Ministry: A Blind Imitation of the Past?

Today, Iowa became the fourth third state (sorry CA) to have marriage equality.  Regardless of your opinions on the issue, there's a hacking moment in the decision that is important for Churches to hear when it comes to evaluating ministry standards and effectiveness.

The Supreme Court based their decision on equal protection under the law:

The process of defining equal protection, as shown by our history as captured and told in court decisions, begins by classifying people into groups. A classification persists until a new understanding of equal protection is achieved. The point in time when the standard of equal protection finally takes a new form is a product of the conviction of one, or many, individuals that a particular grouping results in inequality and the ability of the judicial system to perform its constitutional role free from the influences that tend to make society’s understanding of equal protection resistant to change.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes poignantly said, “It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.”
From the Wikipedia way of doing ministry to beta programming, we talk a lot about how to create new ministries or understandings of ministry.  And one of the barriers to new ministry or redefining who can do ministry is "we've always done it this way" and "the bible always has defined X as Y." 
Perhaps when it comes to ministry innovation, there's a few questions to ask ourselves that are informed by Justice Holmes' quote above:
  1. Is the only basis for a ministry that it was laid down eons ago?
  2. Has the relevant group of ministry creators or recipients moved on?
  3. Has the structure and "way of doing things" of the ministry been a "blind imitation" since its inception?
If the answer to any of the above is yes, then perhaps a review is in order.  We divide  ministry into groups like society divides people into groups.  And perhaps when we really look at the standards of ministry, we may see that we are not ministering effectively or faithfully to our current congregation or community.  And it may be time to change it.

Thoughts on ministry innovation, seeking relevant ministry, and removing barriers from irrelevant ministry standards?  Discuss in the comments or on Google Connect!

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Larry B,  April 4, 2009 at 7:46 AM  

I'll admit, I'm a little confused on how your two sections fit together here, so forgive me if I'm off topic here.

Sticking with what you posted about my states recent court decision, I think what you are proposing is that ministry should follow the example of the courts by looking for new suspect classes (to use the legal term) to define and then redefine ministry for that?

What bothers me about this is who, what, and when do you define a new suspect class for? Returning to your original analogy, In Iowa, it followed the predictable path of getting sexual orientation defined as a protected class and then suing the county for denying a marriage certificate under the idea that now orientation is a "suspect class" when you talk about equal protection in Iowa's state constitution.

If you bring that idea to ministry to try and affect change - don't you just end up arguing about who deserves "suspect class" status? It turns into a popularity contest based on who creates the best group.

I don't think that ministry based on popularity is very effective.

Rev. Jeremy Smith April 4, 2009 at 8:16 AM  

Larry, as usual thanks for your questions. My point was in the latter section of the snippet from the decision...the quote by Justice Holmes. I'm calling for re-evaluation of ministry because it may be interesting to see why churches do a particular ministry. Sometimes ministry ideas persist just like arcane laws: without a foundation and without an infusion of spirit. so an evaluation of ministry is in order even for the longtime ministry ideas and standards.

However off topic you went, your musings do strike a response in me. Initially, ministry based on popularity is the polar opposite of an article I wrote on the "long tail" of ministry in the Wikipedia series. Check it out.

But more to the point, shouldn't ministries always be expanding to reach more and more niches of people who we then treat like we treat everyone else? Or should ministries keep their focus on their niche groups and serve them the best we can.

I am thinking that recently we were offered to move a outreach program to my church from another (the program was having some financial issues and we are cheaper). I refused because (a) we didn't have the passion that the other church did, and (b) that was that other church's niche. While bringing in that sort of program would have given more ministry to that niche of people, I felt we had a different role to play. I'm sorry I can't be more specific, but hopefully I am clear about the tension between being all things for all people, and offering ministry only to the niches we are good at.

Interesting question.

Larry B,  April 4, 2009 at 8:18 PM  

Rev. Jeremy,

That clears a lot up for me in terms of what you were getting at. And yes, it is an interesting question - expand the niches or focus on existing niches.

I live in a small town of about 10,000 people (small in comparison to a suburban setting) and there are easily 30+ churches in the town. With a quick bit of math that comes to 1 church for every 333 people in town. And yet, many of our local charities and aid organizations remain underfunded and underserved by volunteers. You would think that with that many churches, they could all find niches to fill and get things done. Not so. On top of that, there are still people unsatisfied with the churches that are here because a recent non denominational church plant took off like wildfire.

What does that say about your root question? It tells me that you need both kinds of activities to ensure that you reach as far as possible and I think that you showed a perfect example of how the two can mix. When you turned down a possible expansion because it was better served by another ministry, it bolsters that ministry (at least in theory) by confirming it's worth in it's present position. At the same time, the fact that you were asked to expand shows that you are thinking about how you might reach further.

The other thought here too, is that if a church does decide to focus on it's niche and not consider expanding niches it has to be ready to - in effect - die if or when the niche disappears. Much as any business that gets into a niche market is confronted with.

Good thought provoking post. (even if the lead in had me gnashing my teeth a bit :) )

Matt Algren April 6, 2009 at 10:17 AM  

I see this happen all the time. "This is the way we've always done it" is the bane of good businesses and good churches alike.

When I was a kid, we had the men of the church (about 30 regular members total) prepare breakfast on Easter morning. It. Was. AWESOME. Loads of in-jokes and bonding between both the men while they prepared the food and the women while they worried about what would go wrong. (We almost didn't care that it always seemed to fall on Daylight Saving Time Sunday. Almost.)

By the time I left in my mid-20s, half of the men who started it had died or left, and the breakfast had slowly transformed to a joyless perfunctory exercise that nobody wanted to do but that we still did because at one point it was a great thing.

Since then I've seen the same thing in mission trips, youth camps, praise bands, fund raisers, Sunday School classes, church choirs, and just about anything else you could imagine.

It's too bad, really. So much time, energy, and money goes into programs that could be replaced with better ones because people are afraid of change, or at least afraid to be the heretic to suggest the change.

imitation watches June 18, 2010 at 9:24 AM  

I really wonder why some of you guys being so negative with ministry innovation.Let's get to know what is it really all about...

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