“You don’t value old people!” The elderly deacon pointed his bony finger across my massive desk and into my face. I called upon every ounce of self-control to keep me from jumping out of my desk and using my pastoral authority to crush this misinformed aging leader who was so in love with the past that he could not see, enjoy or participate in the future of the church that I was now leading.
As I listened to the sleepy cadence of his tirade, the familiar voice of the Spirit broke in…“Listen!” So, I made a conscious decision to consider every insult and misevaluation…because God said so. I listened to every difficult word and did not break in until the deacon confirmed that he was done. I responded, restraining every bit of emotion, “I promise you that I will take your complaints before the Lord. Everything that He confirms, I will change BUT if He does not confirm what you have said, I am under no obligation to change a thing. Now, please excuse me, I have work to do.” That ended our exchange for that day and I hurried off to meet the Lord in prayer, to complain about this deacon and his lack of respect for me, the pastor.
I can tell you that the subsequent prayer time did not go as I had planned. I began to complain to God and He immediately stopped me. Point by point, the Holy Spirit confirmed much of what the elderly leader had communicated, even though when God recounted it, He added in the love that was missing from the deacon’s exhortation. In any event, God used that confrontation to teach me some very important lessons about pastoring that I would like to share today, but first let me give you a little glimpse into what occasioned that meeting in the first place.
My pastor retired and he recommended me as the next pastor to take over the aging and declining congregation. I was full of ideas, vision and energy so when I was confirmed, my team and I hit the ground running. We brought in a whole new team of young and energetic leaders. We threw away all of the old hymnals and replaced the worship service with the new stuff. The old decorations were also thrown out and the facility began a steady remodeling project focused on erasing the old. My sermons even revolved around the theme that God was doing a new thing. We encouraged the people to be the new wine skins and not the old according to Matthew 9. Systematically, we changed the church from the ground up, convinced that we knew better than the old timers who already had their day in the sun. As a result of this sweeping change, this elderly leader gathered the courage to confront his new pastor.
The tragedy is that most young pastors make the same mistakes that I made and some never have the benefit of an elderly deacon confronting their agenda so they rarely, if ever, consider the damage of their actions. At the core of my faults was an underlying belief that the new was better than the old and a lack of appreciation for the work that went on before I got there. This mindset was cemented in pride that masqueraded as vision.
In order to shorten the blog, I will share the main thought that I learned through my struggle to implement God’s new thing:
The new thing God is doing is merely the old thing repackaged for a new generation. I would often quote Isaiah 43:19: “Look, I am about to do a new thing.” Upon further study of that and similar verses in the Bible, I found that the new thing that God promised (and promises) to do, is ALWAYS the same old thing He has done. In context, Isaiah is reminding the Israelites of the Exodus and letting them know that a new Exodus will take place when God gathers His people from the nations to which they were scattered. So the new thing is an Exodus (similar to what He has done already). The newness (again, in biblical context) is that the Israelites are now coming from Babylon and the nations and not just Egypt and not through the Red Sea. This pericope finds further fulfillment in Christ but even this “new thing” points to a universal Exodus where Jesus will gather his people from the nations. In other words, the new thing is the old thing repackaged for a new generation.
Applying this to modern ministry, God is doing a new thing but the new thing is the same old Gospel, the same Jesus, the same mission and the same Spirit. What makes this thing new is the generation to which it applies and the varied methods and technologies that may be used to do the “same old thing.” This current generation, for example, has the blessing and challenge of using exciting new technologies, including social media to fulfill the same old mission that every other generation of believers has had the pleasure of participating in. And, by the way, they must mobilize the entire church, both young and old, to participate in the work.
For me and my situation, my stubborn pride caused me to believe that the perceived failings of this small community church lied in their stubbornness to cling to the past. However, when God (through the deacon) confronted me, I was forced to take a closer look at the church I now lead and find out what God was doing long before I arrived. I found that the “stubborn old timers” were far more faithful than any of the subsequent newcomers that pledged their short lived allegiance to my vision. These elderly saints had learned to listen, love and labor with a depth of allegiance that seems missing from many of our modern disciples. Yet, these were the ones I undervalued. It took me a couple of years to realize the value in the older generation and the depth they add to any congregation.
I have had to shift my focus slightly to envision a congregation, dare I say, a family where young and old coexist and participate. Every congregation needs grandmas and grandpas and moms and dads; mentors who have lived long enough to illustrate by life and word the principles of the Bible. This model more closely resembles the biblical model where the older teach the younger. Unfortunately, this is not the modern model of church and ministry where the younger take over and they teach everyone else to do things their way as they systematically dismantle anything that came before them.
My warning to our young ministers is a reminder that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. The churches we take over were built by godly men and women who should be honored. We must value every saint within the kingdom and give them opportunity for fruitful ministry. This may mean that the worship service will include some hymns alongside jesusculture or Hillsong United. It may also mean that the organ and the hymnal stays but I encourage our young and zealous ministers to understand that one day you will be the old timer facing the young team of ministers who are trying to extricate every semblance of your hard work from remembrance. On that day, will you be content to reap what you have sown?