Monday, July 4, 2016

Must You Sin in Order to Repent? Some thoughts on taking the terrible risk of ministry innovation (i.e., anything other than “the way we’ve always done it before”)

In my earliest years of ministry, I took risks. Many risks. I still do. But there were and are risks I should have taken from which I have retreated to a safe distance. Not that I admit cowardice. If my rationalizations are to be believed, I am only being prudent. I am not procrastinating. I am calculating the anticipated benefits against the potential costs. I am considering, contemplating, and completely over-thinking matters until any opportunity for effective action will have long passed. Therefore, my regrets, such that they may be, involve only the hindsight of wondering what might have resulted, had I boldly acted in a more timely manner.

But having boldly acted in a timely manner on other occasions, my hesitation seems justified. Some risks resulted in little or no benefit. Other Christians, noticing this, have reacted to some of my plans by criticizing me for the “wasted time and resources.” If for no other reason than this, I would excuse myself for developing some hesitation, a flinch-response at even the thought of stepping into risky territory.

Sometimes, Decisive Action Cannot Be Avoided
Once upon a time, however, avoidance, and even hesitation was not an option available to me. My first two congregations were considered to be in “redevelopment” mode. That meant that they would be closed soon if the new pastor, I, did not “turn things around.” In the immediate cause-and-effect panic of trying to spark life into dying congregations, two things were true. First, the dire financial conditions meant that decisive action could not be delayed, if I intended to feed my young family after the limited denominational subsidy ran out. And yet, second, each misstep, each call for extra effort that failed to produce tangible results, and every immature impatience I allowed to show would diminish the trust that I felt others needed to have in my abilities and wisdom…at age twenty-two and twenty-four, respectively, in those first two congregations.

You would be right to assume that those abilities and wisdom were in short supply. Thus, any trust those congregations placed in me at all was an act of faith in Christ to use even me for His purposes. Still, I felt I could not afford any suggestion that He was not doing so.

The primary reason for the success of those first two efforts is that I followed the advice of the Rev. Richard C. Taylor, Sr., my first district superintendent. When I expressed the above thoughts to him, probably in the breathless blurting that comes with being entirely overwhelmed by the challenges and reactions I was facing, I recall him saying, “Love God; love your people. The rest will all work itself out.” It did.

But yesterday, I was thinking through some decisive actions looming on my current horizon. I recognized that there had been one other element that was probably just as essential to those successes as loving God and loving the congregation. That indispensable, decisive action? Repentance.

In this context, I do not mean repentance from sin, although that is even more necessary to ministry success. But there are times when those we serve need to know that we are engaging in experimentation. Especially in redevelopment ministries, but in most other congregations as well, we are trying to accomplish God’s purposes among a community that has responded as much as they are going to respond to “the way we’ve always done it before.” We are looking for the new wineskins in which the new wine of new converts and new areas of service can grow, mature, and become all that God intends. And yet, it might not work. But if it does not work, we will try something else.

Case Study: The Coffee and Cookies Experiment
Here is one example. At The Glenburn Community Church we enjoy a time of fellowship and refreshments following the worship service. It used to be held in “fellowship hall,” which was the term we used for the schoolhouse, the middle of three buildings on our campus at the junction of Glenburn and McArthur Roads in the heart of the Fall River Valley. Attempting to connect with visitors, however, used to be very difficult. They would only rarely walk past their cars in order to continue fellowship in another building, even in the best of weather. When we proposed moving coffee and cookies into the sanctuary, however, as a way of getting better acquainted with (our now-captive) visitors, a number of objections arose. The primary and temporarily successful argument was that it historically we had believed it would be inappropriate to have food in the same building where we worshiped.

But then, amidst discussions about the long history of far-more interactive fellowship in previous generations at Glenburn (we are, at 131 years, the oldest church in Shasta County), one of our longest-tenured members (granddaughter of one of the earliest pastors) mentioned with great delight the potlucks and pie socials that were once held here.

One episode in Glenburn’s history is essential to understanding how important that comment was. For several reasons, the local school district for a time needed additional space for elementary students. Unfortunately, they had neither the resources to bus them to Glenburn’s schoolhouse, nor to build their own. The simplest solution often being the best, The Glenburn Community Church “loaned” our schoolhouse to Fall River Mills Elementary School. That meant it was jacked up and transported there. This also meant that during those years, when the third structure at Glenburn, the Sunday School building, had not yet been built, and the schoolhouse was now miles away, there was only one building on the property. The sanctuary.

The occasional pie socials could have been scheduled during only those months of surer weather. But monthly potlucks could not all have been held outdoors. Once upon a time, I suspected, the congregation of The Glenburn Community Church had indeed eaten food in the sanctuary. Of course, I asked. And my friend explained, with equally great delight, how the men would turn the pews to face one another and set table tops between them, turning the worship venue into a banquet hall quite quickly.

This revelation about our own history (“the way we’d always done it before” suddenly became plural—the ways we done it) overcame the primary argument against seeking greater fellowship with coffee and cookies in the sanctuary. Still, there were many questions about how well this plan might work. So, we set a three-month deadline for the “experiment” of moving our fellowship time into the sanctuary.

Just over a month into the experiment, however, there were discussions among several key families and the most influential member of what was then called The Glenburn Church Women’s Circle informed me that the experiment was over. The benefits of providing simpler refreshments, keeping visitors captive, and having more hands available for clean-up were simply too great. We would never, she said, convince the women of the church to go back to having fellowship time in the schoolhouse.

Repenting of an Experiment
Few failed experiments can really be called mistakes. Certainly, not all mistakes are a result of sin. It is even more rare that the mistakes are sin in themselves. Much of “the way we’ve always done it before” may still work well. But new opportunities, at least, may require some experimentation in finding “the way we’ll always do it from now on.” My point here is this: if we had not been prepared to repent of that decision, sinless though it was, we would never have been able to implement the experiment.

Honoring our heritage is a noble virtue. Equally important, however, is an honest look at our history. Once upon a time, there was no pattern of ministry. There were no events or practices listed in the big book of “the way we’ve always done it before.” What made some of those ministries so memorable, and so entrenched, is how well they worked in accomplishing God’s purposes among those people at that time. And what is most fondly remembered by those who were there is not the protocols and policies. They speak with great joy about what it meant to face a challenge, and eventually find a way to address it, through a process—most often—of experimentation to see what might work “then and there,” when that was “here and now.”


So, what experimental solutions might we find today? That is an exciting question. The fearful and paralyzing answer, though, is “it might not work.” That is true. But if it does not work, we will repent of it. And we will try again until we find what does work—just as soon as we repent of not trying.

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