It is almost 35 years since the first man walked on the moon. I remember the event not simply for its historical significance but because of the stir it caused in our church.
As I recall it, the people at NASA, without consulting Baptists and other like groups, scheduled the lunar landing sometime between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. on Sunday evening (Central Standard Time). This meant the moment of touchdown would occur during our Sunday evening church service. How insensitive!
Most Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians then (and perhaps most churches today) could not appreciate why a scheduling conflict between a Sunday evening service and a history-altering event like landing on the moon could be a problem. But for us back then, it was a crisis, and the moment called for innovative leadership.
Pondering the situation, I got excited over the opportunity for a risky adventure in relevance and friendship evangelism, hot words in those days. We would all invite neighbors and friends into our homes to watch the great event on TV.
Gathering the deacons, I offered a proposal with two alternatives. My preference was to cancel the evening service, but if that was unacceptable, my backup idea was to reschedule the service to 6 p.m. so people could get home by 7:30. I enthusiastically added that we were about to experience a turning point in human history and that all of us, especially our children, should witness it.
Discussion of my idea lasted for two hours. The response (acceptance to resistance) was a classic bell curve. On opposite ends of the curve were strong supporters and strong resisters, while a larger group rested uneasily in the middle.
Looking back I realize this meeting was a microcosm of the kind of innovation wars virtually every church would face over the next many years. It presaged more intense discussions about music and worship styles, new technologies, forms of evangelism, the meaning of membership, the church's role in influencing public policy, and whether or not we should recover our nineteenth century legacy of really caring for the poor and suffering people in the world.
And each discussion would tend to mirror the dynamics of our conversation about canceling an evening service while men took their first steps on the moon.
The innovators at the table (Everett Rogers's Diffusion of Innovations describes these various players) welcomed my cancellation proposal. The early adopters, somewhat sympathetic to the innovators, liked the idea, but were more inclined to seize on the less radical 6 p.m. service change.
The laggards or traditionalists on the opposite end of the bell curve saw red. They liked nothing about either alternative, seeing them, they said, as the first step on the slippery slope to liberalism. One predicted that I'd soon want to cancel evening services for the summer. Another imagined that eventually I'd do away with Sunday night events completely.
Then, buttressing their defense, the laggards trotted out the big guns: the by-laws, which required two services every Sunday, and the great debate-ending what-if question: What if someone with a serious spiritual need decides to come to church that night and finds the church doors locked?
"We are not going to let this church get seduced by the world's ways, even if there is a landing on the moon," they said.
Now those in the middle, the late majority, who want to get along with everyone, were sympathetic to my idea, but they found this matter so burdensome that it would need a lot of prayer before they could decide.