For the twenty-five years I served as a pastor, I never bought the line, “What Jesus wanted was a movement; what he got was a Church.” Now I serve outside the Church, and I still don’t buy that line. When others say, “Institutionalize and die,” I still say, “Or, don’t institutionalize, and die sooner.” Even so, when Jesus told his followers to leave their tunics in the closet back home, he was indeed speaking a needed word to today’s churches trying to drag tons of 20th century tunics through the 21st century. So when the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky asked me for a post on what question a thriving church should be asking today, I settled on, “What do we need to be jettisoning?” What do we need let go of to lighten the load for the sake of the ship?
Everywhere, churches are riding perilously low in the water, and everywhere experts call out advice on how to improve churches’ engines or fine tune their designs, all in the name of keeping them afloat. I’m all for that, and tweaking a church’s engine or design is kind of fun–at least for us church geeks. Most church leaders I know, be they ministers or lay leaders, dig coming up with cool new things to try. It’s way easy to imagine a church leadership retreat with everyone saying about a new ministry idea, “Yes, let’s START doing THIS!” What’s way hard to imagine is those same leaders saying, “Yes, let’s STOP doing THAT!”
In a world of declining church rolls, shrinking budgets, and many leaders struggling with burnout, thriving churches need the wisdom to know when respectfully to lay a program beside the path and keep walking. Or, to stick with the original metaphor, let’s not overly romanticize churches as sailing galleys driven by the wind of God’s Spirit alone. Yes, galleys do have sails; they also have those slots running down the side where the long oars stick out. And there are people in today’s church galleys who have to go below deck and row to keep the ship going, especially during doldrum days or doldrum decades. So maybe, before we try implementing yet another Save Our Ship program, we should consider freeing up some energy by putting some things on a Not-To-Do list.
I once heard a young pastor ask a group of pastors how he was supposed to know if something was a “sacred cow.” An old pastor drawled, “Just touch it.”
Sacred cows have their place, but they aren’t worth much when it’s time to row. They are just traditions, plus they have those clumsy hooves. Meanwhile real people, with blistered hands and weary shoulders, are pulling away at the oars.
On a more hopeful note, my friend Bill Wilson tells me one of the most reliable places to find a thriving church is to show up in the ten years after its building burned down. As people have to live into the truth that a “church is more than its buildings,” they are liberated and enthusiastic.
Or consider my friend Kelly Burkhart, pastor of Baptist Temple in Houston. When he came as pastor fifteen years ago, the church occupied ten percent of the pews in the thousand seat sanctuary, and the church’s ministry was being crushed by the weight of mere church buildings. Having sold off two thirds of their buildings, including the old sanctuary, they now happily reside in the beautifully remodeled remaining third, and you can feel the vibrancy in this small church when you walk inside. During construction, Kelly says they met in a hotel ballroom and ran the church out of two plastic tubs. It was the best thing that ever happened to them, he says, and now they thrive as a small church freed of sacred cows and focused instead on a few life-giving ministries. “We’re not a very busy church,” I heard Kelly say to someone. “Heresy!” cries the sacred herd. “Sanity,” say I.
Chris Caldwell is a professor and administrator at Simmons College of Kentucky, a historic black college founded in 1879.