I love my paper diary – not least because it records a special anniversary for every day. For instance, I discovered that today on 23 June Christopher Latham Sholes patented the typewriter. The typewriter – that brings back memories! I bought my first typewriter in 1964 when I was a student at Cambridge. It was a portable mechanical typewriter. I learnt to type by using it to write up my lecture notes. Later I used the same typewriter to write my Ph.D. Myriads of letters and sermons were written on that same typewriter. I eventually graduated to a ‘modern’ electric typewriter. But in 1988 a revolution took place: I gave up the typewriter for a word-processor. I became the proud owner of an Amstrad computer. That computer took some getting used to: the first week was hell, the second week was purgatory, but the third week was heaven!
How things have changed. I belong to the generation that at school used dipping pens and ink-pots. What a difference the fountain pen made! Then people moved on to ‘ball-points’ and ‘biros’. Interestingly, the fountain pen has now become fashionable again – it is certainly the best kind of instrument with which to write a letter of condolence.
Yes, how life has changed. I can still remember washing mangles and ‘78’ records. Those were the days when Latin was a central feature on many a school syllabus – indeed, then not even scientists or medics could get into Cambridge without having a Latin ‘O’ level. At Cambridge we all had to wear gowns for lectures, for evening hall, and if we went out of an evening. What’s more, in my men-only college the gates were locked at 10 p.m.– special permission from one’s tutor was required to stay out later!
The church has changed too. Just think of all the different hymn-books and song-books there have been. As a child I was brought up on CSSM Chorus Books, Golden Bells, and the Baptist Church Hymnal (revised 1933). Today in Britain there is no Baptist church hymn book – the hymns and songs are all projected on the screen!
“Change” said John F. Kennedy “is the law of life. And those who look to the past or present are certain to miss the future”. Yet some Christians find this business of change difficult. We would like the church to remain the same. A few months ago an Anglican friend of mine made some changes to the way in which the seats were arranged in his church, and people wrote to the bishop to protest. Or as one older church member once said to me: “I’ve sat in this same seat for a third of a century, so why should I change and sit elsewhere?” While yet another older person said, “Why are you spoiling the church by changing things?”
As I wrote in a blog post just a few weeks ago, change is not an option. Churches either change or they die. Robin Gill, a British sociologist and theologian, in his book A Vision for Growth: Why your church doesn’t have to be a pelican in the wilderness (SPCK, London 1994) likened British churches today to “the pelicans in St James’ Park” in central London, who he said are “Awkward, out of place, angular, with a big mouth but little brain, demanding but inactive”. He went on: “Churches in Britain need to make urgent choices about structure and direction. If they are to cease being pelicans, they need to be much clearer about how they might be effective in present-day Britain. They need to be more single-minded about growth… about how they might reach the nine out of ten people in Britain who seldom or never go to church.”
Using a different image, but making a similar point, William Easum, an American Methodist church growth consultant, likened churches to dinosaurs:
“Congregations whose membership has plateaued or is declining have much in common with dinosaurs. Both have great heritages. Both require enormous amounts of food… Both became endangered species. … Like the dinosaur they have a voracious appetite. Much of their time, energy, and money is spent foraging for food (for themselves), so that little time is left to feed the unchurched. ….Either their pride or their near-sightedness keeps them from changing the ways they minister to people…. All around are unchurched, hurting people… But many refuse to change their methods and structures to minister to people where they are in ways they can understand. Like the dinosaur, their necks are too stiff or their eyes too near-sighted. Clearly God doesn’t care if these congregations survive; but God passionately cares if they meet the spiritual needs of those God sends their way.” (Dancing with Dinosaurs: Ministry in a Hostile and Hurting World, Abingdon, Nashville 1993)
Unconsciously no doubt, far too many churches exist for themselves. Feeling happy as they are, they turn their backs on change, and then wonder why they fail to attract others. It’s all too easy to blame the hardness of people’s hearts outside, when in fact the trouble is caused by the self-centredness of God’s people.
But it is not enough for a church to change its way of doing church. It needs to constantly change. Some years ago one of the best-sellers in the English-speaking world was a book entitled In Search of Excellence, in which its authors, analyzed forty-three of America’s best-run companies like IBM and 3M. But two years after the publication of that bestseller, fourteen of these businesses were in financial trouble. Business Week magazine explained the reason why: “failure to react and respond to change”. The fact is that churches – and indeed leaders – can never sit back on their laurels. We have never arrived. We are always ‘en route’ to our goal.
Although the overall goal may not change, the tactics we use to achieve that overall goal will have to vary, if we are to be successful. There is no magic formula, which once found need not be changed. Some churches appear to liken themselves to jumbo-jets, and set themselves on “auto-pilot”. The reality is that churches are more like sailing ships, which need to tack first in one direction and then in another direction if they are to catch the wind of the Spirit.
Constant change is here to stay.