By Eddie Pipkin

In my recent beachside travels, I was staying in a rental house with friends.  Thisneighborhood had been around for decades.  It began as a collection of modest cottages – a beach getaway for working class folks.  But in recent years, some high-end developments have moved in down the road, and now the modest cottages of yore are being steadily replaced by mini-mansions.  The new neighbors are building as much house as they can legally squeeze onto a lot, and these structures are glamorous palaces of relaxation.  But new is not always improved, and the influx of luxury domiciles is forever changing the character of these dirt-road, low-key hamlets.  In ministry, as well, we can get wrapped up in the flashiest, trendiest, most Instagrammable scheme of the moment, but we should always remember that even as we’re adapting and changing and trying new things, we shouldn’t sacrifice the character of our community that has made us who we are.

Gentrification, as defined by our good pals at Wikipedia as “the process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses.  Because it tends to change the character of said neighborhood, it is a . . . controversial topic.”   Gentrification has taken on a negative connotation because it disrupts what has been, and in the process, it often displaces those who have come before and the community vibe they have previously established.  Its more positive counterpart, which is a word that can be used to describe the exact same changes to an institution or organization, is revitalization (or its synonyms rejuvenation or renaissance).

The picture I have included with the blog this week demonstrates this process in action.  It’s a photograph I made on my morning walk that shows the comical juxtaposition of an old-school beach bungalow with the mammoth 7-bedroom McMansion that has been constructed next door.  On the one hand, for the modest cottage owners, their property values continue to soar because of all this new high-end construction.  They could make a lot of money by selling their lot.  On the other hand, if they just want to stay in place, not only is the essence of the neighborhood forever changed, but they can’t see any sunlight from the side of the house that faces the next-door skyscraper.

Whether this is progress depends on one’s perspective.

The advocates for nice, new things say, “You’re never going to get new people in if you don’t adapt to the current styles and trends – if you’re not actively working to be relevant.”  The longtime residents say, “We don’t want to be that new thing.  We love the community we have built exactly the way we built it.”  [There is a compromise position, but I’ll save that reveal for the end of the story.]

You can see the carryover of the conversation into ministry territory.  I’m thinking here in large part about the massive influence of the mega-churches and the distributed church model in pushing us all to fit that template for worship.  So pervasive has this influence been (because for the ministry-industrial publishing and media complex, which is where the profit is in developing and distributing materials, big churches with big budgets are their target audience), there is now a generic quality to the way worship looks and feels in the majority of American churches.  I call it the “neo-traditional” worship model.  And I’m not unaware of the fact that prior to the mega-church model, worship in America looked pretty static across denominations and regions.  I’m just saying that there is a lot of room for embracing contextual differences in how worship can look, if we would explore and embrace them.

We don’t have to throw out what makes us unique in pursuit of some fixed modern praise worship ideal.  Having new things is nice, but having them at the expense of pushing out the long-time inhabitants is not a desirable ministry outcome.

It’s a delicate balance.  I have written many blogs in this space about the need to try new things and be relevant to new audiences.  We must adapt creatively.  We must stay in tune with the ways people are interacting with each other and the world.

But too often, the enthusiasm of the newest thing becomes an excuse to abandon what has come before and the people who came with it.  There is sometimes almost a righteous enthusiasm in casting off the old.  And let’s face, sometimes that “casting off the old” is a literal sentiment.  We see the longtime church members, the Seniors, as an impediment to what we view as essential modernizing changes.

Obviously, any change we ever undertake will provoke a digging-in-of -the-heels. Some people will be resistant to any different way of doing things, no matter how carefully we approach the implementation of changes.  But that truth – the inevitable truth of the recalcitrant 5% — should not mean we cast off people who would meet us halfway.  It should not mean that we short-circuit the process of trying to cast a new vision and excite everyone about what that new vision can mean for them and their long-established community.  Just because new ideas are moving in doesn’t mean that those who love the old ways of doing things have to move out.

It is hard work to bridge that gap to needed changes and revitalization.  It takes discipline, dialogue, and dedication to bring everyone on board, but the payoff is incalculable.  Those “longtimers” have essential institutional knowledge. They are keepers of heritage and identity that make the difference between the merely trendy and temporary and the movements that are authentic re-imaginings.  We need depth of experience in our faith families.  One of the risks, for instance, encountered by fresh new church starts which have no layer of old ministry pros is that we end up with a cadre of excited spiritual seekers, none of whom know anything about the nuts-and-bolts of week-to-week ministry.

Additionally, just because something has been a “classic” approach doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad or useless.

Sometimes the old and ancient ways just need a tweak:

  • House church / small groups. We have seen, especially during the pandemic, but as a general movement that was thriving even before then, a revival of house church and small groups in people’s homes and other settings.  This is the oldest of formats for followers of Christ to gather, and it is as potent a force as it ever was.  For United Methodists, this intimate approach is powerfully faithful to our Wesleyan roots.
  • Visitation.  Seeking out the sick, the homebound, and those who have drifted away is a tangible way to express empathy and God’s grace.  This is a good example in which technology has created a false sense of connection, because we have conveniently equated sending a text with showing up in person (and I don’t mean to downplay the usefulness of texts and Facebook messaging and leveraging other technology, but it’s very easy to allow these tools to supplant the intimacy of showing up and the many, many benefits a physical presence opens the door to).
  • One-on-one time. The first two things in this list are arguably versions of this, but we get so caught up in big events, large worship, even social media for the masses, that it’s easy to forget the importance of carving out essential one-on-one time with people.  Conversations are the bedrock of connection and growth.  There must be back-and-forth.
  • Sharing meals.  Christians have been hanging out and having meals together since the earliest days of the church.  It’s still a tool that is hard to replicate in terms of people letting down their guard and learning more about living together in community.
  • Singing together. Not just in stadium-like setting with the praise amps cranked up to 11, but in more intimate settings in which we can actually hear one another sing.
  • Book reads and in-depth studies. Sure, tweeting the Gospel is a great way to get people focused on spiritual truths as they plow through their hectic schedules, but deep thinking and true accountability are essential to the Christian walk, and this comes through making a commitment to dig deeper with spiritual friends.

What is old can become new again.  What is tried and true can capture fundamental truths that we don’t want to lose.  Groups of people who have been around forever, doing the same annual event the same way, can be inspired to update and re-imagine their role.

I alluded to a gentrification compromise earlier.  For communities and neighborhoods that have wrestled with this problem, one of the best solutions has been to implement architectural and zoning controls that allow for modern, new construction but restrict the scale of those improvements.  For instance, feel free to build a beautiful, modern home with all the latest amenities, but do it with a design that blends with the older, existing homes, and, by the way, limit it to two stories, not five.  From a ministry standpoint, there are great opportunities to keep the heart of what has come before while modernizing and adapting in relevant ways.  And it is a beautiful, scriptural moment whenever we involve all people in our faith communities as equal partners in whatever comes next, not just one group “winning” over others.

By the way – and I am going to write a whole blog on this soon – why do all announced changes have to be pitched as permanent changes?  When we have thoughtfully visioned our way to new ideas and new approaches, I think we would serve our ministries much better, when major shifts are involved, to describe things as a temporary test run:  “Let’s try this for a limited time period and see how it goes.”  More on that later.

Meanwhile, have you been involved in ministry gentrification, either on the receiving end or the implementation end?  Is ripping up the old and replacing it with the new the only true way forward?  Is it possible to adapt to new ways of doing things while preserving the essence of the good that has been built before?  Good luck out there, and God bless your efforts!