On a recent vacation to Europe, I saw a lot of old buildings dating back hundreds of years. I was intrigued by the status of many of those buildings. Some were ancient facades that might cause one to be quite surprised upon entering and finding a very modern interior. Some were obviously lovingly cared for to preserve the ancient structure as it had been in times past. And amid a row of such historic buildings and facades, one might see an obviously newer structure that revealed that what once had stood there had been replaced by something new and different.

I began to wonder why some old buildings are replaced, some are lovingly restored to prior glories, and some are kept “as is,” including being in a state of decay. Who gets to decide what to do with an existing structure? Why do they decide to do what they do? What governmental rules impacted those decisions? As I pondered, my mind drifted to leadership and organizations and churches – I’m weird that way. 

When culture is changing all around us, how do we who serve in the ministry of church leadership adapt to reach them with the Gospel? Some things we may need to retain. Some we may need to restore. Some things we may need to replace. So, how do we decide what is the “right” thing to do? That’s something to talk about.

When culture is changing all around us, how do we who serve in the ministry of church leadership adapt to reach them with the Gospel?

It’s a little simplistic of me, but I think that when it comes to people and their “things” there are three main types of people. 

There are those that retain things – I think of the person that has a 25-year-old vehicle that, though dilapidated, dented, dated, lacking modern electronics other than an AM/FM radio that no longer works, still runs good enough for him and his family and only has 350,000 miles on it. Why get rid of something that isn’t dead yet? No one else would want it anyway.

There are those that restore things – you see them at car shows standing next to their lovingly restored 1927 Ford Model A or their woody station wagon at the beach or in the museum house that has been lovingly outfitted in some ancient motif, just as someone or other had it when he lived there. I remember the crooked floors at Paul Revere’s house in Boston, lovingly maintained in their irregular condition because that’s the way it was originally – though no one today wants the floors in their home to slope that way.

Then there are those that replace things. They bought their iPhone 13 just a few months ago but are among the first in line to purchase the just-released iPhone 14 and are scanning trade papers to find when the iPhone 15 might arrive.

People in churches are like this. Churches have things – buildings, equipment, orders of service, music styles, programs (oops, make that “ministries”), strategies, carpet in the children’s classroom, governance structures and documents, and the list could go on and on. All were once new, but nothing remains new for long. All were created or devised for their contexts at the time, but ministry contexts change over time. When church things begin to feel tired, look worn, no longer meet their intended purpose, no longer are attractive to those we seek to reach and disciple, or just don’t work well, what do we do? How do we decide what to replace, restore, or retain?

Here are some ideas for starting your thinking process and getting the conversation started.

Like most significant conversations, the most difficult thing is to start talking. We tend to put these things off. We crowd them out with the crush of other things to do. We think we don’t have time to do it, and we likely never will unless we do something different. Pick a date and time to do your thinking and to have the conversation. 

Start with your church’s mission. I’m hoping that it has something to do with doing the Great Commission. The Bible records some of the Great Commission actions of the apostles during the first century of the church. Almost 2000 years later, do we practice the Great Commission in exactly the same way? Of course, we don’t. Some things have changed in the ways we go about trying to make disciples. How does our church prepare its members to live the Great Commission and what results are we seeing? How long have we done it this way? Why did we first start doing it this way? Is it working, not only in seeing people come to faith in Jesus Christ, but also in how people share their faith (or don’t)? Should we retain, restore, or replace our Great Commission strategy? Are we happy with it and its results, do we need to fix some things that have drifted off course, or do we need new ideas because what we are doing doesn’t work anymore?

Let’s look at our facilities. Sometimes it’s better to have an outsider walk the facilities with us so we can deal with our blindness caused by our familiarity (like the concept of being “nose blind” to familiar odors as in the Febreze commercials). What is the condition of our facilities? They may look fine to us, but do they look fine to the people we are trying to reach? I appreciate old buildings that are well-maintained; I don’t appreciate old buildings that look like they are falling apart. Have we gotten used to things that turn off the people that need to come and see Jesus? Here are some things that are almost guaranteed to repel those younger families that are so necessary for a church to pass on its faith to succeeding generations and other guests as well.

  • Dirty or damaged carpet in the children’s areas, especially where crawling and floor-sitting occur.
  • A pile of nursery toys that look like they were donated to the church in 1975 and have not been cleaned since.
  • Inaccessibility to people with disabilities, especially wheelchairs and walkers. No ramps. No place in the auditorium to park a wheelchair or walker (one reason movable chairs are popular). No signs to help one navigate. Consider sitting in a wheelchair or using a walker and trying to navigate around your facilities.

When programs (ministries, if you will) begin to have shrinking numbers of participants, we often are tempted to assume fewer people are interested in following Jesus or that there has been a thinning of the herd that will lead somehow to a healthier albeit smaller herd in the future. Since those programs were not designed to thin the herd or be unattractive to people, leaders should take a closer look. If our family ministries are declining it could be that it is not being managed well – or it could be that the church has inadvertently become unattractive to families. When our senior citizen’s ministry is shrinking, we need to do similar questioning – do we have fewer senior citizens because there are fewer to reach, or has our programming become stale and unattractive to the people those programs are intended to reach? If all is well, retain. If programs have strayed off track, restore. If they are unattractive to their intended audience, replace.

One could go nuts examining everything a church does in this way, so let me recommend that you do this for your most important assets and ministries – perhaps you could start with 3-5 of them. Keep doing what is working well; restore those things that will still work well with a little maintenance and ongoing attention. And replace those things that have grown stale and are not likely to produce the results desired of them.

As I think about my church and those churches in the past decade that I have worked closely with, I believe that church leaders oftentimes think more highly of their facilities and programming than they should, especially when they have produced desired results in the past. We tend to try to restore things that should be replaced (or eliminated and not replaced) and retain things that should be restored. We often wait for significant deterioration in the desired results before we act. Let me encourage you to give a critical eye to these things and ask the potentially uncomfortable questions needed to ensure that the things we are doing will likely be effective in producing the desired results of seeing people come to saving faith in Jesus Christ and maturing in him for the rest of their lives. Whether to replace, restore, or retain is something to talk about.

If we at EFCA West can be an encouragement to you, please let us know. We are here to strengthen and encourage you.

Let us know if we can help and how your conversation goes. Contact Bob Osborne by e-mail at bob.osborne@efca.org

This is one of a series of articles intended to facilitate and guide church leaders’ conversations about significant issues that often are not talked about among pastors, boards, and church leadership teams. Visit the EFCA West website to see prior Something to Talk About articles.