There was a subtle yet profound object lesson during our drive back to North Charleston late New Year’s evening. Of course my thoughts were more than a little preoccupied with the Orange Bowl playing on Sirius XM. Setting the cruise control on the freeway out of Greenville was part of the autopilot checklist for this interstate traveler. I certainly didn’t want the distractions of the road to deter my listening to the game.
Along the way we exited the Interstate to grab a snack. Yes, I braked the car to disengage the cruise control setting. Then, as soon as we turned onto the connector road I hit the “resume” button. You know, habit, Instinct. Only when the play-by-play guys announced an illegal motion penalty against Clemson did Harriet remind me that I was doing 70 in a thirty-five mile per hour zone. Glad and thankful that law enforcement didn’t drop a penalty flag on me.
The object lesson isn’t that complex. For the rest of the trip we talked about the human tendency to hit the “resume” button in life. Just like the cruise control on my car there are “set” and “resume” functions on my life control panel. There are times when “resume” may be the right move. Just the same, there are due time occasions when the systems need to be “set”, perhaps redefined, new parameters triggered. The New Year may be one of those distinct times.
The New Year resonates with us humans for many reasons. One is that there is the possibility of re-engineering life to some degree in the season of clean calendars and fresh beginnings. Even without the comic frustration of New Year’s resolutions most of us do a review of the past year and formulate expectations for the new one. With the many Bible references about the new thing God is doing in our lives it is especially meaningful for Christians, reflective moments about family, beliefs, and commitments. In some ways most of us strive “…to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24, ESV). The Christmas and New Year season at least gives us the occasion to apply the brake systems and disengage our cruise control for a couple of weeks.
Most of us, however, depress the “resume” button when the holiday season breathes its last sputter. We may have thought about setting a new pace, establishing new routines, reviving our personal devotional lives, making new commitments to family, church, and other pivotal life commitments. Without thought, perhaps instinctively, we hit the “resume” button and are engulfed by the same life forces we left on December 31.
Harriet and I have always made the New Year a time of change for us, and for the churches God gave us the privilege of leading over thirty-five years. The fresh New Year has birthed a readiness in us and those we have served to engage the “set” button on our operating systems. Those first weeks into the New Year are choice times to review our personal and church commitments, routines, ministry platforms, and mission. The first weeks of January always took me to a verse of instruction written by the Apostle Paul. To the Corinthians he wrote, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?”(2 Corinthians 13: 5, ESV).
Well, yes, I know Paul’s words aren’t New Year’s specific. But, in my personal faith life and church leadership, the New Year provides a unique time for personal examination and instruction. That these words actually articulate guidance for the church is clear in his use of the reflexive plural pronoun translated “yourselves”. This examination is a work of the individuals and the body.
The first steps of a New Year were always times to ignore the “resume” button and resist the cruise control that so clearly defines many local churches in the America today. Each year our staff and church leadership examined every definitive aspect of church life to determine whether or not they were consistent with effective mission. This involved—
(1) Prayer, discussion, and honest examination of church mission effectiveness.
(2) Review of the church governing documents, mission statements, and organizational structure to insure integrity of mission in the world of the current New Year.
(3) Examination of the demographics of our one, three, and five mile mission fields.
(4) Close study of church leadership needs, personnel, and mission.
(5) Proposal of a detailed mission plan for the New Year, presented at the church annual meeting held later in January.
Dr. Rudy Gray, President and Editor of The Courier, challenges me with every issue of the magazine. A March 17, 2017 article, Needed: Strong Existing Churches and Healthy Church Plants, included some statistics that caught my attention. Reciting research obtained by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Gray noted that approximately 900 Southern Baptist churches go out of business each year. Church closures are an astounding 3,700 among the larger Protestant family. Thankfully, a vital and vibrant church planting movement is extending the Gospel to pioneer areas so that the loss of churches isn’t so drastic. With those numbers and thoughts in mind, I often wonder how these statistics could be reversed if spiritual leaders and local congregations experienced an annual examination, a close spiritual scan of mission to determine new direction. You know, engaging the “set” mechanism rather than the “resume” button that keeps us moving, often fast, just like we always have.
Simon’ Peter’s words direct these weeks personally now in pastoral retirement, in consulting with churches, and in teaching. He wrote—
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. 2 Peter 3:18, ESV
This kind of growth means I should avoid the “resume” button and be fervent in re-setting the pace, standards, routines, and life patterns that marked the previous me. It’s the putting off of the old self and putting on of the new that moves me beyond the “resume” button.
Happy New Year.