Adapt or Die

We find ourselves in the sixth chapter of Acts, the first seven verses. The great day of Pentecost had passed, and the church was established. The Good News is being spread and lives are being transformed. The church had grown beyond the Holy Land. Gentiles were joining the church. That is both good and bad. It is good because more are being saved, but it is bad because the growth caused conflict. The conflict was not contained. It is seen both outside of the church and inside the church. The stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8-7:60) illustrates the conflict outside of the church. Our reading for today illustrates the conflict inside of the church. There is no other way to say it. The church was divided. It was the Hellenistic Jews verses the Hebraic Jews. In other words, it was Greek speaking Jews, born outside of the Holy Land, who saw little value in traditional Hebrew customs verses Palestinian Jews, who spoke Aramaic and/or Hebrew who longed to keep traditional Hebrew customs alive. It always happens when people take their eyes off Jesus, secondary issues take primary focus. It has always been true. It is still true in our time.

Our reading contains both the first recorded complaint in the history of the church and the first established committee. The Hellenistic Jews complained their widows were not getting their daily distribution of food. That means the early church cared about both the physical and spiritual needs of their people. To solve the problem, the Apostles formed a committee to handle the matter, freeing them to teach. However, the real issue is not the food. The real issue is change caused by church growth. The church was adapting to their newest members. It is important to note, they are not compromising the Gospel message. They are simply adapting to their changing church. I am comfortable saying, if the church had not adapted, then they would have lost their newest members. It is still true today. We cannot compromise the Gospel message, but we must adapt to our ever-changing world. How many examples do you need?

In March of 1994, I received a phone call from my District Superintendent, I was being moved to the Youngstown, Ohio area. I was pleased with that information because my parents were aging, and I wanted to get closer to them. A few hours later, I was told I was being appointed to the Western Reserve United Methodist Church in Canfield. Over the next few days, we set up an interview with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. United Methodist interviews are really an introduction. We are appointed, not hired. The committee got to know me, and I got to know a little more about the church. The committee longed for one thing, church growth! Like many other mainline Protestant churches, attendance was low, and the congregation was aging. One of the saints on that committee asked me after the meeting, “Is there anything you can do for us? Our church is dying!” I answered, “Yes!” I spent my last twenty-eight years in the ministry trying to keep my word.

For years, in the top left-hand drawer of my desk at Western Reserve was the 1994 East Ohio Annual Conference Journal. It contained all the facts and figures of all the congregations in the Annual Conference for that year. I saved that journal for one reason. It acted as a baseline. I wanted to know if we were making any progress. It also acted as a baseline for the other churches in our district and Annual Conference. Do you know what I have learned from studying those old figures? In nearly every case, the numbers were down. In other words, our churches are dying. It isn’t just true of the United Methodist Church. It is true of every mainline Protestant denomination in this section of the country.

That is why everyone says they want church growth. I have never met a pastor who didn’t want to experience it. I have never met a church that didn’t want to experience it. For decades, denominational bureaucrats promoted church growth and sponsored church growth worships. I will be honest, in my time in the ministry, nothing was more personally satisfying than watching my church grow. That is why everyone says they want church growth! We want church growth because we don’t want our church to die. We want our church to grow because new members bring more money. We want church growth because we need help with all that church work. Everyone says they want church growth because we want our local church to live beyond our generation. The first verse in our reading says, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing.” The church is growing and that is a good thing. Everyone should be happy. However, that is not the case. There are some in the story who are unhappy because the new members were forcing the church to change. They were being forced to adapt to their changing church and world.

John Adams (1735-1826) became the second president of the United States on March 4, 1797. That transfer of power was one of the most pivotal moments in American history. Many wanted George Washington (1732-1799) to stay in office. He thrived at nearly everything he did during his sixty-seven years of life. Washington was extremely popular after the Revolutionary War. His popularity united the young country and propelled him to the office of president. He served two terms and walked away. Many desired Washington to stay in some form exposes the human condition. People do not like change. They didn’t want him to leave because they were afraid of the unknown. After all, the safest thing to do is nothing. Have you ever refused to change because of the fear of the unknown? We value stability. This is the problem. Our society is always changing. However, this is equally true.

We will tolerate change in certain areas. We will tolerate change when it comes to communication. Do you know anyone who does not own a cell phone? We tolerate change when it comes to transportation. No one travels by covered wagon anymore. We embrace change when it comes to medicine. Would you have heart surgery using 1920 methods? On the day George Washington died, his doctor tried to heal him by giving him a good bleeding. When was your last good bleeding? We will tolerate change in certain areas of our lives, but not every area of our life. The more personal the issue then less tolerant we are of change. Religion extremely personal. The problem is the church must adapt to our changing world or die.

My generation of clergy have been well schooled in church growth principles. Most of those principles talk about how to get people through the front door. You can promote the church in a different way. You can start a new worship service. You can get involved in the problems in our community. Those principles work. They get new members through the front door, but in those classes, we never talked about the back door. People come through the front door. People leave through the back door. Have you ever left a church through the backdoor? Why do most people leave a church? They don’t leave because the halls are dirty. They don’t leave because the sermon is boring. They don’t leave because the minister is too handsome. They don’t leave because of the number of mistakes in the bulletin. They don’t leave because of the quality of the music. They do not leave because of the style of worship. They leave because they don’t feel welcomed. If there are a million ways to say, “I love you,” then, there are a million ways to say, “I don’t want you. Get out!” Could it be, most established members do not mind seeing newcomers leave because they created unwanted change? That takes us back to our reading.

The early church was adapting to their changing world. They are not compromising the Gospel message; they are compromising secondary issues. Through the eyes of God, those things really do not matter. The only thing that matters in the life of the church is Jesus. Examine the story through that filter. The church began in Jerusalem, so everyone related to the Golden City and Hebrew ways. The newest converts related to the Greek world. They are Hellenistic Jews. It doesn’t sound like a big deal to us, but it was a big deal to them. The growth of the church had changed the church, itself. The choice was simple. The early church could adapt to their changing world and grow, or they could refuse to change and die. In our time, everyone says they want church grow, but many resist change. If they do not change, then we will die.

Since I retired, I have been worshipping in small membership churches. The one I have been to the most sits on the Ohio/Pennsylvania state line. The old well-maintained building has beautiful stained-glass windows. The summer attendance is approximately thirteen. Each person is very nice and comfortable. Everyone knows everyone’s name and story. Before and after worship, they sit in a circle on comfortable chairs. It is there they get caught up on the local news and recall the past. Weekly, they bring up the condition of their church. Each one knows the truth. Their church has no future. It is only a matter of time before the building is closed. They believe, the problem is society. The world has changed, and they refuse to adapt to their changing world. They worship in a way that was popular seventy years ago. They sing hymns that were written hundreds of years ago. They are not interested in trying something new to reach out into their community. It is very sad, but it is their choice. They are looking for the miraculous to save their church. They say, they want church growth, but they are not interested in changing a thing. It is not just their story.

It is the story of many mainline Protestant congregations in our time. They are choosing to die. They simply refuse to adapt to our changing world. How many churches in your community will be closed in ten years? Research tells us about 3,700 churches close on an average year. Acts 6:1-7 teaches us secondary things in the life of the church do not matter. The only thing that matters in the life of the church is Jesus. Russian author Leo Toystoy (1828-1910) once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.”