In Matthew 5, Jesus repeated the phrases, “You have heard it said that ……, but I tell you……”
You have probably heard that the “seven last words of the church” are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” But I tell you, maybe the seven most underestimated words for leading volunteers are, “We have always done it that way.”
Neither statement is necessarily true, thank goodness. Still, they seem contradictory, so let’s take a look.
Some congregations fight against change with every ounce of their strength. Staff members come and go, but the nucleus of the church holds fast to an old mindset that will not budge. And yes, in that case, the congregation that refuses to entertain any new thoughts or different ways of doing things will die. It may be a slow, lingering decline. The church might even look like it is thriving, but only because it is a sealed-off pocket of ancient rituals in the midst of a landscape of change.
But we have a saying about not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Think about that picture for a moment. Who came up with that one?! I’m trying to picture my grandmother or great grandmother heaving a washtub of soapy water from the back porch — along with the little, pink bundle of joy.
There are things in church that are precious to us. They tug at our heart strings and define the roles we play and carry the faith to the next generation.
Take Christmas traditions, for example. Candlelight services probably mean more to those of us that have always lived with electric lights. We have a core group of Christmas carols that have been carried on for decades (some for centuries). And most Americans could stage a Christmas pageant, even if they have no personal relationship with the central character.
Traditions, rituals, and things we “have always done” give us a head start with volunteers in the church. People can imagine where you are going with a concept. They can see themselves as a part of it. They can build on last year’s event. Youngsters can look forward to the day that they will join (or grow into a new role). Newcomers can get a sense of what holds this group together at the heart level.
Change can be good. Don’t underestimate tradition and repetition, though. And don’t be surprised if, when you try to repeat something, you find that it turns out different. Remember, we serve a God who makes snowflakes.