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Look Back, Leap Forward

By Gary L. Mcintosh

As we move swiftly into the 21st century, it is important for us to look back to find the core values that give meaning to our ministries and leap forward to take hold of new opportunities.

When Australia was a new nation, its leaders established a crest to represent their country. Two animals—the kangaroo and the emu—stand one on each side of the crest. These two animals were chosen because of a unique common characteristic—while kangaroos and emus turn their heads to glance backward to get their bearing, they always move forward. Though each animal is very swift afoot, neither is able to walk backwards. The founders of Australia wanted their country represented by what moved forward, never backward. In others words, kangaroos and emus look back and leap forward.

As we move into the 21st century, it is important that we look back to find the core values that give meaning to our ministries and leap forward to take hold of new opportunities. Unfortunately, the strong pull toward the future may cause us to overlook the past. When looking back promotes a Band-Aid® mentality (doing whatever it takes to hold the church together, and looking back to the good-old days for ministry results and affirmation), then looking back is not good. If looking to the past only leads to an attempt to redo ministry in bygone ways, we are doomed to failure in the 21st century. In short, the past is for remembering, not living.

Looking back, however, is often necessary to fund a powerful future and vision. Martin E. Marty, church historian at the University of Chicago, calls this "finding a usable future in our past." Joshua might have believed that a good past is the best future. The story is recorded in Joshua 4:1–24. After the people of Israel had crossed the Jordan, the Lord spoke to Joshua and commanded that 12 stones be removed from the river and set up as a memorial. After the stones were set up in Gilgal, Joshua explained the reason for the stones (verses 6,7). He understood that core values of the past are crucial for designing a new future. Thus, he commanded that whenever the nation of Israel struggled with determining direction, the people should look to the past to rediscover their core values.

There is a great deal of talk today about defining a church’s core values. It is a mistake, however, to think we create our values in a vacuum. The truth is, we discover them by looking to the past, just as the people of Israel looked to the past to rekindle the fire of their own values. How is this accomplished? The following are a few steps to assist leaders to "look back and leap forward."

HONOR THE PAST

A wise person once commented, "The past teaches us, the present tests us, and the future rewards us." Unless you are a church planter, you will build on the foundation of others. It was their commitment, sacrifice, and love for the Lord that provided for your church to be where it is today. Respect and honor past leaders, pastors, and ministries that faithfully built your church. See what lessons can be learned from former leaders and ministries. When looking to the past, ask questions such as, "What values does our church actually hold?" "What has inspired great passion in our people in the past?" The answers to these questions will point to the values your church naturally embraces.

AFFIRM PREVIOUS MINISTRIES

Over the years, priorities and needs change. Some old ministries lose their effectiveness and new ones are born. Vacation Bible school is an example. In the 1950s, VBS was an effective way to reach children. Almost every church had some form of VBS. But almost no churches had a divorce recovery group. Today it has reversed—the effectiveness of many VBS programs has been reduced due to the numerous activities available for children; but churches add divorce recovery groups every day.

We do not "install" new values into our people. Values are something our people must buy into, and they must have a predisposition to hold them. By affirming the underlying values of former ministries, we retain the people attracted to those values. Learn what ministries are legendary in the history of your church. Begin to affirm those ministries and the people who served in them. This is particularly important when you are planning to restructure or replace ministries. Let your people know you understand the place a ministry holds in your church and their hearts.

HIGHLIGHT THE BIBLICAL VALUES AND PRINCIPLES

Methods are not long term, but the values that created and supported them are. As you affirm past leaders and ministries, highlight foundational values. For example, foundational values that supported VBS were evangelism and love for the lost. As you affirm VBS, highlight the church’s commitment to evangelism and love for the lost. Think through each ministry that needs to be changed, and identify the biblical values that make it valid. Teach and preach Scripture, values, and basic principles that are timeless and remain valid.

PRESENT NEW MINISTRIES AS EXTENSIONS OF THE PAST

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. Or, as an old Chinese proverb suggests, "It is written that they who move not forward move backwards." New ministries and methods will be developed as we enter a new millennium.

Once you have reaffirmed your core values, anything not supportive of those values is up for change. When people complain, "We’ve never done it that way before," remind them, "If it’s not part of our core values, then it’s open for negotiation."

Building on the first three steps just noted presents new approaches to ministry as an "extension" of former ones. For example, if you desire to begin a new worship service, do not present it as a replacement for a poor worship service that is not meeting needs. Instead, focus on your core value of reaching more people.

SHOW HOW NEW APPROACHES CARRY ON VALUES OF THE PAST

One church I worked with wanted to move away from a midweek prayer meeting and institute a small group ministry. In the process of obtaining the congregation’s ownership of the new small group ministry, the pastor and church leaders helped people see that the purpose (value) of the midweek meeting was prayer. They highlighted how early founders of the church believed prayer was the main foundation for church effectiveness. Gradually, church leaders demonstrated to the congregation that the new small group ministry would build on the founders’ commitments, and more people would be praying if there were several small groups meeting at different times during the week. The congregation agreed to try it. Within 1 month, attendance at the small groups tripled that of the midweek service.

ASSURE PEOPLE OF YOUR COMMITMENT TO CORE BIBLICAL VALUES

Take time to educate people so they understand it is the "form" of the ministry that is changing, not the "core values." Stress the principles of 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, and show your new ministry becoming "all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." Keep stressing the biblical principles of the past rather than the styles of the past, bridging into an explanation of how the newer styles carry on the old values.

LISTEN AND LOVE

If a change is major, take a minimum of 1 year to work through the above steps. Effective leaders give people time to share their feelings, vent frustrations, and become accustomed to new ways of ministry. It is wise to provide small forums where a few people can ask questions rather than having a full congregational meeting. Be willing to meet with some people individually as needed to hear their concerns.

COMMUNICATE THAT TRADITIONS ARE HONORED BEST WHEN THEY ARE CARRIED ON IN NEW MINISTRIES

Most churches have a Communion table. Two different phrases, with different emphases, are engraved in many of these tables—"In Remembrance of Me" and "Until He Comes."

Communion is a living tradition because it points us to the past—In Remembrance of Me—and to the future—Until He Comes. It causes us to remember the Lord’s sacrifice on our behalf and, at the same time, it calls us to look with hope to His coming.

There are dead traditions and living traditions. The dead ones continue to be remembered, but with little impact on life and people today. Living traditions continue on by underscoring the historical values for ministries being accomplished today. The best traditions are ones that point to the future through effective ministries that reach people today.

BE PATIENT

Understand that in urban and suburban areas of the United States, it normally takes 5–7 years to turn an existing church in a new direction. In more rural settings it take 10–12 years and sometimes longer. Church leaders in the 21st century should be careful to take the long view. While we may not be able to accomplish as much this year as we might hope, more may be accomplished over the next 5 years than we could possibly think.

TRUST GOD TO MAKE A WAY FOR IT ALL TO HAPPEN

The old hymn says it well, "O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come." What better words to bear in mind while leading a 21st-century church. As we love God and His people, He will help us lead them to effective ministry in the new millennium.

Gary L. McIntosh is professor of Christian Ministry and Leadership at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, California, and president of The McIntosh Church Growth Network.

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