For the past couple of weeks I've been cleaning out my bookshelves. I don't have enough shelf space now for my books, and some were just so outdated that they really were of little value. Some have been hard to pitch; some I really don't remember why I bought them in the first place. This past weekend I began working on my Leadership journals. I began my pastoral ministry in 1981, and one of the first resources I discovered was Leadership. I devoured every issue, and I have to admit that it's been a little difficult to put them in the recycle bin. Before doing so I am going through them and cutting out some of the best cartoons! As I leaf through each issue I am reminded of various articles that were so helpful to me in my earlier years of ministry. Many of them were highlighted or underlined making it easy for me to remember how much these old journals helped a young, inexperienced pastor. Looking through these old journals I have also been reminded of some of the haircut and suit styles that were popular back then, and I've chuckled as I've seen some that were similar to some of mine during that time. These issues bring back a lot of memories, but it's time they are gone to make room for new material that is more pertinent to ministry today.
I meet a lot of pastors my age, and many younger ones too, who refuse to recognize that we are living and ministering in a different time. Our message is timeless, but our methods are not. I grew up attending church in the 1950s and 60s and remember many of the things we did in church then that will not work in our age. That was a time of two-week Vacation Bible Schools and two-week revivals. Many churches now struggle to offer even a one-week VBS, and I know of a couple that have gone to a weekend VBS. Churches that still have revival meetings now usually offer them three or four nights, and even then it's hard to get people to attend. That was a time when every young person in our church looked forward to going to church camp, and most camp sessions were filled to capacity. Now, with the various activities available to young people and changing school schedules many denominations are closing their camps, and the ones that are open are struggling to draw enough young people to pay the bills. That was also a time when Sunday night and mid-week services drew many people back to the church. More and more churches no longer have a mid-week service and even more of them have eliminated the Sunday evening service.
That was a time of objective truth, a sense of right and wrong, and respect for the teaching of the Christian faith even by those who were not living according to those teachings. Of course, that is not the case today. In our postmodern society each person decides for himself or herself what is true for them, it is considered politically incorrect to say that lifestyle choices are right and wrong, and nearly everyone's religious beliefs are respected except for those of the Christian.
When I began my pastoral ministry in 1981 things in the church had not changed much from when I was growing up, but by the time I resigned the church in 2001 to accept a ministry position with our judicatory ministry had changed greatly. Ministry had become much tougher during those twenty years as people began to look elsewhere for the answers to their spiritual questions. The public's expectations for pastors and churches changed as well. When I began it was common for me and others in our church to go door to door meeting people and inviting them to church activities, but by the time I resigned from the church I seldom visited even a member of our church without an appointment. Most church growth when I began my ministry occurred through the front door as people would visit the church. Today a growing church needs a lot of side door ministries that help connect people to the church before they ever attend a worship service. These only scratch the surface of the changes that have occurred in the church, but they serve to make the point that we cannot depend on the strategies that were effective in an earlier time to be effective today. Churches and pastors that refuse to adjust will see their churches continue to decline in numbers and influence.
This means that pastors and other church leaders can never stop being lifelong learners. One important step in learning new information is un-learning old information that is no longer applicable. That is a primary reason I am discarding some of the old books and journals that address ministry from a different perspective than exists today. It is a way that I am symbolically un-learning information that used to be relevant but is not so today. As I remove the old material I am also making room in my bookshelves and in my thinking for the new material I need as my ministry continues. It's turned out to be a little bit painful process but one that is necessary to my own personal growth.
I'm not advocating that you discard part of your library as I am, but I would challenge you to ask yourself what do you need to un-learn as you prepare for ministry in 2013 and beyond. What old traditions are you holding onto that you know deep down are no longer effective but you are afraid to give up? What new knowledge and/or skills do you need to learn that will help you better serve your congregation and the community your church has been called to reach?