Driving a Classic Church on the Freeway of Life
By Daniel G. Shipton
While living in Indiana several years ago, my best friend Duane talked me and my family into going with him to one of his favorite things in the entire world, Indy Car racing. We actually could only afford to go to the time trials the weekend prior to the Indianapolis 500, but we had a lot of fun. One of the most interesting things about watching cars, which travel near two-hundred miles per hour, is the fact that you see events before you hear them. You first watch a car blur past you, and then a second later you hear it passing. The precision equipment of an Indy car allows it to travel at such speeds.
These cars and their on road counterparts today are much different than a classic car from the past. Henry Ford manufactured a solid car a century ago that he felt needed no changing, the Model-T. In fact, as you may well know, he didn’t even think there needed to be a different color than black. I recall traveling near my home town after a car show. I had enjoyed looking at some classic cars, but as I sped along in my Oldsmobile Achieva I passed several Model-T’s from a classic car club traveling along at the fast pace of about 45 miles per hour.
While I have never had opportunity to drive either a classic car or an Indy car I know that there is a big difference in the way they are made. I like attending car shows just to look at the designs and styles. One thing is for certain most classics have designs that are distinctive and appealing to the eye. Today’s modern vehicles all have a similar markings and designs. I knew a man who prided himself on being able to recognize a car coming down the road at a distance. He once told me “Today I can’t tell much difference in a Chevy or a Ford traveling by at sixty miles an hour.”
Growing up I was raised on a hobby farm in the country and attended a small town church. While attending college I had opportunity to serve briefly at larger church facilities, but was soon solo pastor of a church with in the farm belt of Indiana in my final year of college. I spent nearly four years trying to carve out a new church in Michigan’s far north, and have found myself ministering in small towns. I have attended conferences at large church campuses, and smaller church settings. I have heard the woes of many ministers and leaders on struggles of church worship, church leadership, and church direction. I have been caught in the middle of some of the difficulties of change in the local church, and even watched my own family hurt in the process. Yet, I know that we can find hope, strength, and unity in leading churches no matter where God may call us to.
What do all of these thoughts of cars and my past really have to do with leading people and churches anyway? The fact is that I think it has a lot to do with churches and leadership today. While I said I have never driven classic cars, I have driven a classic Tractor. My grandfather owned a 1955 John Deere 40, which we inherited with the family farm I grew up on. I can see some wonderful things we can learn about leadership for many of us in classic churches, as I think about classic tractors and classic cars.
The first thing I notice about leading a church in our modern world is the way we are trained and influenced. We are often influenced and shown the most cutting edge technology both in our universities and in the larger churches that we often start our training in. We learn the latest Power Point presentation processes, the most cutting edge sound and light shows, and even a way to reach the world of the electronic savvy with computer technology. Sure there are the dusty classic classes of Theology and Church History, but much like in high school many of those I trained with were not interested in learning from our predecessors. Most of the interest was on how they could learn to do something new, and little of the desire was on why it was being done the way it was.
There seems to be a growing thought among young minister that we should require the world and the church to change for us. It should be the way we want it, and it should happen right now. I have heard many leaders of the church say that the church often is slower to change than the world around it. Some would even say the church is often ten to twenty years behind in technology. I wonder sometimes if we are training people for disaster and causing conflict in the average American church, instead of influencing positive change for the future of the Gospel. I think many of our so-called “Worship Wars” are caused by this mind set.
The fact that the influence and push has been to be cutting edge often smacks us in the face when we take our first solo or senior call to ministry. We often find ourselves not in the modern church of the electronic age, but in a classic where it has style that sometimes seems unmovable. The desire of the young preacher is to see everything modernized right now, and yet they never take the time to consider that it is a classic and change can not come swiftly.
I pointed out earlier that I grew up driving the families old John Deere 40. I have seen the modern tractor and I am not sure I could even start one, with all the buttons and switches they have. I do know that most start by simply turning on the key. They can start right up, just like your car. If only driving a classic were the same. Patience was needed in starting the old John Deere, and it took a process just to get going. To start our tractor you had to first push you left foot on the clutch, put your right foot on both break pedals, raise the gas lever only slightly, turn the key to the choke position, and pull out on the black starter with one hand and pull the choke with the other. Once you had used your entire body to make an attempt at starting the machine you would often have to repeat the process at least once or twice before it would begin to run. The key word here was patience.
Many of us brought up in a modern Indy world must learn the value of patience when it comes to leading a classic church. My families old John Deere took patience to start, but when it was running it did the job it was created to do. So too we who are a pastor or leader in a classic church must realize that the church is created to reach out for God with the Gospel, and the classic may be doing this in it’s own successful way. It may not be with a laser light show, rock band, or pyrotechnics. It may be in smaller less dramatic ways of helping a community family facing hard times with a food shower, creating a safe environment where children can play, showing up to cheer on the local ball team, or providing a place of love to the lonely.
I am not saying to reject our training or who we are. I am not saying that change isn’t necessary. The family John Deere has been overhauled at least once since the 1950’s, and in fact is in need of an overhaul again. We may be in a classic that isn’t firing on all cylinders any longer. Maybe they have lost their passion, or there are needs of modernization. I would just encourage you to move a pace a classic can handle. Putting an Indy engine into a Model-T would likely cause the car to fall apart before you were a mile down the road. I have watched too many churches being torn apart by the modern theory that “if you don’t like the changes, go down the street.” What if every church in America were saying that very callused thing, “If you don’t like the change, go down the street,”?
That brings us to a simple but very important second point. We must learn to love first and foremost. The motive of our actions should be fully under the direction of love that comes from God. We may need to change some of our classic designs to reach a modern world, but we must wrap every step and every element of that change with love and respect for one and all. If our goal is to build the Kingdom of God we should not be shooting ourselves in the foot, by destroying relationships in the congregation. Every change should be looked at in the light of how it will impact all those coming, and all those we will be reaching. Much like the time it took in starting the John Deere, we must take the time to let the changes happen.
Changing to rapidly can cause disaster, and the backlash of sudden change can take years to overcome. It is like pulling a vehicle out of the mud, it takes a consistent gentle pull to get the vehicle moving. We once had the John Deere stuck in the mud right near our barn, a neighbor came by to help. While his intention was good his patience wasn’t. He hooked to the front of the tractor pulled with a jolt and the front end of the tractor snapped causing the front axle to separate from the tractor. We then had to have a major welding repair and reinstallation of a new part before the tractor could move. Instead of quickly rescuing the stuck tractor we had to wait over a month for the proper repairs. Most successful changes in a classic church take place with steady consistency not major jolts or jump starts.
A final note on classics churches in our modern world. Many people are looking for classics today. They want the modern convinces of modern life. However, they are seeking the classic feel that comes from a classic church. People are stuck living at an Indy car pace everywhere they go. When it comes to their worship and relationships with in the church they sometimes look for a classic. Yes, they enjoy the Power Point and sometimes even a worship band. Yet they’re hearts don not like quick and constant change. They want security of knowing there is a place where consistency can exist. It causes a trust and openness to develop with in them, which the rest of the world can not offer.
The classic is a classic because it is a place where the heart can often find what it’s yearning for, security, consistency, and a genuine loving feel. I know you can get that in a more modernly based church too, but we must remember the classic still touches the heart of many. We must reach out to the varied heart of the masses some to the Indy church, and some to the classic. Let us reach in the love and wisdom of our Lord Jesus who met people where they were most comfortable.