Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Adapting to change

In yesterday's blog posting I referred to an article that predicted that within 50 years there would be only 10 institutions offering higher education, and I asked several questions about how that might impact seminaries, denominations, and church leaders.  I certainly do not know if such a monumental change in education will occur or not, but there is no doubt that in the next 50 years there will be huge changes impacting society and the church.  Institutions and individuals who are flexible enough will do well when these changes occur; those that are rigid in their thinking will not do so well.  The track record for how churches respond to change is not good, and one has to be concerned about how many will survive the next five decades.

Many of the people reading this will decide that since they won't be around 50 years from now they're not going to worry about it.  Agreed, they won't be impacted by most of those changes, but how will their children and grandchildren be affected?  I pastored a church that has already celebrated its 175th anniversary.  The church originally met in a log building and is now in its third building.  During those 175 years it met many challenges and faced numerous changes it had to address.  I often wondered as the pastor what would have happened if it had refused to address the changes that they encountered.  Even in my 20 year pastorate there we had to deal with changes that not everyone liked.  In a few instances, the opposition to some of those changes was quite strong.  But, we addressed them head-on and every time we dealt with the changes in a positive manner we came out stronger as a congregation.  I am convinced that the changes churches have dealt with in the past 50 years will pale in comparison to the ones they will face in the next 50 years, and if we want to have a church that will minister to our children and grandchildren we had better learn to adapt to the changes that are coming.

Like most people, I enjoy my ruts.  As long as we operate within our ruts we know the boundaries, we know what we need to do, we know our roles, and we are comfortable.  The minute change comes we are knocked out of our ruts and we find ourselves in a world in which we do not know what to do, what our roles are, or if we even have a role.  An illustration I read and like is that in times of change we are like the trapeze artist who is between swings.  He has had to let go of the one swing, but he hasn't yet grabbed the other one.  In times of change we often have to let go of the safety of the known before we can fully grasp the unknown, and that's a scary place to be.  It's also the place where we must learn to get comfortable if we are going to do well in a rapidly changing society.

Those churches that are still fighting over which version of the Bible to use or whether or not to replace their 30 year old hymnal, or who is allowed to serve Communion are probably not going to do well in the future.  They will continue to congratulate themselves on their faithfulness to God while they grow grayer and smaller until one Sunday morning there is no one there to turn on the lights.  They will be abandoned by a culture who sees them as irrelevant to the spiritual needs of 21st century people.

More and more people are saying that while they are attracted to Jesus, they are not interested in the church as it often exists.  As painful as it is to admit, this is not their problem, it is the problem of the church.  Jesus always met people where they were.  Too often, the church isn't willing to do that.  We set up artificial barriers that keep people away.  These barriers are nothing more than stumbling blocks, and Jesus had some strong things to say about those who set stumbling blocks before people that would keep them from Him.  If we want to reach this generation of people we have to tear down the walls we've erected and begin to build bridges to the people.  If we refuse to do that, we will forfeit our right to exist, and the people seeking to find Christ will find Him elsewhere.

For the past 30 years I have served as a pastor and judicatory leader.  Much of my time has been spent working with smaller churches.  I have to say that I'm not sure many of these churches, and even some mid-size churches, will survive the future.  They are old wineskins that will not hold the new wine of the 21st century.  They are not flexible enough to contain the changes that will be required of them.  New churches will replace them, but I'm not sure many of them will look like what we have today.

Some churches may be groups of people who work together and meet during their lunch hour for Bible study and prayer.  They may get together five days a week at work, but not meet on Sunday at all.  Other churches will meet in homes during the week and spend part of the weekends doing ministry in the community.  Some people may become a part of an online church and minister through various social agencies in their community.  Growing numbers of people who want a more traditional church experience are likely to become part of a satellite church that is part of one of the megachurches.  Even more likely is that there will be church structures develop that we can't even describe right now.

The question for our traditional churches is whether or not they can adapt to some of these changes.  Could your church help resource a small group that met at work during their lunch hour?  Can you provide meaningful ministry opportunities to persons who want such opportunities or will you force them to look elsewhere for places to serve?  Does your church need to become a satellite of a stronger church in your community?  Could your congregation shift its thinking about discipleship away from a Sunday school format that draws very few people in many churches today to a format that meets in other places?  The core question behind all these others is how flexible is the wineskin of your church?

Your church's adaptability to change will determine what it will be ten and twenty years from now. The time to begin discussing this is now.

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