By Eddie Pipkin

I love to discover places that manage to find the elusive balance between celebrating old traditions and embracing new growth and ideas.  Last weekend, my wife and I stumbled on just such a place: adorably humble in scope, yet expansive in imagination, honoring its history and the people who built that history, but playfully and creatively adapting to contemporary sensibilities and welcoming all with open arms.  In other words – although not a ministry space in the way we refer to ministry space in this blog – definitely a public plot which offers many of the very things that ministry should offer and doing it in a way that lovingly honors past and present.  Join me for a tour!

Our featured stop on today’s travels is the Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens in Port Orange, Florida.  The gardens are part of a former sugar mill plantation from Florida’s frontier days that was later abandoned, then re-developed as an early tourist attraction, then re-abandoned as a failed project, then eventually, lovingly, saved from development and preserved and re-imagined as a nature space.  The lovely trails are maintained by a group of gardening volunteers who maintain a variety of clever plantings and ponds among old growth oaks and cypress.  They take a special delight in whimsical garden settings that appeal to children (and children at heart) such as a gnome village.  I’ve never been to any gardens that do a better job of using and beautifying stumps as a platform for decorative planting ideas (and if there ever was a botanical metaphor for the revitalization of ministry, isn’t the re-use and adaptation of stumps as a platform for beautiful, reimagined possibilities simply the best metaphor ever?).  The gardens wrap around and integrate two reminders of the former identities of the Dunlawton Sugar Mill property.  One is the carefully preserved archaeological ruins of the sugar mill, a historically significant site, complemented with explanatory displays.  The other is the preservation of a series of large concrete dinosaurs, left over from the property’s unsuccessful iteration as an early Florida tourist park called Bongoland (named after a popular baboon who lived there).  It seems unlikely that you could weld together three such disparate elements (historical site, tourist kitsch, and botanical gardens), but the Port Orange folks have done it in a beautiful way that honors all three.  And they did it in a way that is fun and accessible.

This is a hopeful model for local churches.  Ministry leaders who parachute in to new assignments, amped up with enthusiasm and filled to the brim with exciting visions of future possibilities are too often obsessed with the need to bulldoze everything old out of the way so that they can clear space for shiny, new ideas.

This conviction that the old and the new are incompatible is harmful zero-sum thinking.  Such thinking is often wrapped in a righteous cloak of biblical vision casting (“new wine into old wineskins” and “shaking the dust off of one’s feet” and “casting pearls before swine”), as well as identifying with the image of the revolutionary Jesus who is flipping over tables and challenging the calcified thinking of the Pharisees.  But Jesus, of course, does not renounce his religious heritage nor its tradition so much as expand and repurpose them.  This, too, is our calling in our local contexts, to understand and celebrate the value of our local culture, history, and traditions and find ways to honor those important markers of identity even as we are expanding and repurposing them.

Think of it using this approach: Grow-Change-Remember:

  • GROW: Growth is essential to any person or any organization. This is a fundamental principle.  We are either growing in healthy ways, or we are atrophying, losing our vitality and vigor.  So, we have to challenge ourselves, learn new things, embrace new experiences, explore new perspectives.
  • CHANGE: Growth can’t come from doing the same old thing in the same old ways ad infinitum. A commitment to growth implies a commitment to changing things up on a regular basis.  Sometimes, depending on the current funk in which we find ourselves, change for change’s sake can produce a productive recalibration.  A consistently more profitable approach, however, is to regularly engage in evaluation and feedback so as to steadily tweak our approach, changing with an eye toward improvement while avoiding catastrophic disruption.
  • REMEMBER: Because change that seeks to rip out everything, that gleefully deconstructs what existed before, comes with unintended and often unfortunate consequences.  There is a better way, a way that is thoughtful about honoring the core values of an organization’s identity and building from those values, traditions, and history.

This approach is harder.  Any builder will tell you that a tear-down is sometimes more efficient and less expensive than an extensive remodel.  But a remodel can be new and beautiful and connect generations in meaningful ways (for reference, check out what’s going on at Notre Dame Cathedral).

The secret sauce – or perhaps it is more incisive to say the sacred sauce – of any ministry is the people involved.  Relationships are why any of it matters, and the tear-down-and-rebuild-from-scratch approach is tough on relationships.  Churches that get into unhealthy patterns in pursuit of growth can become conveyor belts of old-people-off, new-people-on.  It is a verifiable phenomenon that much of the “growth” seen in towns and cities large enough to have multiple churches is simply people hopping from one church to another.

The antidote to this kind of ministry fast-fashion approach is a dedication to relationship-building that is a long-term, sticking-through-the-hard-times-even-when-we-disagree commitment.   Much like quality-woven wearables that are designed to last a lifetime, not just a season, nurturing and sustaining relationships is labor intensive and time consuming and not always on the cutting edge of what’s hip and what’s next.  But they are durable, and they are dependable, and they are biblical.

We can preserve what is best about what has come before.  We can find creative ways to honor it and include grace notes that acknowledge our heritage in the delightful new things we invent.  We can remember who we were and why that identity mattered, even as we adapt our community to changing times and evolving contexts.

To be clear, I am not writing here exclusively about the way we evolve and re-imagine our use of physical spaces and cherished events, although anybody who has ever worked in a local church knows how important these re-imaginings are and how contentious that re-imagining process can be.  Underneath all of that, however, is the way we think about people and relationships as our most valuable resource.  Buildings may last for generations, and events will come ago as trends dictate, but relationships are forever.  They are our sacred calling.   And as we “grow-change-remember,” the people – the individual souls – who make our ministry matter, they are the most essential part of that process.

How have you managed in your local ministry context to adapt, grow, and change, even while honoring the history and traditions that made previous iterations of your ministry memorable?  How have you honored and integrated people in creative ways that made them feel valued even as you challenged them to do new and important things?