Ministry Trends

Defining Ministry

Volume 7 | Issue 3 | Fall 2011

Ministry Trends

“The times, they are a-changin’” rang the refrain of Bob Dylan’s social anthem for the ’60s. What was true of change back then is exponentially so today. Church leaders ignore this reality at great peril.

I Chronicles 12 describes a vast company of men who presented themselves to become David’s army. Among them were brave, experienced soldiers wielding strong spears and shields. But the credential of one arriving clan was unique. Those from the tribe of Issachar were described as “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (vs. 32).

Bob Dylan pled: “admit that the waters around you have grown . . . you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone,” and “don’t criticize what you can’t understand . . . your old road is rapidly agin’.” Some of us understand the times in which we grew up, but don’t recognize (or admit) it when times change. And few understand the times well enough to help lead in new ways.

There was an age when significant change took place only over multiple generations. The church you grew up in was the same one you came back to a life-time later. Same songs, same sermons, same programs, even the same people. Not so today! There are a few surviving museums, but they are a dying lot. Change that took decades now takes years (or months). The risk for churches today isn’t simply relevance, but survival. We desperately need time-wise leaders like the warriors from Issachar!

Communication has changed!
Centuries of oral culture (where message and messenger were one) gave way to written, printed form (where message and messenger were distinct). Then flourished the broadcast medium, visual communication (where right-brain, visceral experience rules). Now we are well into a fast-paced digital age (where the user controls, collaborates, and interacts with any message, and communication is vast, varied, and virtual). While there are remnants and echoes of all media still present today, the prevailing new form (whatever it may be) changes how a message is delivered, heard, and understood. And the church that “understands the times” finds authentic ways to “ride” the change: podcasts, on-line studies, text-message sermon feedback, virtual small groups, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Bibles on iPads and smartphones, or other new things rising from the digital horizon.

Values have changed!
In short order, the church has lost its place and influence in life. People follow Oprah instead of Jesus. Postmodern insistence on tolerance eliminates absolutes and muzzles Christian influence. People are more interested in what works than what’s true. And the church finds itself needing to navigate new (or old first century) ground on a hostile “mission field.” Successful discipleship today cannot expect the world to come to the church or even care about the church. The church must go to the world and care for the world.

Family has changed!
The “traditional” family has vanished. Mom and dad (if either are actually present) both work to make ends meet, and the kids need virtual calendars to keep up with all their extra-curricular activities. Weekends aren’t “down times” anymore, and there is no “sacred” Sunday morning carved out for anything having to do with church. New, creative ways of touching lives outside traditional time-frames and programs have to be developed. Bible study might happen at work more than in a Sunday school classroom, worship out in life as much as within a church sanctuary.

Church must change!
And it is in many ways. Many churches are going missional. “Big-box,” mega-church structures may soon be another past thing, as smaller communities of faith—many in non-traditional fashion—launch out into life. Fresh expressions of church are popping up, not just in the U.S., but even in unexpected places abroad. Churches are “exegeting” the culture, invading the marketplace, and doing intimate “incarnational” ministry and discipleship.

Australian church leader Stephen Hicks calls us to “manage at the core” but “lead at the edge.” Certain beliefs and practices of the church are essential, non-negotiables. But there are many non-essentials, which can and must be negotiated—our “leading edge.”

Wise Christian octogenarian Warren Wiersbe (who also blogs and Tweets!), writes: “Local churches become museums instead of ministries because people are too proud to consider making changes.” Then he adds, “You will not find much change in a cemetery.”


by Dr. David Ray
Professor of Practical Ministries