Something awful appeared on the Internet the other evening. Well, awful is a bit of an overstatement. Let’s settle on surprising.
Something surprising greeted me on the Internet the other evening. Glancing through Facebook, I was confronted by a photograph of our eighth-grade band’s trumpet section. There I was: time traveling across decades in all my 14-year old awkwardness. Our band director, now long retired, has been posting photographs from his decades of teaching. Somehow this gem had been retrieved from the archives and there it was on Facebook for all to see. Bless his heart.
I’m the tall, skinny kid on the far right holding a trumpet and wearing a Hawaiian shirt and green corduroy pants. Because, of course, corduroy is essential to the tropical look. Or at least it was in 1976. As I remember, I wore a pukka-shell necklace as sort of a finishing touch to my awkwardness.
It was the required stage band uniform that year. I am not sure why, but then volumes have been written about the fashions of the 1970s.
So much has changed in the world since that picture was snapped. The kids wearing those gaudy shirts were smiling at someone’s Instamatic camera. We had to wait a week for pictures to be developed at a drugstore instead of looking down at our phones. Speaking of phones, there were two phones in our home. One was downstairs and the other in my parents’ bedroom. Long-distance calls were expensive and infrequent. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cords is still a bad idea.
It all seems so long ago, which is why I keep wondering why so many congregations act as if it is still 1976, or 1986, or 1996 or even 2006. If you disagree, then I challenge you to go through a chur
ch building and see how many of the following items you can (1) find and (2) describe how it could be used today:
• A slide projector;
• VHS videotapes;
• A book about world religions published before 9/11/2001;
• A Sunday school attendance chart.
• Curriculum more than five years old.
Aside from the slide projector, I could locate most of those items in five minutes. The good news is that we are in the process of pitching a lot of that stuff. The bad news is there are many churches which cling to those items as sacred relics. Sometimes they are curiosities which stir feelings of nostalgia. But they can also become ballast which keeps the church from fully embracing a call to be engaged in vibrant ministry.
Here’s my point: the grace of God is unchanging, but the context of ministry is changing. Church attendance patterns, so long a barometer of a healthy congregation, are completely different today than they were in the 1990s. Most churches, even large membership churches, are watching Sunday school attendance decline year after year.
Another change: most of us baby boomers were raised to think that church expansion and building projects were inevitable, and a sign of progress. Members of younger generations, including millennials, do not believe that. The indicators of success have all changed.
Remember, Jesus did not call the first disciples by saying, “You’ll keep on doing the same thing you’ve been doing.” He invited them to be witnesses to the new thing that God was doing. He opened the eyes of those who couldn’t see and liberated those who were chained to a past. Jesus called the early disciples away from their fishing boats and into the seas of human need.
Embracing the new does not mean forgetting our past. Our traditions and stories are of critical importance. They are tools for ministry, but they need to be used in new ways. Indeed, our faith stories can become the building blocks for trying something new.
As Woodlawn Chapel enters its third decade of ministry, we have been invited to participate in an intriguing opportunity with other similar-sized churches in our Presbytery. Working with Ministry Architects, a team of ministry consultants based in Nashville, we will be looking at ways we can build sustainability in ministry. Last week, Mare Dawson, Michael Dawson, Katie Dodwell, Gail LeMay and myself met with the other churches for the first of three meetings. We left excited and energized by the possibilities.
Our coach in this will be Stephanie Caro, a Houston-based Methodist minister whose humor and stories are contagious. In addition to three face to face meetings with Stephanie, we will have coaching conference calls with her as we sort through new ways of looking at volunteer recruitment, technology, and ministry ideas. You can read one of Stephanie’s recent blog posts here. If you’re interested in joining us, the door is wide open! Thanks to a generous grant, the cost of these services to Woodlawn will be only $500 a year for 2019 and 2020.
Our first big assignments include thinking about how we measure success and establishing good systems to support volunteers. We will be learning how to dance with the Spirit in this new time and place. We will be having conversations about how to use our traditions, values, and beliefs to meet the needs of God’s people today. I doubt if you’ll find me wearing a Hawaiian shirt on Sunday. But who knows? We offer ourselves to the one who says, “I am making all things new.”