Monday, July 28, 2008

Re-creating Churches

By David Horn, ThD
Director, The Ockenga Institute

You could shake all of the contents of the entire series of books into its corners with room to spare: children, fauns, dwarfs, friendly giants, the White Witch, even the great lion. I’m telling you, it is huge!

I refinish furniture for relaxation when I’m not working at the seminary. One of my previous projects was an old walnut wardrobe that could accommodate all of Narnia…literally. One week the wardrobe almost got the best of me. Alone for hours, up to my elbows in skin-blistering stripper, filthy dirty, the thought actually crossed my mind: Why am I doing this? I could be upstairs reading Narnia rather than down here finding it a new home.

I won’t bore you with the results of such ruminations (brought on by stripper fumes no doubt), except to say that, like perhaps many of you with your methods of relaxation, part of my satisfaction in restoring furniture I attribute to my tendency toward distraction.

To restore furniture—to be a really good furniture refinisher—you have to be a really good daydreamer. You have to let your mind wander back to see the piece of furniture for what it was at one time, the glory days of the piece when it wore its newness so naturally. I wonder about the original creator of the wardrobe. What tools did he use; what obstacles did he have to overcome; what purposes drove him to make such a fine piece?

To see the piece for what it was at one time is key in seeing the piece of furniture for what it could be again. What potential is there in an old beat up wardrobe? Look at it again. Scrape off the blistered old finish, glue back the free edges of veneer, replace the broken hardware and you will see its past, and in seeing its past, you will give it a whole new life.

What I am speaking about, of course, is the act of re-creating something, an act that begs reflection on our human, divinely ordained mandate in Genesis 2. The reader can do this for him or herself while I reflect one more time on my re-created wardrobe. Even when refinished, that old piece bears the marks of its past. I have yet to restore a piece of furniture to its original condition. The beauty of my wardrobe is in the newly applied stain that only partially covers the conspicuous missing chips of veneer. It’s newly found beauty is partially in comparing its past with its new present.

This isn’t a handyman column, so why do I bring up my wardrobe? I bring it up because the very same act of re-creation goes on with pastors in their own churches. Without ignoring the wonderful things God is doing with the church planting processes throughout the country, most of us—most of our graduates who leave us—are dealing with old furniture when we consider the churches and other places of ministry we serve. Who of us doesn’t live with years of old varnish and bleached stain when we enter our sanctuaries on Sundays, interact with our leadership, administrate our threadbare programs, or counsel weak and battered members within our church?

What should our expectations be as we seek, through the Spirit, to restore old churches back to usefulness? One of the things we see with some of our students who leave us after their years of study here are well-intended church re-creators who put their newly acquired tools to the task of reshaping old ministry contexts. Their desires to polish these old churches back to new luster are very good. In their tool chest, they may often pull out a newly sharpened church model that, on the surface, would seem to be just the thing to bring new life to these old places.

Then why don’t these old churches polish up? Too often, I am afraid, they—we—who dream about new life in our churches—new programs, new leadership, new potential— seek to change these antiques after our own image without seeing them for what they are, wonderful old places with rich histories of God’s faithfulness. They may have gone astray. They often are filled with old, entrenched leadership. They don’t move very fast. Dump them on the table and you will find tired old programs rolling aimlessly around the edges. We want to change all this and the sooner the better.

But, to be a good daydreamer of these old churches, is there not something to be said for first accepting them for what they are in all their uniqueness, in the context of their rich histories, and with appreciation for what has brought them to their present condition? It seems to me, to be a good restorer of old churches begins first with letting our minds wander back to their glory days. How did they start? Why did they start? In what context were they placed? How has that context changed? What kind of leaders have led these unique churches in the past and how do they represent leadership needs in the present? What kinds of programs worked earlier? Is there a relationship between these kinds of programs and what could be offered, in new ways, in the present?

I wouldn’t trade my house full of old furniture for all the furniture stores full of new furniture in the world. I love old things. I love to re-create old things. To be a re-creator of churches, I think, too, requires that we love, we truly love, old things.

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