it Is an excellent time to dismount!” These words by my close friend and MM faculty colleague, Dr. Steve Eason, point to a truth that pastors and lay leaders desperately need to hear. Namely, that churches (and all organizations) tend to hold on to programs, and ministries, long after they have served their purpose…long after they are dead! But, if we are totally honest…it can be emotional to let go of a program that other people perceive as a “dead horse,” particularly if that “horse” or program was important in our own faith development.
How can we let go of the Wednesday Night Supper, Sunday School for teenagers, or the Women’s Association Bazaar…if these things were meaningful for us? I have been in many churches where people make a good case for continuing to ride a dead horse, like the Wednesday Night Supper, because it used to be an exciting evening when people of all ages flocked to the church. In fact, the Wednesday Night Supper was the “hub of the wheel” around which church programming was arranged: choirs, youth club, bible studies, service projects, etc. But as society has changed and people have gotten busier, Wednesday night attendance has decreased from 120 to 20…or less!
Tell me…are there any dead horses in your church? Do you have any programs that should be jettisoned… but you keep them going because you don’t want to hurt the feelings of the person who started that program….and, who is still on the church board? In order to avoid acknowledging “the horse is dead,” some congregations simply slap a new name on an old horse and try to revive it! We may change the name of the Wednesday Night Supper to “Wonderful Wednesdays” but that doesn’t solve the problem! The problem is not the Wednesday Night Supper…the problem is us! Leadership consultants like Tod Bolsinger, Kevin Ford and Ron Heifetz all say the same thing: when congregations are under stress and facing enormous changes and challenges, they “tend to do what they have always done.” And, if someone tries to do things differently, they want to fire the leader!
So what should we do with dead horses, or with programs that have run their course? The Apostle Paul gives us some help here, when he says in Philippians 3:13-14. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal, for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Apostle Paul is not saying that his – or our – past is bad. On the contrary, Paul explains earlier in Philippians 3 that his pedigree was shaped by his life as a pharisee, and particularly by sitting at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest Pharisee of all. His life was also shaped by being a member of the tribe of Benjamin, which produced King Saul, for whom he was named. However, Paul charges us to remember that his identity does not come from any of those things that he experienced in the past, as important as they were to his faith formation. In fact, he counts those things as “rubbish” when compared to knowing Jesus Christ as Lord. Paul is reminding us that our identity comes from knowing Jesus Christ personally! In other words…Jesus is the key to dealing with dead horses!
When dealing with “dead horses” in our church, I believe that Jesus’ advice to us would be: “Don’t just do something…sit there.” What Jesus means is that the key to our future is not finding the right program or the right technique that will revive our church. The key to the future of the church is helping people experience the presence of God, and paying attention to what God is up to in our local community. The key is letting go of our agenda for the church and getting on God’s agenda. This requires stillness and quietness if we are to get on the path with God.
Remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ never changes, but the way we proclaim it is constantly changing. So the key to the future of the church is not getting a rock band, or a pastor with skinny jeans, or reviving the Wednesday night program. The key is finding fresh new ways to put people in touch with the living God, to help them find the path that God wants them to walk. Nothing else matters…because…if we are not careful, a program, a technique, or a ministry can become God. It can actually get in the way of God! Therefore, we must put God in the driver’s seat of our lives and our congregations! That is why, when a horse dies….it is an excellent time to dismount! And, we must dismount so that…while we cannot ride that beloved horse anymore…we can start to ride the wind currents of the Spirit of God! And, that is an adventure that no one will want to miss! May it be so!