The church here in Mattoon is talking about change. Change is nothing new for us. This congregation has existed since before the Civil War. It was organized in an age when there were no automobiles, phones, or ice cream cones. Electricity had not yet come to Mattoon. In other words, this is a church that has had to talk about change before.
Our conversations these days are focused on Sunday morning: How many worship services should we have? What times should everything start and finish? Should be serve a full breakfast each Sunday (from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m.) in our fellowship hall? What programs should we offer the children? Should we start some new adult study groups and what subjects should we offer?
We are still about a week away from our church council turning these conversations into actual decisions, but I've been pleased with how people have demonstrated curiosity, grace, and open mindedness...in all of our meetings, and all of the surveys turned in.
We have talked about how many worship services to have: some want to go to one service, some want to go to three, and some want things left just as they are (two services.)
Some want us to start our worship times earlier, some want a later time start, and some want things left just as they are.
When we talk about what changes people would like to see made, some want us to go back to the way they used to do things. Others want us to get with the times and try new things...maybe making us more appealing to the younger crowd. And others...want us to leave things just as they are.
More than a few people have offered suggestions on things they want me to change...all to help make things better on Sunday mornings around here. I'm working my way through those 60 or 70 suggestions right now. And among the pieces of advice I'm getting?
Just keep things as they are, don't do anything any different.
In all of these conversations, I am struck by the roles nostalgia, inertia, and innovation play in shaping our thoughts and opinions.
The word "nostalgia" was coined in 1688 by a medical student to describe a disease. It comes from two Greek words that literally mean "home pain." He used the word to describe the ailment of Swiss mercenaries, living in other countries, who ceased to function mentally and physically because they felt such a pain in not being able to go home. The only remedy was to send them home.
The word today, of course, has a much more positive meaning. We use it to refer to the fond feelings we have for scenarios we remember (or more likely...misremember) from the past.
Some interesting research on nostalgia suggests that the period of life that holds the most nostalgia for us occurs when we are between the ages of 15 and 30. We can be nostalgic for other times as well, but that appears to be the golden age for most people.
Nostalgia can actually help us by calming our nerves, reminding us that good things (and people) are indeed real, and putting us in a thankful state of mind.
But nostalgia can be trouble if we try to actually
go back to the past, or try to reconstruct parts of it in our modern world. Painful as it
may be, we cannot go back. Of course, this truth does not prevent people from trying. But a church that tries to re-create
the good old days would be phony:
as phony as a Civil War reenactment. Civil War reenactments, after all, are not
the Civil War. They lack all the things that actually made the Civil War so...historical. And a church that tries to reclaim the past is certainly not in touch with the problems God wants the church to face and address today.
Inertia is more popular than it deserves to be. "More of the same" might be preferable if all the trends looked good. But if a Sunday School class is "aging in place," no one says, "I can't wait to see what this class looks like in 10 years!" If there has been a steady decline in children in Sunday School, or attendance in a particular worship service, no one says, "I just hope I'm still here in five years so I can be a part the climax of this wonderful thing I see happening." If we don't have synergy among our volunteers and leaders, and each week gets a little harder to pull off than the week before, no one says, "I've got to tell everyone I know how great this is."
Inertia suits fine if you are a cow. But if you are a human being: growing up, growing older, living in an ever changing world...inertia will bury you. We who cannot change will unwittingly lose everything we care about. When there is a window for thoughtful and needed change, only fools let it pass by.
You can figure out by now that I favor of innovation, among these three mindsets. But innovation carries a huge risk too if it is not strategic. (And most innovation I've seen in churches is quite devoid of smart strategy.) Innovations that are simply re-tooled ideas imported from other churches usually don't fit or respect the unique people and culture of the borrowing church. Most battles over innovations result in "winners" and "losers," and the losers are often the people who wield the least power in church politics. And most innovations are founded on assumptions about people who currently do not participate in the church, without bothering to research or ask them what they think and feel.
But despite its booby-traps, innovation is almost always the road worth trying. And then there is this plus: we can usually experiment with innovations on a temporary, trial basis.
Those who innovate should borrow the wisdom (if not the ways) of those inclined to nostalgia and inertia. If
we are wise: trusting our traditions (in place of our nostalgia,) practicing patience (in place of digging in with our inertia,) learning from others (rather than mimicking them,) listening to each other (rather than competing with each other,) asking "What change can
make to strengthen this innovation (rather than putting more expectations on
people,) and thinking strategically about what actions have the best chance of passing on a strong church to the next generation (rather than engaging in a frenzy of tactical moves and an explosion of new programs,) then with God's help, innovation can be a joy and a blessing. I look forward to the rest of our conversations here in Mattoon, and to trying a few innovations...if that is the will of the church council. --Mike