October 14, 2010

It Is Easier To Give Birth Then Raise The Dead

I work at what would be rightly called a small historic church. We are coming up on our 120th year as a church and without some significant changes our best years are well behind us. This is a truth that weighs on me. Like so many evangelical churches in the western world our heyday was decades ago. Reading the history of the church I find a church that was once full of people, full of life, innovative, and sought to make a difference in people's lives and impact the community.

I don't know what changed, but I know that for the last 20 years this has not been the story on this church. Instead the story has been one of periodic success, pockets of heath and growth but the church has had an overall slow decline. I'm not being negative, looking at membership levels and numbers of baptisms a year tell this story. Saying anything else would be denying reality.

There is a subtle pressure out there to ditch church like the one I am serving and start fresh. I find it difficult to pin point this pressure's source. Maybe it is in the stories of the successful churches, the ones that were planted some 20 years ago or less and have been growing ever since. Or maybe it is the conventional home spun wisdom that gets tossed around so often, things like you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Or maybe it is all the cautionary tales that get told about this pastor or that pastor that tried to implement some change in their church only to cause a major uproar, or church split, or found themselves out of a job.

Not long ago a read a book that had this line in it; "it is easier to give birth then raise the dead". Reading that line I had two near simultaneous responses. One I knew exactly what they meant. After all a church that is only a few years old tends not to say 'but we've never done it that way before' if for no other reason than they have done so few things before. New churches simply do not come with all the history and in many cases baggage that old historic church come with. And that makes it easier for them to make the choices that best enable them to thrive in today's culture.

Two I felt that what was being said was wrong. Are historic churches by in large in trouble; yes. Are historic churches slow to adapt to the rapidly changing culture; yes. Are historic churches often trapped by their own past preferring to re-live the glory days than reinvent themselves; again yes. Does that mean that all leaders with half a brain should abandon historic churches allowing them to die a slow painful death while they move on to the greener pastures of new church plants; no.

Some people are without a doubt called to planet new and innovative churches. But some people are without a doubt called to lead historic churches into their next phase of ministry. I feel that conviction to my very core. That historic churches need pastors who are willing to stick with them, to love them, to lead them, and to help them navigate God's will for them. I wish I had a lot of great ideas to follow up that conviction with; something that I could pen down, a step by step process of how to be a great pastor in a historic church, but I don't. If I tried given the amount of experience I have I would almost certainly be wrong and most definitely arrogant for trying.

All I can do is offer a word of encouragement. God is in the business of raising the dead. Don't get me wrong, the road ahead for most if not all historic churches will be long, hard, and full of heart aches. But some of us need to be willing to stick it out. I think I am called to be one of those people. If you are too, remember God is in the business of raising the dead.