I recently worked with a church that had faithfully carried out their mission for 40 years. Then a slow decline took hold. Today, they are nothing like they once were. Recognizing that fact, they brought in an expert to tell them what to do. The expert told them to jettison the past, loose the dead weight and embrace new things research showed were the trends in growing churches. They brought in a new pastor. He discounted their identity from the past and tried to create a new and exciting identity for the future. After some initial excitement (and anger) the “new thing” began to stall out. Interestingly enough, when I read the recommendations of the “expert” I saw many great ideas that I have seen work in many places. So why didn’t they work? What was holding them back?
Change happens—you can fight change but you can’t stop it. Without change, organizations die. Many churches in the U.S. face this challenge: culture has changed, yet churches have not embraced change along the way. Many churches continue to simply try to do what they did in the past in the same way they did it – only “better.” Doing the same thing “better” is not change.
One of the great and early heresies in the church was Marcionism. Marcion held that a new thing was being done in Jesus Christ (true). He also taught that the past—and the “Hebrew God” were bad (not true). When Marcion looked back, all he could see was a God of wrath and judgment. When he looked at Jesus he saw mercy and grace. Marcion sought to move forward in Jesus by demonizing the past.
Of course the church understood that God’s values and promises of mercy and grace have always been the same and will always be the same. There is abundant mercy and grace in the Hebrew scriptures. Instead of severing the connection with the past we need to begin where Jesus began. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Things were changing drastically in and through Jesus Christ. God’s promises of mercy and grace were not new – What was new was the way God was going to make manifest that mercy and grace. Jesus stood on the foundations of the past mercy and grace which are the very identity of God. Jesus, being a faithful Jew, understood the core identity of God proclaimed to Moses in Exodus 34:6 “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Jesus also knew the core identity of the people of God: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus did a very new thing by becoming human, suffering and dying on the cross to bring us mercy and grace. But when Jesus did the new thing he stood on the foundational values and identity of God that had always been present.
So, what does the past have to do with changing for the present and future? Change in the local congregation needs to look backward before venturing forward, but living in the past brings failure. Here are the two keys to faithful change:
- Simply rejecting the past brings failure.
- Knowing the core identity and values of the past is key to beginning a new thing.
So how do congregations know what to preserve about the past and what needs to change?
A church that tries to hold on to the past will most likely fail. Even though God’s grace is unchanging, the way we proclaim that grace through word and deed does indeed change. Faithful churches re-invent themselves with rejecting heir past. If a church needs to build on the past but not hold too tightly to it, how do you discern what is valuable to build on and what is not?
Jesus did many new things in his daily ministry. He healed on the Sabbath. He touched unclean men and women. He talked to a Samaritan woman in the public square. He went to dinner parties with known sinners. All of these new ways of doing ministry seemed to be in conflict with the past. But Jesus taught that these actions were flowing from one of the core values of the past: Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19). Jesus was living out that core value in new ways – yet it was the same core value.
Congregations may need to change the way they serve, worship, and share the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but when they do change they must do so according to the unique DNA of their past. Some congregations have core values related to music and the arts. Others have core values related to serving the most broken and hurting in their community. Some congregations have core values centered on children and youth. Rediscovering and clearly articulating these unique core values will be essential as the needed changes occur.
Discover Your Church’s DNA
A congregation discovers their core values through stories. Ask your members to tell the stories of church events and people (heroes) that are bigger than life. Have them tell stories of hardship that turned to faithfulness. For example, I worked with a church that was searching for their future. They began to tell the stories of the past. One of the big stories was about the church sponsoring Vietnamese refugees during the Vietnam War. When the members told the stories they got excited and animated. They told of sacrificing time and money in order to help those who did not have a home. They told of the successes and the blessings. Over the years, the church had stopped directly serving people who were without a home. They had stopped living out their core value of service to others. They decided to reclaim that core value.
Not long after that decision this church was reconnected with refugee ministry. They now regularly help resettle refugees from all over the world. They began a homeless ministry and partnered with a transitional housing ministry. They got connected to Habitat for Humanity. The wonderful thing about rediscovering this core value was that they lived it out in newer and bigger ways! It wasn’t just the “old timers” from the past, but young and old, newer members and long-term members and community members—all in partnership in these new ministries. These new ministries were built on an historic core value. Preserving this core value of caring for people with nowhere to lay their head brought this church together in bold ministry and mission for Jesus Christ.
Who are the heroes of your church? What are the bigger-than-life events of the past? In what ways did your church sacrifice for mission and ministry? Rediscover your core values. Claim them again, be creative, and bring on the changes!