WHEN IT STARTS TO SMELL, IT’S TIME TO CHANGE

November 20, 2012 — 1 Comment

In a recent post I asked the question, “Do we love our traditions more than we love our children?” Of course, there is nothing new about this question. I’ve discussed it many times with church members when they have expressed disappointment over the fact that their young-adult children had stopped attending church. I’ve always thought that the best chance of getting church members to change would be their concern for reaching their children.

But change is so difficult. There is the old saw that insists no one likes change except a baby with a wet diaper.  Well, you might go for  a while without changing the diaper, but when the baby’s bottom starts to smell, it’s definitely time to make a change. I learned years ago while counseling people with addictions that the pain of their present condition had to become greater than the pain of change before they would make any real progress. It true for most of us. Our circumstances have to smell badly before we are willing to change. This is also true for the church.

Unfortunately, the church’s methods for reaching people, especially our younger people, have been smelling badly for some time now. The Pew Research Center reports that Millennials (born 1981 or later)  are significantly less involved in church activities than members of Generation X (born 1965-1980), and are  “twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) were as young adults.”

Churches are by nature conservative, traditional organizations. Church members are church members because we like the way things are; are needs are being met, at least to some degree, by the status quo.

In their seminal work SWITCH: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath  point out that change often requires both an alteration of the heart and the mind. Unfortunately, these don’t always agree. But, I would argue that the problem is even greater than that. Our heart is often conflicted with itself. We have mixed emotions about change. We would like to reach our children and their friends, but we have a lot invested in keeping things the way they are.  We want to reach our neighbors, but we want to do it on our terms, not theirs.

Years ago I was appointed pastor of an inner city church that was rapidly dying. Several of the members asked me if I thought it was possible to keep the church going like it had been until they died. Apparently, it didn’t matter so much to them what happened after that. Even worse, it soon became apparent that many of the members thought it was more important to keep the status quo, rather than change things immediately in order for the church to have a future. I learned that even the threat of dying in the near term is not enough to motivate members to change. It wasn’t too many years before that church was, in fact, closed and has now been torn down.

It really is a spiritual issue. The question is one of spiritual priorities. Bishop Mike Rinehart expressed it well in a blog post several months ago. Bishop Rinehart serves in the Gulf Coast Synod of theEvangelicalLutheranChurchinAmerica. In his blog he wrote:

“Here’s my hunch. Everything for me rises or falls on this bet. I’m putting all my eggs in this basket: The turnaround of the mainline churches will happen when we in those churches care as much about those outside the church, as we do those inside. To embrace relevance, we will have to let go of survival. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. If I’m wrong, fire me now. I’ll die on this hill.”

He goes on to explain, “My theory is that the mainline churches have ceased to be relevant to the culture, because insiders trump outsiders every time. Decisions are made for the benefit of those inside rather than those outside the church.”

I’ve been a part of the church now for almost 64 years and I wish with all of my heart that I could argue that Bishop Rinehart is wrong; I can’t. In Matthew 10:37b Jesus said, “Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me.” I know that we don’t intentionally do it, but sometimes you have to wonder if we don’t prove by our actions that we love our traditions more than our children. And certainly more than God.

Jesus went on to say, “Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them” (Matthew 10:38-39).  Our God-given mission isn’t to rescue the church from extinction. Our mission is to pick up our cross and follow Jesus; our mission is to make disciples; our mission is to give ourselves away.

Bishop Rinehart wrote: “(The world) needs a church that is willing to sacrifice everything for those outside; buildings, budgets, sacred cows, traditions, structures. It needs a church that so loves the world, that she’d be willing to die for it.”

What would this mean for the way the church does business? Bishop Rinehart explains: “So here’s the plan. New policy. Every decision, every single decision made by staff, council and every committee, is made on behalf of those not yet here. Every sermon choice, every hymn, song and musical choice, every building and grounds choice, every spending choice is made with outsiders in mind.”

He is simply suggesting here that the mission of the church as given to us by Christ, should be our focus. Our methods can change; our mission does not. Our policies may change; our principles should not. The church will thrive when we quit trying to survive and focus on the mission of making disciples. When we stop asking what the church can do for us and start asking what can we do to give ourselves away.

 

 

Dr. Gary Thompson

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I am a retired United Methodist pastor. I write adult curriculum for the United Methodist Church and have been doing so for over 10 years. My passion is helping the Christian Church more effectively fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ and to help individuals identify and fulfill their God-given personal mission.

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