In 1968 I boarded the USS Enterprise off the coast of Vietnam as an Electrician assigned to the Catapault and Elevator Shop. At the time it was the largest warship in the world and had the most modern weapons and technology available. Three years later, after two trips to Vietnam and thousands of miles on the ocean, I left the ship when I was discharged from active duty. This weekend I read it is now the oldest active duty ship in the Navy and will be decommissioned after one final deployment to the Persian Gulf later this year. Talk about something that makes you feel old!
When I told my wife about the 2013 decommissioning of the Enterprise she said she bet I would like to be on that last deployment, especially if it would be with my former shipmates. I certainly would. I can't remember all their names, but I can still see their faces and remember a lot of the times we shared. I can vividly remember the bunk that I slept on for three years, the way our shop looked, especially after we remodeled it in 1970, the main mess deck, and hangar bay and flight deck. I remember going up on the viewing level and watching flight ops, and I can remember the catwalk along the side of the ship where we would sometimes sleep at night to enjoy the warm breezes and hear the sounds of the ship cutting through the water. I remember the fire and explosions that rocked our ship and took the lives of two dozen of our shipmates and the weeks spent in Pearl Harbor repairing the damage so we could return to the Tolken Gulf. So many memories. It would be great to be back on the ship one more time. But, not to do the job I did for three years.
See, everything on that ship has changed. The technology has changed. The elevators I used to work on operated from a complicated series of switches and relays. I'm sure those have been replaced with electronics. The F4 Phantoms that were the pride of our air wing have been replaced with much more sophisticated aircraft. I'm sure many of the rooms I remember have been moved to other locations on the ship. The guages and tools I used have all been replaced with much better equipment. A treat for me when I was on the ship was to receive a reel-to-reel tape from my wife and family that I could play on a small player. Now, crew members can communicate through computers, Skype, etc. I have many wonderful memories of my time on that ship, but none of them reflect the reality of today's Enterprise. For me to be effective on the ship's last deployment I would have to learn a whole new way of doing things.
What has any of this to do with a blog that addresses bivocational ministry and smaller churches? Very often we have people in our churches with memories of wonderful ministries that made a difference in people's lives. They can recall the faces and names of people long since gone and how important they were to the life of the church while they were there. These memories are exciting and meaningful to these folks, but unfortunately they do not reflect the reality of the needs of the church in the 21st century. Everything about our society has changed since the days they remember so well. The needs of both the unchurched and often the churched as well have changed. New ways of doing church have been identified that are more effective in reaching people for Christ. Flannelgraph lessons in Sunday school have been replaced with video projectors and class blogs. Websites, Facebook, and Twitter have replaced Tuesday night visitation as a means of reaching out to unchurched people. Denominational loyalty is much less important today to the average church member than it was even ten years ago which means new ways of funding denominational work and mission work must be found. Many unchurched people have little, if any, biblical frame of reference one can use when trying to explain the Christian faith. We have entered into a pre-Christian, post-modern world where all belief systems are considered equally valid and true, and the only absolute truth that is acceptable is that there is no longer absolute truth.
I could go on and on about the changes that have taken place in the church and society over the past two decades, but the fact is that if we continue to try to do ministry as we did twenty years ago, and maybe even ten years ago, we will have little impact on today's society. It would be the same as me returning to the Enterprise and trying to perform my previous tasks with the same training, tools, and equipment I had when I left there forty years ago. That great ship is still doing the same task it did when I served aboard it: protecting and defending the national interests of the United States, but today it is doing it with new methods, and it will soon be replaced with a new aircraft carrier that will have even more improved technology and greater means by which it can protect and defend our nation. Our task as the church is the same today as it was when the church began in Acts, but it must accomplish that task with new methods and a new understanding of our present culture, or it will never be as successful in changing people's lives as it could be.