The Challenge of Working in an Established Church

Through my years in seminary and in ministry, I have often met people who have had their hearts set on planting a church or entering foreign (or domestic) mission work. I can quickly say that I’ve never shared that desire. I guess when I was a freshman in college I did declare “Missions” as a major, but I don’t remember ever taking that seriously as a consideration for my profession. And while I’ve entertained church-planting on a lot of Mondays, I’ve never really considered it seriously. I’ve always been committed to working in an established church. And I often think I am a moron for doing so.

My first reaction to someone working in church planting is, “Man, that must be tough!” I can’t even imagine where to begin. However, when I really begin to consider the differences of going at it alone like that and trying to navigate the incredibly complex waters in an already-established church, I think I’ll take it back. I actually think it would be easier.

I do have my reasons for choosing an already-established church. If I’m being honest, there has to at least be some element of security in there. A church that has already been around for 50 years is more likely to be around for another 50 than a church that is just starting out. I have seen statistics that show, in the life of a church, the first ten years are the most likely years a church experiences growth. In addition to that, too many church plants end up being demographically uniform with little diversity – at least in age and life experience. Granted, working with a group of people who are mostly my age and in my life stage is incredibly appealing. However, it also seems anemic. The homogeneous church does not seem to be a biblical church. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians sure wouldn’t make much sense in these kinds of churches.

In the end, as the saying goes, be careful what you ask for because you just might get it. I’m about 5 and a half years into my ministry at Alum Creek. It is a rather unique already-established church. It is unique, because it is established in that it has been around for 50 years, but it also has a freshness because they relocated about 10 years ago to a location a good 10 miles away from the previous spot. I’ve managed to shrink us down to nearly half of what we were when I got here (ok, maybe 30 percent), but I haven’t been asked to any church growth consultations lately. And I find in ourselves, an incredibly difficult flock to lead.

We’re going about 100 strong and can probably be pretty well broken up into three groups: our kids & their parents, empty-nesters (Boomers), and older Boomers and seniors. We have folks that drive all over from about a 40 mile radius around us. Our facade places in what could be considers progressive mainstream among Churches of Christ (we have a praise team that a few folks don’t like, we use videos with instruments that a couple people don’t like, we have a very minimal use of women in our services – a Scripture read here and there, but never in front – which I don’t like), but for the most part, I label us as a postmodern congregation with no imagination for anything but a modern way of doing things. We shake up the facade, but don’t seem ready to address the “weightier matters.”

Much of this has to do with being in an established church. There’s a long history of the way we do things. We’ve changed that up alot in the ten years since we’ve moved, but the deeper issue is that we’ve not really changed the way we think about many things. Trying to work through that in the established church is incredibly difficult. We are small and pround . . . but we are also very tempermental – a wrong move here or there and you feel like the whole thing might blow up.

And maybe . . . just maybe . . . that’s what needs to happen. Doesn’t seem like much changes by sitting around and talking about things – that’s what established churches are good at. Until we DO something radical, we’ll be content to talk. In the midst of our talking – folks aren’t connecting. Young people, especially, aren’t connecting. We are associated with the Churches of Christ, which, in Ohio, have done much of the same things for years and years, and have seldom made an impression on the community. The easy thing seems to be to leave and plant a church somewhere . . . but that seems to be the easy things so things get done my way. And that’s just scary. It’s a matter of committing to a family and seeing where God will lead. It’s not easy. It’s definitely not quick! Some people will not make it through, for any number of reasons. That’s OK, as long as they leave with their faith intact – and if it done in the right way – their faith should be even stronger.

I love the people I have been called to minister beside. I would never trade my intergenerational relationships for success or brighter pastures. However, to say that it’s always easy would be a huge misstatement – it’s incredibly difficult. So I have gotten what i’ve asked for . . . now I need to continue to ask for more wisdom and guidance as to where to from here – because I am incredibly frustrated. This post is more for me than you . . . but I hope you can empathize where I am coming from. What would ministry be if it wasn’t frustrating? Jesus certainly had his share of frustration.


One thought on “The Challenge of Working in an Established Church

  1. You have women reading scripture there? I never knew that. Were they doing that before you arrived or after? Any other roles (praying? serving communion? etc.)If that happened after you arrived, I’d like to know how you got to that point? How did you address it? Did you prepare people in advance or just have a woman read and deal with whatever backlash came?

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