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.
"You haven't given us enough time to wrestle with this, Pastor." I suspected this really meant they wanted to discuss this with their spouses (who were not eligible for membership on the deacon board).
Someone wondered, "How do we know that Satan didn't put it into the hearts of the NASA people to schedule the landing at this precise time to disrupt the worship of faithful people?" This was a version of the old conspiracy logic, and I wasn't yet smart enough to remember that West Coast and East Coast Baptists, being in different time zones, would not face our problem. But then maybe Satan didn't find "coastal" Baptists worth corrupting (just kidding). Fortunately, I didn't say this.
We ended that memorable meeting with a Solomonic solution. The evening service would begin as scheduled. We'd bring some TVs (with rabbit ear antennas) from home to the fellowship hall. The head usher (no one else) would monitor the progress of the lunar landing. When the landing was five minutes away, we would temporarily suspend the service, go to the fellowship hall to watch, and then return to the sanctuary and complete the service. Amazing!
So that night, we brought enormous console TVs (no portables then) to church, placed them in strategic positions around the fellowship hall, tuned them to NBC, and then headed for the evening service.
As I recall, the lunar landing experienced a delay. Our evening service was not interrupted, the TV sets were reloaded into the pickups and taken home, and we all saw the moon landing as we should havein our homes with our families and friends.
The deacons considered it a win/wina vindication of our faithfulness. We got to see the landing, but didn't ruin our perfect record of 85 years of Sunday evening services.
This event became just one of many discussions we worked through as we tried to break from customs that had lost their meaning but not their grip upon the minds of people. We continually risked cultivating anger, hurt, confusion, and severed relationships.
I wonder if every generation of leaders does not feel a self-imposed burden to innovate. In some cases it can be an almost messianic passion to save Jesus' church from its tradition-choked death throes. In others it's simply an effort to connect the gospel to the disconnected.
I would have profited greatly from instruction in change-management when I was young. I needed help in detecting the problems of irrelevance and ineffectiveness, teaming up with people for a change in perspective and behavior, and then integrating the new idea into the mainstream of the congregation.
Perhaps this is why so many young leaders today gravitate toward church planting. They see too many minefields in a congregation that has a history.
My pastoral resume features only churches with histories. I am presently involved with one that goes back 185 years. Its people have a long-term corporate memory, and for them change comes hard. If ever I saw the need for trust, it's among these dear folk. They are less persuaded by logic, more convinced through love. Bright ideas, enthusiasm, an appeal to contemporaneity are not enough to move them. Instead it's trust that works.
With my earlier congregations, I now realize they saw me as a young guy who never saw an innovative idea he didn't want to try. Every church business meeting seemed to center around an issue that involved change.
We (sometimes it was just plain "I") sought to remove the no-alcohol line item from the church covenant; we advocated shortening Vacation Bible School to one week; we insisted that the pastor have discretion to end or not end a worship service with an invitation for people to come forward to the altar; we had this bright idea of serving coffee in the fellowship hall.
With each proposal came delight and rebellion. A few would leave for another church where "people really stood for something." Some, staying behind, would complain that the church was being hijacked. But, thankfully, most quickly adapted to the new realities.
With each change something was gained, but always something was lost. It took years for me to appreciate this.
We've had about 40 years of speeded-up change now. It's been an innovative period that is far faster, more thorough, and more divisive than the previous 100 years of change. Some call it a massive paradigm shift.
During this time in most churches, hymnbooks have been exchanged for PowerPoint, organs have been displaced by guitars, and choirs have been replaced by worship bands. Words like contemporary, vision, and core competencies now mark leaders' conversations.
Other things, far more significant, have changed too. Only time will tell how much is being won or lost.
I'm thinking of the old Sunday schoola lay-driven discipleship program that emphasized the stories of the Bible, verse memorization, Bible knowledge drills, and faithful attendance contests. In many places it faces extinction today because too few people are willing to be there for kids 45 weeks a year. And that's about what it takes to build children in the faith45 weeks of continuous teaching from the same people who can be depended upon to be there, prepared, prayed-up, and in love with kids.
The children who did this Sunday school routine tended to know their Bible stories. They could recite the books of the Bible. And they memorized Scripture verseshundreds of them.
There was an intergenerational dimension as well. Everyone, preschool to 90 years old, attended (with offering envelope) "opening exercises," all singing the same songs, studying similar lessons, celebrating each other's birthdays. It created the kind of community many complain we no longer have.
Where do old people and children get to mix today, when we segment our meetings by age and styles? Did we lose something in our innovative journey? We'll know in a few more years.
I admit some nostalgia over the midweek prayer service that made corporate prayer a priority. It was where many of us learned to pray when we were young. But the prayer meeting seemed to lose its viabilityovercome by longer working hours, school nights, and community sports programs.
You just can't have it all. Small groups have made up the difference for some. But something's missingthe idea of "the church at prayer." Is corporate prayer becoming a lost art? Again, we'll know in a few more years.
And (don't tell anyone I said this) I ponder the demise of that Sunday evening service with its rousing songfests, evangelistic preaching, and chances for children and young people to showcase their emerging talents.
Oh, I know that families need a stay-at-home night or that small groups need an evening to meet. And I know that the second and third football games of the afternoon run into the evening. But I fear there is a price to pay for our choices. We'll get the bill in just a few more years.
The urge to innovate has seen the disappearance of annual missionary conferences, visitation programs, all-church picnics, and Easter sunrise services. Replaced by other more spiffy events.
Do I miss all these things we innovators scratched and replaced? Sometimes no. But before we bury the old ways, let's admit that they did have some good results. Pardon an old guy for looking backwards.
These innovative changes in today's church came slowly at first. Then things snowballed. New generations of innovators swept the field.
Want to hear the joke in all of this? Some think we may actually be on the verge of going back. To what? Old hymns, candles, sacramental furniture (hope you didn't throw out your cross, communion table, and pulpit), and expository preaching. Wouldn't it be funny if retro was in our future?
During these forty years of innovation, I have seen and wondered about these things:
We have more people "worshiping" but fewer peoplein my opinionworshiping. What many tend to call worship is what we used to call a song service, a very loud song service. It gets people excited, effects an adrenaline release, and makes people feel real good for, let's say, 24 hours. I have thoroughly enjoyed many of these. But I do wonder: is it worship?
We probably have much better preaching today, but the jury is out on whether it creates solid, thinking Christian disciples. Does mixing topical preaching with film clips and drama prompt significant life-change? I hope so.
We have created an incredible religious market for books, videos, and every other kind of media, and this is, I think, good news. But we're not far off from knowing whether all these words, tunes, and images really built Christian character and worldview or simply made lots of money for some people.
We'll soon know if rock musicians did a better job of convincing young generations to walk with Jesus than the previous generation's youth sponsors did.
In our headlong rush to build new and bigger churches, we have done a remarkable job of discovering new programs and compelling approaches that provide niche ministries for just about every human need. But the jury may still be out as to whether we are really building people, marriages, and families according to biblical specifications. We need to find out soon if all these innovations are creating sustainable friendships and communities of Christlike growth.
I am dazzled by the incredible innovations that we are seeing in the Christian movement today. Seeing new churches sprouting has been a great thrill for me. Remembering that in my seminary days, being a pastor was for losers, I am enthralled by a new generation of men (and women) who want to be church planters and proclaimers of the faith through the arts and intellectual acuity.
But I will keep wondering: are we producing saints, the kind of truly holy people of whom it was once said, "it seems like he or she just came out of the presence of God"?
My cautious side worries about the increasing number of conversations I have with fast-moving, innovative leaders who tell me that they are spiritually dry, in trouble with their marriages, and exhausted keeping up with the latest well innovations. The drop-out rate in the Christian ministry seems alarmingly high, and it makes me wonder if the kinds of innovation we have been pursuing are sustainable.
And you know what worries me most? Just about the time we think we've got this innovative church figured out, another new generation will come along and tell us we are irrelevant, blind, and out of our minds to think that this was the way God wanted things to be. And we'll be off to the races with more bright ideas. Maybe that's the way it was meant to be.
I can imagine a day when some nation is about to land some men and women on Mars. And some young pastor who reminds me of me will convene a leadership meeting to propose
Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership and chair of World Relief.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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