I’m attending the Canadian Church Leaders Conference in Barrie today (and last night, and tomorrow). It’s the second year in a row that Connexus Church has offered this conference, aimed at leaders in Canadian congregations (since so many church leader conferences are held in the US and aimed at the American culture, which is different from ours). Even after hearing just two short talks, I’m encouraged to keep going in the work of change.
Change is a hard word for most people, but perhaps especially for those who have been invested in the life of a local church for a long time. We all remember what the church used to belike. Some will remember when there were 500 kids in the Sunday school – a number that seems to go up every time the person recounts the story of what life in the church was like 60 or more years ago.
Trouble is, the world looks a lot different today than it did in the 1950s. In those days, the post-war baby boom and the optimism that came with a rejuvenated economy meant churches were full most Sundays, without much effort on the part of the leaders. Today, we have generations of people for whom the church has never been a factor in their lives.
One of the key learnings, so far, has been this: if the church is to be strong, we have to be set free from the idea that we just need to survive, so we can dream again. And that means change. And while change will be uncomfortable, we need to continue to focus on the people who are not among us yet.
That means ‘doing church’ in such a manner that it attracts those who are not yet part of the church and being more concerned for those who are far from God than those who are unwilling to change. It’s a tough sacrifice, and it can even seem a bit cold. But if we focus on who we already have, making sure we keep them happy, we are unlikely to see measurable growth in our churches.
I remember in one church I served, someone got up at a congregational meeting and complained about the changes that were happening. After the meeting, a dear old soul came up to me and said, “I wonder if his kitchen looks like it did in 1950.”
Of course, few of us have kitchens that look like they did in 1950, even if the house is older than that. Kitchens are among the first rooms in a house to be renovated, because we want to have the most up-to-date cooking and eating spaces money can buy! We want granite countertops instead of laminate; we want dishwashers, water-serving and ice-making refrigerators, and efficient ranges – all in stainless steel, bien sûr!
Few kitchens today lack a microwave oven, but in 1950, there was no such appliance.
Yet too often, our churches look not much different than they did in 1950. In some cases, the order of service might not have changed since then! But if we’re going to reach a new generation, that change has to be made.
I am fortunate to serve a congregation that has adapted to change very well. There’s more that needs to be done, for sure, but none of it is simply for the sake of change: we change howwe present the timeless gospel of Jesus, because that’s what’s going to reach a new generation.
Marshall McLuhan famously said that the medium is the message, and he had a point: the way we present truth attracts people, perhaps more than the truth itself. And that’s okay! While we don’t change the message, we do change the medium, because the method of presenting the timeless truths of Scripture inherently makes the timeless truths of Scripture more appealing, thus increasing the potential audience.
Is that always what we old-timers prefer? Probably not. But we already know and love and serve Jesus. What we want is to engage our neighbours so that they will know and love and serve Jesus. So we set aside what we prefer in favour of what they prefer. And the Lord does the rest.
“When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some” (1 Corinthians 9.22, NLT).