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Timeless Ministry in an Ever-Changing World

Change is inevitable. During the last few decades, the speed of change in the communities where we serve has grown exponentially. We’ve seen it all around us, including our own communities.

In this quickly changing environment, we want our ministries to be relevant—not so we get invited to speak at conferences or get the praise of our ministry friends, but so that we reach more people for Jesus.

Acts 13:36 is one of my favorite verses. “For David served God’s purposes in his own time, and then he died” (GNT). David did the timeless—God’s purposes—in an ever-changing world. That’s always been my prayer for my life. I want to serve God’s unchanging purposes in my generation.

Our message never changes. God calls us to “contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all time handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3 NASB). Our mission isn’t to make the Bible relevant. It is already relevant. But the way we communicate the unchanging message of the Bible in today’s changing world can become irrelevant. 

How does irrelevance happen?

Irrelevance isn’t just something that affects churches. Every organization can become irrelevant when the speed of cultural change surpasses its rate of organizational growth. The faster the culture changes, the easier it is to become irrelevant. 

I had the privilege of having Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, as a mentor for the last 30 years of his life. One time I asked him, “How often does a rapidly growing organization need to change its structure?” He suggested changing the structure every time the organization grows by 45 percent. 

At the time, that was a problem for Saddleback. For the first few years of its existence, the church grew by 47 percent each year. That means we needed to re-structure the church every year. The structure that worked at 50 didn’t work at 150. The structure we had at 500 didn’t work at 1,000.

The DNA of Relevance

Relevant leadership for a pastor and relevant ministry for a church won’t happen by accident. It’s a choice. You’ll need to deal constantly with three factors to stay relevant:

  • Organizational culture
  • Personal culture
  • Congregational emotions

All three are important as you seek to serve God’s purposes in your generation. You’ll need to make three decisions to stay relevant—one for each of those factors.

Develop a ‘lab’ mentality

Laboratories experiment. Your church should never stop experimenting. And when you do, don’t be afraid to fail. If you fail, simply try something else. Sometimes you’ll have to try 99 things that don’t work only to find success with the 100th. 

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll become irrelevant. Yesterday’s solutions won’t work tomorrow.

Never stop learning

Growing organizations require growing leaders. The moment you stop growing, your organization stops growing. All leaders are learners.

Ecclesiastes 10:10 says, “If the ax is dull and its edge unsharpened, more strength is needed, but skill will bring success” (NIV). It isn’t dedication or desire that brings success. It’s skill. 

It’s like farming. You can work from sunup to sundown, but if you’re raising tomatoes and using a wheat harvester, you’ll get nowhere. Or if you’re growing wheat but using a corn harvester, you’ll struggle. Skill brings success. A sharp ax makes woodcutting easier than a dull one requiring extra swings. Work smarter first, then work harder.

You’re never wasting your time when you’re sharpening your ax. So always keep learning. Read articles like this. Read books. Go to conferences. Take a class. You won’t stay relevant if you stop learning.

Acknowledge the grief

Your church can’t grow without change. There’s also no change without loss and no pain without grief. You must let go of the old to grab onto the new. 

Sometimes when there’s pushback on church changes, it’s because people are mourning. They aren’t angry at you (though it may seem like it). They’re grieving the changes that are happening in their church family. Grief is good. It’s how we get through the transitions of life. We need to go through all the stages of grief, including anger.

Grief over the changes in your church won’t kill your church. Fear, resentment, and pride will. A wise pastor understands the emotions of the people he is leading. Let your congregation grieve, and then honor the past without perpetuating it. 

Don’t confuse relevance with style either. Styles change just like everything else. I’ve seen a number of ministry styles come and go during my ministry. 

Build your ministry not on a style but on the purposes of God. They’ll never change.

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