What do NBC, Blockbuster, HBO, and Netflix have in common? That’s easy. They’re all entertainment companies, right?

What do Tower Records, Napster, ITunes, and Spotify have in common? Also easy, they’re all music companies, right?

You’re half right. Both lists are made up of companies that USED to be considered the cutting-edge version of what they do.  But here’s where it gets interesting—all of them have held that title at some point since the year 2000. That is right. Blockbuster Video literally has one remaining store in existence—it’s in Bend, Oregon. A mere seventeen years ago, however, it was considered one of the top entertainment companies in the world.

Things change.

But what about the Church? Sometimes I worry that we’re going to be just like Blockbuster, so tied to one of way of doing things that we’re not capable of seeing irrelevance inching closer by the day.  Then again, the Church has never thrived by chasing after what’s trendy. If we’re captive to the Spirit of the moment, we’re more like to be cheapening our witness than sharpening it.

But if there’s one aspect of Church that has simultaneously managed to be both time-less and timely over the years, it’s been in the practice of vocational ministry.

A half century ago Richard Niebuhr drew together a world class collection of scholars to examine the changing shape of ministry. The Ministry in Historical Perspectives, the book they authored together, laid out a vast assortment of ministry roles over the centuries. The way the Apostolic generation thought about ministry was different than the Medieval Church, which changed again in the Reformation and again during the era of Revivalism. The ways that ministers carried out their roles have varied widely. And yet at the same time, Niebuhr’s collection of scholars also pointed out that even amidst all the changes, there remained an enduring aspect of ministry that transcended the moment. At its deepest levels, ministry was always about the word of God being well taught, and the sacraments being rightly administered.

The form of ministry, then, is always changing but the function remains the same.

Is that true in your congregation? When is the last time you asked the question — is our ministry framework relevant to the moment? The pace of change has increased around us but our structures often fall dramatically behind. One very simple point of reference is this—if your staff framework hasn’t changed in the last ten years then it’s probably time for you to do some creative reframing together.

Another important point of reference might be in the changing attendance patterns of your congregation.  Thirty years ago, your church might have been filled on Sunday mornings with young families but today you’ve got half the Sunday morning attendance. Maybe that’s decline. Then again maybe it’s the fact that those young families are now recent retirees who aren’t tied to the same schedule. Has your staff framework adapted for that change?

In the last church that I pastored, we discovered that we had two to three times as many people engaged in the life of our congregation over the course of the week as we did in the building on Sunday morning.  Our staffing model needed to reflect that.

And if that wasn’t true for your congregation before this year, then a global pandemic has since made it true for all of us. You and I are living through one of the biggest transformational moments in a century’s time. Many of us can’t wait for things to “get back to normal” but when it comes to patterns of Church and ministry, we won’t be getting back to an old normal, we’ll be discovering a new one once the pandemic ends. When Zoom fatigue ends, how will your staff team be organized to use the timely techniques of virtual gatherings for the timeless practices of worship, community building, and faith formation?

One of the things we do as part of our work at the Center for Healthy Churches is help congregations ask those kinds of adaptive questions. Your staffing model ought to reflect both the mission and the vision for your Church. In most of our churches, the mission is enduring but the vision is (or should be) changing. Healthy churches rarely focus their energy on being trendy, but they should be relevant and timely in the way they carry out ministry. If you think it might be time to ask some hard but life-giving questions about your staff framework then you contact us at contact@chchurches.org. We would be happy to help.

Change is hard, but not changing is harder. I’ve got a VCR in the attic and I’ve been wanting to watch Top Gun for months. The problem is, I’m two thousand miles from the nearest Blockbuster. Then again, I could just watch it on Netflix.

Matt Cook
Dr. Cook joins the Center as a full time Assistant Director after having
served local congregations for more than twenty-five years with nearly twenty years as Senior Pastor in churches in Texas, Arkansas, and North Carolina.He is completed his undergraduate degree at Samford and his M.Div and Ph.D. (Church History) at Baylor University. He has been highly involved in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on a both the state and national level, having served on the Coordinating Councils of both Texas and Arkansas, as well as having served as the Moderator of CBF National. He was also the founding conveyor of Current, CBF’s young leaders network. He can be reached at mattc@chchurches.org.