It is now common to see expiration dates on products in the grocery store. Just about every product seems to have a date printed on the packaging. While there are some products where it seems strange to have an expiration date (bottled water, perhaps) in most cases we understand the need (have you ever had expired milk?).
While, in most cases, we would avoid having food products in our pantry or refrigerator well past their expiration date, churches tend to hold onto programs and activities well beyond their usefulness. I've been to many conferences where this has been addressed and pastors and leaders in the audience always shake their heads in agreement.
I remember one year when a new evangelism strategy was introduced by our denomination. Our pastor stood behind the pulpit and stated "We will do this program until Jesus returns." I cringed when he said it. It was not because I did not believe in the strategy. I did. It was just that, even years ago, I began to realize that even the best programs available have a shelf life.
We ended the strategy after one year.
This line of thinking has been common in many churches for years. Programs and ministries are started. There is great passion and emphasis placed upon the programming. A group of leaders or volunteers become passionate about the strategy. Then. . .over time, the energy wanes. Ministry becomes meetings. Strategies become programs. Calendars become cluttered. Church members become busy.
And the Kingdom suffers.
Why is this?
Should we just clear the calendar and "kill" every program in the church?
That's pretty extreme. If you're a pastor and you choose to do this, just make sure your resume is up to date. You most likely will be needing that. Therefore, I'm not recommending a scorched earth ministry reboot.
However, there is wisdom in taking a fresh look at all the local church is doing. For fear of "offending" those who are more committed to a certain program or ministry than to the Kingdom, the pastors and leaders of the church must take an honest inventory of all the church does regularly. Otherwise, the church becomes an organization with tired members, working to sustain fruitless programs that are "good" but not fulfilling the purpose or calling of the church.
Christians become more like Hindus in that we create our own "sacred cows." As Rick Warren said, "Sacred cows make the best hamburger."
Ed Stetzer's statement continues to ruminate in my mind - "We [Baptists] are perfectly organized to reach the culture of the 1950s."
So, what do we do with programs and ministries that become part of our local church culture, fill the calendar annually, but over time lose their effectiveness and become little more than stress creators and tools to keep believers busy, but away from the real mission?
There are really two answers when it comes to dealing with ineffective or outdated church programs - kill it or prune it.
Think of the program or ministry as a tree. I remember Jesus' reaction to a fig tree that no longer produced fruit. (Mark 11:12-14) In this story, which has varied levels of illustration and teachable moments, Jesus shows that when a tree that is designed to produce fruit no longer is doing so, the tree loses its worth.
So, in some cases, the best answer is to uproot the ministry program and move on.
In Romans 11, Paul is speaking to new believers of the grafting of new branches into old olive trees. While this story is about the reality of the Gentiles (wild olive branches) being brought into the Story of God through grace by being grafted into the church (cultivated olive branches) there are some principles of growth and health to be learned here as well.
I was listening to a pastor tell a story of an apple tree he inherited when he purchased his new home. His subdivision was located on an old apple orchard and a few trees survived the construction. One was in his new backyard. The problem was that this apple tree was not producing apples. Reminds me of the fig tree Jesus encountered.
A fruit tree that does not produce fruit is not only fruitless (bad pun) but is not fulfilling the purpose for its existence.
This pastor brought in an expert on apple trees to see what could be done. The apple tree expert gave him two options - one is to uproot the tree and start over. The other was to severely prune the tree and wait to see if fruit production would return. Both options carried the risk of killing the tree. However, the risk was worth it because the apple tree was no longer doing its job. It was time for action.
The pastor and expert opted for pruning. It was a severe pruning. So severe, it appeared the tree would not survive. However, after a couple of years (this is a lesson on patience as well) the tree began to produce apples again.
The parallels are obvious. The calendar-filling, sacred cow programs of many churches often cease to produce fruit. They do nothing more than suck the energy from the church and volunteers. They are like a tree with deep roots, taking all the nourishment from the ground and producing nothing.
It's time for either an uprooting or a severe pruning.
What's the danger?
People will get angry. It's human nature. Those who are imbedded within the ministry often have allowed their partcipation or service to define their worth within the body. They no longer can see the full picture of the bigger story and therefore, live their lives as players in small stories that no longer matter. Such is the life of the burned out Christian.
Most pastors and leaders will not work to prune or uproot such programs for fear of negative PR, the anger of church members who do not get the bigger picture, or the work required to evaluate and stay on focus.
Consequently, we have churches all across our land who have convinced themselves they are doing the work of the church, yet no longer produce fruit. In some cases, they smell like that milk sitting on the shelf in the refrigerator with an expiration date from two weeks prior.