Thursday, April 30, 2020

Rummage Sales and Grave Clothes

“The Right Reverend Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop known for his wit as well as his wisdom, famously observes from time to time that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first-century Christians in North America is to first understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”
The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle

Christians claim to be resurrection people. We acknowledge that death does not have that last word and that the worst thing is not the last thing. Around this time of year, Eastertide, our sermons are filled with analogies of Spring, new life budding from dormant ground, and grave clothes being stripped away to make way for new life. Christians claim to be Easter people, and yet we live as though death has the final word.

As a Church leader, I know it feels like Good Friday. It feels like things are dying. You may be concerned that your congregation will not survive the financial challenges it is facing or that the people may not return when the doors finally open. In the words of the great African American preacher, SM Lockridge, “It may feel like Friday night, but Sunday’s coming.” 

Let’s not be too quick to abandon Friday night. As resurrection people, it is important to acknowledge that we need to let some things die. In every church I’ve served, there have been programs, events, and activities that were continued just because they “had always been done that way.” There seemed to be no way to just stop everything and then critically evaluate what was making disciples and healing a broken world. Here is the good news. Here is the hope of Easter morning, we now have that chance. There is a way to turn today’s chaos into an opportunity to be more effective in ministry. Sunday is coming and it is important that we not waste the chance to live the new life God has for us.

Difficult times provide an opportunity to evaluate what is important. It provides the opportunity to redefine what is “essential” and what needs to die so that new life can emerge. We have an opportunity to abandon things that weren’t working but were hard to eliminate. Most importantly, and perhaps the hardest thing to do, is we can clarify our mission and create new methods to fulfill the Great Commission.

If you weren’t doing what you were doing, what would you start doing? You are now a church planter! Now that everything has stopped, whatever you do next is either going to propel you forward or hold you back from fulfilling the mission of God. This is an Easter opportunity for the Church. Suddenly you have transitioned from being the manager of a local branch of a multi-national organization to becoming a church planter. The good news is that you already have a core team of committed believers, it is up to you to lead them into a post-resurrection reality.

 However, a word of warning: as soon as things return to any semblance of “normal” there will be the nearly irresistible urge to go back to doing everything you were doing before. At the risk of sounding harsh, I believe this would be intellectually, organizationally, and spiritually irresponsible. Like a church planter, it is vital that you put your energy into what is vital to making disciples and equipping the people of God to be a force for good. Resist the temptation to just do what you were previously doing because it is easiest.

Good Friday always precedes Easter Sunday, but Sunday is coming. At the risk of repeating myself, some things need to be left in the tomb when the stone is rolled away. In the Gospel narrative, I think it is an important detail that Jesus left the grave clothes behind. Jesus knew that to emerge wearing them, like Lazarus did, would bind Him to the past. Jesus knew that those symbols of death were no longer needed. As leaders in local churches we need to ruthlessly evaluate what grave clothes we need to leave behind. Let me be clear, Good Friday is a painful experience. There is a chance that some of the things God will call us to leave behind will hurt. God could call us to leave behind property or programs that we are emotionally attached to.

In every church I’ve pastored I found things that should have been thrown out years ago. Things like film strip projectors, flannel boards where the flannel was peeling off as the glue had released, and my favorite, fifteen-year-old Sunday School material. I sincerely believe that whoever decided to pack these things away had the best intentions. There may have even been a reason for doing so when they stored a box of 8-track tapes and an entire closet of plastic grocery bags, however those reasons were long gone. Grave clothes bind you to the past. Fold them up and leave them behind.

Start with Why.  If you haven’t read Start with Why, I suggest you gather your leaders (virtually of course) and watch the linked video, buy the book, and then work through it while you are on lock down. For the first time in our ministry, we collectively have time to get clear and chart a new path based solely upon the commands of Jesus and not the preferences of our congregation.  As a reminder, here is what Jesus said was our mission according to Matthew 28:19-20:

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of 
       the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey 
       everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day 
        until the end of this present age.”

We claim to be resurrection people, it is time we lived like we believe it. Yes, right now it seems dark. Let us not waste the dark time simply waiting to resume the things we were doing before without critical reflection on whether they are the best things to accomplish our mission.

What needs to happen for your congregation to see itself as a new church rather than just rebooting what it was doing before and hoping for the best?

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!


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