the life of the community).
  • Here’s Doug McNeil’s passion project, Lighting for Literacy, which partners Los Gatos United Methodist Church in California and the Los Gatos Morning Rotary with young people in the local community to teach science and literacy, while simultaneously creating solar lighting kids for impoverished communities around the world.
  • Here’s a story about the Dream League baseball ministry sponsored by Christ Church UMC in Sugar Land, Texas and how it empowers people with disabilities to participate in sports.
  • And here’s one about a holy herd of cows in Kirbyville, Texas, a rural congregation which is cultivating its own group of heifers as a creative way to pay the bills for this small rural church to keep the ministry going.

There is no shortage of ideas.  There is no shortage of options of ways the Gospel can be expressed in every unique community.  All that is needed is the openness to embrace them and the will to carry them forward.   What are the tradition-busting initiatives and re-imaginings you’ve heard about lately?  Share them in our comments section below.