by Aaron Buer
Last night I had a nightmare. I was at my church campus, leading a ministry event for students but everything was wrong . . . way wrong. My hair was bleached blond, I was wearing a seashell necklace and carpenter jeans. Petra was blasting out of the PA and I was unwrapping marshmallows for an epic game of pudgy bunny. Did I mention there was no one there? Zilch! The only person there was my mom, and even she looked bored. The event was a tragic hodgepodge of irrelevance. Then I woke up.
It’s every ministry workers’ greatest fear—becoming culturally irrelevant. In my dream, I had somehow missed the wave of cultural change and I had become “that guy”—hopelessly out of touch, using methods and styles that died out with modernity.
Look, I know this is a ridiculous start to a blog post but I believe that all of us who have given our lives to church leadership experience deep, sometimes irrational fears about becoming irrelevant.
So, the question is: How do you see change coming? Can you forecast change and plan for it? And, most importantly: How do you avoid becoming hopelessly irrelevant? Side note: If you have any combination of bleached blond hair, a seashell necklace and/or carpenter jeans, I apologize for offending you. Side note to the side note: You should probably update your wardrobe/head.
DEFINE WHAT IS UNCHANGABLE
I believe it is possible for our ministries to ride the waves of cultural change in ways that lead us to greater effectiveness and relevance. However, I think the first key to successfully doing this has nothing to do with planning or changing. It has everything to do with understanding your mission and calling. Otherwise, we’ll misunderstand the differences between a real and lasting cultural shift and a short-lived fad.
One of the first student ministries I was around, just after college, implemented jolting change far too often. They attempted to rebuild their ministry practices around every wave of change that hit. They were always the coolest ministry in town but all that change came with a price. The end result was disastrous. They changed so much they completely lost any sense of identity. The problem was that they never defined what could never change. They never asked the hard questions of: “What’s our mission? What’s our calling?” Answering these hard questions will force you to recognize which elements of your ministry are changeable and which aren’t cemented forever.
Our student ministry at Ada Bible Church, in Grand Rapids, Mich., is built around relationally driven discipleship. We feel called to provide every student in our orbit with an adult spiritual mentor and a small group of peers to journey through life with. That’s what we do. No matter what, we’ll never get away from that. For us, no cultural fad or changing conditions will ever sway us from this mission.
So, step one in forecasting and planning for change is defining who you are. First, you must define what you are not permitted to change.
I firmly believe that the only people who become irrelevant are people who stop learning. People who already know everything and have already discovered the ultimate way to do ministry are the people who become irrelevant.
In order to successfully ride the waves of change in our culture, we must be constantly seeking better practices and models. We can’t be fooled into thinking our way will always be best. Sure, your practices may be best right now or even for the next year or two, but you can be sure that they won’t be forever. I have two words for you: Flannel Graph . . . or is that one word? Let me check . . . can’t find it in the dictionary because it’s IRRELEVANT!
Okay, sorry, that was rude. But seriously, a more practical example: Who could have predicted that today’s fastest growing churches would be multi-site churches? Ten years ago, most church experts thought multi-sites would be a terrible idea. Now, nearly every growing church in America is debating whether or not they should try some sort of satellite or multi-site project.
My point, in all of this, is to say that if you want to save yourself from irrelevance, become a learner. Read the best student ministry writers, evaluate everything you do, network and collaborate, ask hard questions, go visit thriving ministries and learn from them, go to The Orange Conference (shameless plug). Learners are never irrelevant.
CUT AND CREATE
Let’s talk for a second about that moment when you realize change is coming or has come and that you need to adapt your practices. This is a thrilling, beautiful and terrifying moment. Change is hard. Here’s my advice: Be ruthless. Ruthlessly adapt. Don’t be shy about it.
Here’s what I mean: If one of your programs has become increasingly irrelevant, don’t add a different program that is more relevant. Kill the irrelevant program and launch something new. Far too many ministries are doing too many things. The best ministries are very simple and clear organizations. They know what they are about and they simply do those things very well.
Yes, people will be angry if you kill a program. Yes, you will be asked hard questions by your leadership. Yes, that home school family will be upset that you took away their son’s social life. But, simple is sustainable and simple is powerful because you can put all of your resources behind one project. My point: Cut and create. Don’t add.
So, how do you successfully ride waves of cultural change and avoid irrelevance? First, you must define who you are and what cannot be changed. Second, you must become a constant learner. Learners are never irrelevant. Third, you must cut and create instead of adding more programs. Simplicity and clarity always win.
Now, go! Innovate, think, create, change, learn, define, adapt and cut. And whatever you do, don’t let yourself become irrelevant.
Hi! My name is Aaron and I’ve been a student pastor for 12 years now. Currently, I’m the student ministries pastor at Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. We’re one of those crazy multi-site churches. I absolutely love my job and my team—they are the best people in the world. My favorite things in life are Thai food, beach volleyball, my family and books. I love to talk student ministry strategy and practices. Look me up via blog or Twitter!