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  • Writer's picturesonnyholmes

5 traditions that shackle church leaders: final words

Fresh in ministry an older pastor told m

e the seven last words of the church: we've never done it that way before. He confided them in a holy whisper, like they were being transmitted to me from the mountaintop. Now, thirty five years later most of us wink and nod when we mention them, words we know to be true. If we chuckle when they're spoken, it's because they're axioms of church life, normative across the board. Like most humor, they're funny because most of us have been there, done that. It's another traditon that shackles leaders and frustrates mission.

It's been an added irony for me since Reggie McNeal introduced me to the strength assessment material nearly fifteen years ago. In every strength inventory since (see Tom Rath, Strength Finder 2.0, New York: Gallup Press, 2007) my lead strength has been "ideation". This means I, and everyone who shares this strength, are the idea guys. We love new ideas. The weird part is that most churches really don't value new ideas. So, finding the right fit in ministry has been one of those God things we like to think happens every time a church calls a pastor or seeks to fill a ministry staff vacancy. It's true of many of the other 34 strengths the Clifton Strength inventory idenitfies. For the most part church life is sedate, the rhythm adjusted by years of practice, the ministry organization and mission assignments in the hands of stable individuals, all steady testimony to people who appreciate the status quo. It's a tough world for activators, achievers, futurists, ideators, learners, developers, and others with hyper-active engines. Most congregations prefer a calm world of sameness.

Having visited and consulted with hundreds of churches over the years I've noticed that so many of them exist in a time warp. If the 1950's ever come back, they're ready. And, while we're commanded to keep the traditions entrusted to us by Jesus and the Apostles, we must also know that the world is moving at a greater velocity than ever before and the church is stuck in the slow lane of traffic. Our disconnect from the world around is profound because in many instances, we can no longer communicate with a world as advanced as this. Even worse, many local congregations have established a goal of resisting change to the point that they have become irrelevant to the community in which they have been planted.

Automatically most people shift this discussion to worship style. But, truly, whether or not a church has tradtional or contemporary or southern gospel or bluegrass or uptown worship is of little consequence if the church is operating by decades old ministry standards, administrative procedures, or mission endeavors. The gospel of Jesus is always relevant and, as a result, touches human beings on every continent, in every generation, and in every language. Even the church that is faithful to the gospel, however, must reflect what God is doing in their internal life if they are to influence the world around them. Poor facilities, outmoded organizations, archaic teaching, and systems that were effective 50 years ago may result in dwindling numbers and eventual death. Someone pictured the grave-marker of the dead church etched with the words, we've never done it that way before. And, by the way, this isn't a new tradition in the church. Ralph Neighbor, Jr. wrote a book titled The Seven Last Words of the Church (Nashville,:Baptist Sunday School Board). It was published in 1979.

The God who directed Israel, spoke through the prophets, and became human in Jesus Christ the Lord is active in a fresh way here and now. In fact, if we do even cursory study of Scripture we know he is constantly doing a new thing and that this new creation in Christ is realized in new and exciting ways the length and breadth of our lives. If we believe Scripture, "...our inner self is being renewed day by day..." (2 Corinthians 4:16). There is a continuous expectation of being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) and "...growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18) is the norm of the living this life. When God spoke through Isaiah he emphasized the fresh quality of his work in us. He said, "Behold, I am doing a new thing..." (Isaiah 43:19). There's an ancient quality to the tradition of his promises and presence. But, what he is doing is always new.

Jesus explained this most convincingly in his teaching about wineskins. The occasion involved questions about fasting and why Jesus' disciples didn't fast. Fasting was an ancient Jewish tradition that Jesus didn't cancel, but refined. In answering the question he made two comparisons to the practice of fasting, typically a symbol of mourning. He said, "no one puts a piece of unshrunck cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled. and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved" (Matthew 9: 16-17). The fresh new wine of the gospel must be kept in new, fresh containers, his constantly renewed people, and extended, his constantly new church.

God has given me to joy and privilege of serving four great congregations who basically preferred some new ideas. As each minnistry began I purchased a new Bible for my personal devotional life and preaching. Over the years those pages became worn and every margin filled with what he was impressing in my heart in each situation. They are treasures and I review them often as a remninder of his guidance over the years. When I retired last November, I purchased another fresh, new Bible, because I knew he would continue to direct me in this new chapter. I love reading the notes and underlined portions of my old Bibles. They are a testimony of his faithfulness in thirty-five years of pastoral ministry. But, writing in the margins of the new ESV is thrilling too, fresh evidences of his leadership even now. I can't wait to see what he shows me tomorrow.

Many churches are living the dreams and ideals of the past, and have allowed little room to note what he is doing right now. Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (John 5:17, NIV).

We've never done it that way before should never be the final words of the church or our lives. We should always be expecting what he will do in us next.

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