In September of 1999, we launched worship at the Soundside Campus of Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church with 590 worshipers the first Sunday. We worked Charles Arn’s 1990’s check-list for how to start a new worship service as if it were Bible, and we had a good result. September 16, 1999 remains one of the most thrilling days of my whole life. We did a lot of things right and a few things wrong, but God was very good – and we added hundreds of new folks to active participation in an organized Christian faith community in the year that followed.
Many truths, practices and principles are timeless, but much of what worked well for us in 1999 simply does not translate to 2012. If we were to do again today what worked for us then, all else being equal, we would probably have a smaller result. It is a different time, with different dynamics, and different social and cultural awareness. In 1999, we had no smart phones. We still dialed up Internet connections as phone calls. Most folks still watched network TV. The cars we bought that year are mostly now either traded or decrepit. (As I write this, an early 90s movie plays in the other room, and I am shocked at the racism written into the script of a mainstream Hollywood comedy.) At church in the nineties, we still tried to imitate Willow Creek. Baby boomers still had kids at home. Big, high-production, worship was all the rage! The bigger and the flashier, the better!
Thirteen years (and one millennium later), we must rethink everything that worked in 1999. In fact, we have to now rethink what we are doing about every ten years or we will fail to connect with most of the people in our mission field. In my 2002 book Fling Open the Doors, reflecting on the Soundside experience, I shared how I grew up in one ministry paradigm, only to have to relearn everything in the 1980s, and to relearn it again in the 1990s. I have certainly had to relearn it all again in the last decade. Everything we do eventually will not work well anymore if we do not rethink it.
One of my concerns about the influence of denominational life on congregations is that today’s denominational leaders are usually people who thrived in local church ministry in 1999. So that our dashboards, and benchmarks and ways of thinking about ministry may often reflect a worldview that was cutting edge thirteen years ago. If we are not careful, highly successful pastors and even bishops can find themselves leading their folks back to what worked well and made good sense in 1999.
Keeping current in our reading is helpful in avoiding this, but nothing is more helpful than surrounding ourselves with people in their 20s and early 30s! Coaching young innovative pastors is a blessing to me. We each teach the other a lot! I have a little wisdom and mentoring that they find valuable, and they have wisdom and discernment that I will find priceless. An additional practice that leaders should use for their benefit is the ministry sabbatical. If there is anyway to finance a summer off of regular duties every few years, it is just priceless! If a church cannot fund this, it is worth looking to special donors or to grants from beyond the congregation. How else can a pastor immerse herself in new forms of faith community and really learn what is happening on the cutting edge of the Christian movement, both in the US and beyond, both in her denomination and beyond?
As you to re-think your ministry in the coming days, I would encourage you to pay special attention to
· What we are learning about the relationship between church and local mission and social justice
· What we are learning about home fellowship and other organic and un-institutional and expressions of church
· What we are learning about worship, in a complex and hyper-technological age – where simple and even ancient is often beautiful.
· What we are learning about sustainability in all arenas of life on this planet, and in the way we reduce wasteful expenditures of limited resources simply to provide facilities and ministry programming for members.
I don’t want to back to 1999, even if ministry did seem a little easier back then. God has seen fit to bring me to 2012, and that is where I need to live and work!