Writings by Cole Huffman

Churches Like Mine

I’m glad there are churches like yours around still. I’m told this from time to time and heard it again recently. It makes me reflective. If I were inclined to cynicism I’d consider these words a kind of ecclesiastical profiling, but I’ve never detected any real condescension in the speaker. Usually the speaker is someone affiliated with a new or younger church but kingdom-minded, appreciating the niche of older churches like mine.

What is the profile of a church like mine? It has existed for generations, having what I once called in a sermon on First Corinthians 3:4-10 pastoral sediment. My church, for instance, started in 1935 and I’m the eighth senior pastor in its layered history.

A church like mine is evangelically orthodox but doesn’t have the “gospel-centered” or “missional” chic, even if its pastor is conversant with those currents. It became a large church sometime in its past and is still widely known in its community. It attracts people serious about Bible study and missions; people more traditionally set. It’s like Buick before Buick started imitating Acura, trying to convince us that Shaq and Peyton Manning actually drive their cars.

A church like mine is not “the church of what’s happening now.” That’s in quotes because it was the observation of a former pastor of First Evan who said we would never be the church of what’s happening now. That’s become distinctive in an evangelical marketplace trending young in leadership, highly influenced by spiritual entrepreneurs and cultural architects.

Much depends on tone when we say we’re not the church of what’s happening now. The words can cloak envy or serve a throb of spiritual pride; a church curmudgeon tweet; a harrumph of this isn’t First Entertainment Church! My predecessor didn’t mean it any of those ways. It was just an apt observation, an appraisal of the culture of our church ingrained, that on the whole churches like mine aren’t palpitated by words like reinvent, catalytic, and fair trade coffee. Some things you can alter in a church’s culture. Other things you shepherd as you find them.

Church planting is a draw for many ministers and should be. It was for me just over ten years ago. Networks like Acts 29 are vibrant and needed. New churches tend to do evangelism and discipleship of new believers better than their older siblings (churches like mine).

My own experience in church planting was short-lived but I never felt the endorphins of church ministry more than when I was church planting in my early 30s. Casting fresh vision, walking in faith, growing organic community! For other planters the appeal is getting to implement a ministry philosophy that prizes messiness and social consciousness, edgier services, provocative sermons, and outside-the-box polity.

I wonder what percentage of younger men looking to lead churches are drawn to churches like mine? Drawn not to the perks or resources of a big church in a city, drawn not to what they think they could achieve for change, but drawn to the church for itself. What percentage of seminarians today is willing to give the young muscle of their careers—their 30s and 40s—to churches like mine that appear structurally, functionally, and culturally calcified? Churches inside-the-box, if you will? Acts 28 churches?

We need new churches. I believe this and support evangelical efforts at planting them, even when they make my leadership look stock or stuck in comparison, even when churches like mine donate (ahem) some members to the start-up. We need new churches. But we also need renewed churches.

I know a few churches started by guys in the older muscle of their careers—their 50s and 60s, even 70s. Some of them pastored churches like mine and will tell you they tired over time of tending to status quo institutional predispositions. Leadership meetings sometimes felt like the movie Groundhog Day when the same discussions, debates, and fears recycled year to year. Families with long history in the church were overly cautious or suspicious regarding anything new. These pastors gave leadership energy without getting followership energy in return. It wears a guy down.

Renewal is hard work. So is new—starting a new church. But for all we say about it being so hard a new work seems easier and freer in comparison to a renew work. New is the hard of isotonic exercise while renew is the hard of isometric exercise because there’s more a sense of movement in new.

If I were to address a graduating seminary class, I would appeal to some of them to prepare themselves to lead churches like mine. Don’t overlook churches like mine, I’d exhort them, suspecting the line for new is out the door but the line for renew is a smaller queue.

First and foremost, love the people for who they are as they are. I have found loving a church from the leader’s chair to be more self-exposing than I like, both in the vulnerability it requires of me and how bad at it I actually am. But to lead for renewal in a church like mine you have to be there for years, and you will not last in a church like mine if the people think they are your project more than your pathos.

You need tenacious patience in leading a church like mine rather than just patience. Tenacity keeps looking to God to do what only He can do when I’d have given up by now. Vision pays attention to God continually, so staying with a vision that aims at renewal is to keep looking for Him right where you are. To paraphrase and add to Paul in First Corinthians 3, some plant and some water and some harvest and some do all three in the same place. Planting takes a while, watering takes a while, and harvest takes a while even when the land has been worked for generations.

Curb your enthusiasm for quick change in a church like mine. (Relatedly, don’t expect the folks to get a lot of your cultural references and puns.) Leadership requires the skill of discerning the timing and pace for introducing changes, which changes are truly needed and which are just style points for the leader. Be the tortoise, not the hare. On this point I find a lot of conventional church leadership gurus harebrained concerning churches like mine. I don’t mean to be insulting. The gurus and conference circuit riders have something to teach us and I’ll take wisdom wherever I find it. I read widely and try to be teachable, even from someone who’s just spent two chapters telling me why my church is irrelevant. But I find a lot of the ministry success books and leadership conferences are more gristle than meat for churches like mine.

And labor at getting over yourself if you’re going to lead a church like mine. Leadership of Jesus’ church is stewardship, not accessorizing one’s sense of self. Some guys give the impression they couldn’t stand leading a church like mine—we’re too stifling, too archaic; too trifling, too prosaic. Yes, but for every experience of that I have numerous others that bust the paradigm, including how free I am to be myself, something many fear isn’t allowed in leadership of a church like mine. My church has had almost eight decades to learn who she is, learn to like who she is, and be who she is. Paradoxically, that’s how you get over yourself.

We’ve had almost eight decades to botch some things too, blow opportunities, etc. But there’s a lot of striving left in churches like mine, striving to own God’s ownership of us in Jesus. God’s Spirit has not left the building. Every church does something well (be thankful); no church does everything well (be hopeful).

I’m glad there are churches like yours around still. I am too.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:53 AM
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