One of my favorite authors is Dr. Richard Swenson who wrote the book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. I've often said that if that book had been available when I began my ministry it might have saved me a lot of problems, including a bout with clinical depression due to overload. It remains one of my favorite books and is one that I re-read to help me remember how to care for myself.
A few years ago he published a book that follows up with the general theme of his earlier work titled In Search of Balance: Keys to a Stable Life that I believe is equally helpful. In this book he addresses the the rapid change and explains why it often feels so overwhelming. He writes, "What we are witnessing is a continuous escalation of the norm followed rapidly by a normalization of the escalation that then becomes the new normal." In other words, our definition of what is normal is constantly and rapidly changing. About the time we think we have it figured out, our new normal changes again. It's no wonder we feel overwhelmed.
It's also no wonder why the church struggles so much with the changing landscape. In the past change was very slow, almost like the lava flow we've been watching on television the past few days. Even when we could see it coming it was moving so slowly that we had time to prepare. And many in the church still was opposed to it! Now, it seems that every publication, every denominational pronouncement, every new book and workshop declares that the church must be doing _________ if it wants to remain relevant and effective. About the time a church gets that implemented something newer and shinier is presented as the next great thing the church must do.
Now, I'm not advocating that churches do not need to change. Some need to make some drastic changes to try to make it into the 20th century! (We're taking it one century at a time.) However, churches also don't need to be chasing every shiny thing that suddenly appears and is heralded as the solutions to all the church's problems.
Swenson shares several ways to address this escalation of the norm, and one that is especially helpful to churches is to "Stop staring at the neighbors." If we start playing the comparison game we will be quickly sunk. They get a new car, we need a new car. They put in a pool we need a pool. They build an addition to their house and suddenly our house seems too small and we need a new addition. We can quickly go broke buying things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like. It's the same with churches.
A church down the road puts in a new video system so we need one. They hire a youth minister, and suddenly our volunteer youth workers are not enough. They buy a van, and we feel we need a bus. Since we've never spent any time discerning God's vision for our church we are left with trying to copy what other churches are doing, and this can quickly turn into an escalation of the norm requiring more and more change that produces little return for our efforts.
There is no question that our culture is changing at a rapid rate and that the church must make changes to be able to minister well to that culture. But, those changes should be informed by our vision for ministry and not what other churches are doing. Whatever changes we make should occur to make it easier to reach those persons God has given our church to reach and not because our favorite religious personality endorses them. There should be a balance to our ministry that allows us to be relevant to the world God has called us to reach and be able to breathe as a church as well.
Swenson's book has much to say to us about balance as individuals as well as to our churches. I highly recommend both.