Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ancient Landmarks and Innovation

Today is the third day of our 24th week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are: Proverbs 22-23; 1 Thessalonians 1; Psalm 117.

Many years ago when I was young in ministry, I served a church that had a beautiful silver communion set.  It was the church's original communion set that was no longer used.  Instead, it was enshrined in a glass case near the front of the sanctuary, just beside a door.  It was in a poor location because that was a highly trafficked area, and people were frequently bumping into the case.  When Christmas came, we had a wonderful children's play, and the performance area (not really a stage) ranged across the entire front of the sanctuary.  Children had to go in and out of that door in order to get "backstage."  Shepherds wielded long sticks.  Wise men carried bulky boxes.  I could just imagine the smashing of glass as some teetering tottler toppled into it.

So, I did the unthinkable.  I moved the communion set.

You would have thought that I had burned the building down, people's reaction was so fierce.  "You can't move the communion set!" they cried.  Well, as I said, I was young in the flesh, and young in ministry.  I had no idea that the communion set was really a great boulder that had been placed over the entrance to a monster's lair.  By moving the boulder, I had unleashed the beast!

Seriously.  Some traditions are that way.  They exist to give stability, to provide protection.  They offer a sense of security, and sometimes they pacify people.  All these are good things.  The problem was that I couldn't see the benefits of tradition, and even if I had seen the benefits of tradition, I didn't know that this particular piece of furniture was the stopper that sealed strife in its bottle.

I'm new at Bethel.  I've only been the pastor here for nineteen days.  I'm keeping my eye out for communion sets and boulders.  You see, over twenty years of ministry, I've learned that people need traditions.  They crave comfort and need certain things in life to be predictable.  In a world where everything is changing so rapidly, ancient landmarks let us know where the boundary lines are...what borders should be crossed, and what borders shouldn't.

Blegbie Standing Stone, East Lothian.  Windmills in the distance.
Proverbs 22:28 (NRSV) says, "Do not remove the ancient landmark that your ancestors set up."  Proverbs 23:10-11 (ESV) says, "Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans, for their redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you."  Ancient landmarks are more important than we give them credit for.  Often, they're overgrown with ivy, or chipped and worn with years--yet those who have gone before us thought them important enough to memorialize.  Each landmark tells a rich story, if we will take the time to uncover it.

Before we moved to Bethel, we asked the church members to fill out a survey, so we could get to know them better.  One of the questions I asked was: "If you had to choose one, which do you believe to be more important at church--tradition or innovation?  Why?"  Keeping in mind that the biblical Bethel was marked by an ancient standing stone as a landmark (Genesis 28:18), I thought it was an important question to ask.  Some people didn't answer the question, and others gave noncommittal answers, saying that both are important, or that it's a hard question.  I know it's a hard question, which is why I asked it.  About twice as many people responded in favor of innovation, over tradition.  Here's how some of the people responded:

One who chose innovation wrote:

One of my biggest concerns is with getting children and youth to church and staying in church.  My belief is that if children are introduced to church and a relationship with God when they are young, even if they stray as they become teenagers, they will return one day!  [Editor's note:  This reminds me of Proverbs 22:6]   Without innovation we wouldn't be able to keep children and youth actively engaged in church.  

Another wrote:

Change is constant.  If you're not changing and growing, you're standing still.

Someone else said:

Innovation develops character, grows faith, exercises spiritual gifts.

One member, cautions of too much tradition, wrote:

I don't want to leave behind tradition b/c we were built on that, but if I had to choose I would choose innovation b/c we need to reach those who are lost & this generation needs to hear about God's love.  They won't listen to tradition--we need to reach them where they are.

And finally, on the innovation side, someone said:

We all eventually seek comfort for us versus evangelizing others and following Christ's example.

Then, there were those who chose tradition over innovation.  Here's what one said:

In growing up going to church the church was a place of worship and reverence to God.  I see churches today changing to suit the world.  I konw God has not changed.  I think we need to keep our church as a house of worship, not entertainment.  

Another responded:

We are fast losing this in our society today.  Example--for me the sanctuary has always been a "holy" place.  I know we can meet our Lord anywhere but the sanctuary has a special meaning for me and should be kept "holy."

Still another wrote:

I like tradition.  Sometimes leaving tradition behind carries us away from God's Word.  We seem to change to make us feel good and forget His Word.  I realize life changes and we have to bend some but we need to always keep our eyes on Jesus.

These are all good answers, because they reflect how people feel.  And you can tell that they feel very deeply.  Any church that's asked this question is going to have mixed responses, but it's important to hear how people feel about these things.  

So, how do I feel about it?  Me--I'm all about innovation.  I've got so many ideas that I'm waiting to try, that it'd make your head spin!  The thing is, we don't need to make people's head spin at church.  That would snap quite a few necks.  Instead, we need to let Jesus turn people's heads with His love, not with our clever ideas.  Innovations are important because every ancient landmark was once an innovation.  But when we start something new, we've got to make sure we're not moving any ancient landmarks that make orphans feel like you're encroaching on their fields.  One generation follows the next.  The old must make way for the young, and the young must respect the old.  And we all must live and work together for the kingdom of God.

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