When Jana and I came to WV in April of 2013 for our search committee interview I mentioned a book the committee should read to understand how and where I would lead the association. The title is The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church by Reggie McNeal (2003: Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA). I have been true to my word. It is an unsettling but profitable read.
In that book McNeal makes a crucial distinction for today’s church leaders: we need to prepare more than plan. The world is transforming at a scale and speed that renders precise planning almost useless. Five-ten year projections are exercises in futility due to the dizzying number of twists and turns occurring before us. Instead of plotting our future we need to prepare ourselves for it. And just how does one do that? For today we will discuss two ways.
1) Instead of letting change come from the outside in, we need to make the changes on the inside to meet the outside challenges. Churches are notoriously reactive instead of proactive. Baptists protest others’ actions (Catholics have too many statues, Episcopalians too many rituals, Pentecostals too many outbursts, Methodists too many pastoral rotations, etc.) and react to perceived excesses or errant behavior instead of spending time and effort to prepare our next generation, to equip them to face the swirling changes vying for their attention. Our message must remain constant, that Jesus is Lord and all are in need of His wonderful offer of salvation; but we cannot equate our methods with the message. Our methods are but vehicles to transmit the Message. Cars used to have cassette decks; no more. The last 20 years most came with CD slots; newer cars now eliminate them in favor of USB ports and Bluetooth technology. In twenty years those cars will be laughed at as antiques. Get over it. I’ve got over 300 vinyl LP’s, over 400 CD’s. Allan, get over it. What’s more important, the medium (vinyl, metal, plastic, cyberwaves) or the music?
When it comes to gospel truth, is it more important to be encased in leather, on a simple sheet of paper, or on a phone app? None of the above, the most important is the truth of the Word. What’s more important, the organ, the guitar, the soundboard, or the people engaging in worship? Do I have to answer that? We spend more time and effort defending tradition than the truth. We must decide which changes we will engender within, not have them thrust upon us from without. Being obedient to Christ’s commands does not mean be a slave to procedure. Truth is a Person, not a Principle; I choose to follow a Person rather than a planbook. Quit making church members as much as Christ followers (Mt. 28.18-20, intentional disciplemaking). Teach them the proper and full meaning of a covenant relationship to Him & one another, and give the next generation the latitude to express that covenant.
2) Too much of what we call “planning” is scheming to do what McNeal calls “push the present into the future;” in other words, we dress up our churches in future terms and clothing but in reality it’s the same church; our changes trend toward decorative, not deep to the core. The old term would be window dressing. Understand I watch Becket and A Man for All Seasons while on the treadmill and listen to Renaissance motets in my quiet time; I have a deep appreciation for history and heritage. But I need to learn from them, not live in them. I exist in the present, true; but I’m not the same man I was ten years or ten minutes ago, and most certainly won’t be the same in ten minutes or ten years from now. Neither will our churches; start now to do more preparation than planning. Churches will inevitably change from erosion by outside forces or engagement from within; the question is: are you as a church leader more interested in preservation or transformation?