Backwards Compatible Church

by Mike Leake on November 11, 2013 · 15 comments

The scrawny lad heaved his pile of video games onto the counter. With a hint of sadness in his voice, he asks the clerk, “How much can I get for these”? The poor lad looks as if his best-friend just informed him that he’s moving across the state.

As I’m wondering why this kid had to get rid of all of his games, I over hear nerd talk. The guys at the video game store are talking about backwards compatibility. Apparently, once this little dude opens up his new PS4 or XBox One for Christmas all of his previous games are obsolete. His old games won’t work on the new system.

As I observed that little kid—depressed by what he’s letting go but excited about the new world he is about to experience—I thought about the church. How many times are church members like that little boy? They bought into the vision of the new pastor, signed off on the mission statement, created the banners hailing the churches new purpose statement, and six months later have to burn them in the bonfire he built as part of his vision for intergenerational ministry.

The new pastor isn’t backwards compatible. The words he uses are different. The things that he emphasizes and de-emphasizes are different. The last guy was huge on involvement in the local soup kitchen. It was his thing. Not the new guy. His thing is small group ministry. So, the church will move in that direction. They’ll build new signs. Promote new events. And do this until they have a new pastor with a new schtick.

The Nintendo Generation

Us young folk don’t have as hard of a time with this constant change. We’ve grown accustomed to throwing out all of the toys that aren’t backwards compatible. After all, shoving a Nintendo cartridge into your Super Nintendo wasn’t good for the game or the system. So, we’ve become comfortable with starting over every couple years.

Yet, most of the people in our churches are part of the LEGO generation. LEGO’s arebackwards compatible. If my son happened to stumble upon a box of LEGO’s that his grandpa played with in the 60’s, they’d still fit like a glove. The colors might be faded, some of the stickers would be different, but it would fit right in. The LEGO generation isn’t accustomed to having to throw things away with every new model that comes along.

I’m part of the Nintendo generation, but if I’m being honest I prefer LEGO’s. Churches would be far more healthy if they were backwards compatible. The gospel is timeless. Yes, some of our methods for delivering the message of the gospel has to change with the culture. But at the end of the day while the gospel is able to make it’s home in any culture, it is ultimately transcultural. Centering a church on the glory of God isn’t something that you’ll need to change with a new pastor.

Every new generation will build something new with their set of LEGO’s, but they can use the same set of LEGO’s. That’s the point that I’m making. Pastors should be intentional about leading their congregations to be centered upon that which is timeless. The next pastor ought to be able to come behind you—pick up the LEGO set and start building something beautiful with his own hands. He shouldn’t have to go to the local GameStop, trade in all of your ideas, and start from the ground up.

If you’re that new pastor, be as backwards compatible as possible. Build upon the unchanging gospel foundations that the guy before you laid. Yeah, be yourself. But don’t switch stuff around just for the sake of showing everyone that a new sheriff is in town. And be sure that you leave the same set of LEGO’s for the next guy…

1 dr. james willingham November 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm

“You ain’t seen nuttin’ yet.” Consider the possibility of change like you have never dreamed possible: engines that run on water or even have their own power plants, homes that have their own power plants, think of traveling to Alpha Centauri (the nearest star) in two weeks by standing still in a bubble (inertial electro magnetic propulsion, riding on a neutrino wave like a surfer on an ocean wave), cities and homes floating in the clouds, nanotechnology, higher consciousness (and I am not speaking of something divorced from biblical Christianity, but of an effect brought on by connection with the zero point stuff and the ether of higher frequency energies?), an endless supply of energy (ever hear of zero point energy?), and the vortex and electro-magnetic propulsion or electrolytes in water to run your car? Do some surfing on the net about such things. Look for things outside the box, independent sources, where there can be no collusion and extrapolate from the same. And consider this: How much of the depth of the Bible do we not grasp which will become known to us as we advance into a time unimaginable? After all, we actually find that the idea of checks and balances came from the biblical milieu. I really have to quit and go get supper. Thought I would really stir up some excitement.

2 Dave Miller November 12, 2013 at 12:09 am

Good stuff.

Sometimes, I get frustrated with people who are resistant to change, but If you listen to some of the older people, the pace of change in the church in this generation has been radical.

Great word for us all.

3 Chris Huff November 12, 2013 at 9:14 am

Interesting comparison. I like it. I made it a rule for myself to not make any drastic changes to the church for the first 3 years I was there. I’ve been here 4 years now, and we’re just now starting to talk about some big picture vision concepts. Going with your illustration, we’re just now looking at the possibility of trading in systems. But can we do it in a LEGO kind of way? Can we do it in such a way that future generations will be able to build onto our efforts? And can we do it without completely scraping the old system? Because there are good things about it as well. I’m guess I’m just wondering if churches can have both a culture of change while respecting the past and future of the church.

4 Mike Leake November 12, 2013 at 10:12 am

Chris,
I think churches SHOULD have both a culture of change while respecting the past and future of the church. Now, how exactly to do that…that’s a little more difficult.

5 Tim G November 12, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Indeed! Great point!

6 Roger Simpson November 12, 2013 at 11:42 am

There is no question that churches do change (and should change) as a function of the culture.

The trick is to not be too far out ahead or too far behind in terms of change.

You don’t what to change to stuff that is so radical such that it only appeals to a small subset of potential people in your city while alienating a much larger group of either current members or potential members. This is especially true if this hot trend is only a fad that is going to be a flash in the pan.

Trying to attract young people via a highly differentiated style is an exercise in futility because any fad (such as music they like) will be obsolete in less than a decade. So by the time you attract them with some fad they like that fad will be obsolete — and besides the very people you attracted using that fad won’t like the fad any more.

Case in point: I know of several churches that adopted what I call a “gothic” style. The room was darkened and there were candles burning. The music was very subdued when you went into the room — with something like Gregorian chants in the background. Most people thought this idea was artificial because it was out of sync with the majority culture of either the existing members of the church or a majority of people not currently attending who are in the area.

The actual result in one test case: attendance from current members dropped off slowly over time. There were only a few people (relatively speaking) from the local university community that started attending. This was not even a zero sum game as the number of people leaving was greater than the new people arriving.

Fifteen years later after the failure of this experiment the church attendance has dropped from 1500 – 2000 to around 500 or less. The pastor engineering this change said to the members prior to the change, [this is a paraphrase but it is pretty close to what he said] “. . . the train is leaving the station . . . we have to either change or die … hundreds of churches are closing their doors every week … so you better get on board now or be left behind.”

My wife never went back to that church again. She felt she had been run over by the train. Sometimes leaders have no discernment and the leadership and membership of the church just rubber stamps whatever the senior staff thinks the latest fad is.

That pastor left after a few years.

Hopefully, churches can use case studies such as these to inform their decision making process relative to recasting their style.

I think that churches should have a motto like physicians have: “first do no harm”.

As it relates to some pastors — if they were medical doctors they would be subject to malpractice claims. I.E. they embark on “treatment regimens” for which there is no discernible precedent of success.

———-

It makes sense to start up a Cowboy church organically. But even if that model is successful in a certain context you wouldn’t try to convert a church with 1000 to 2000 members into a Cowboy church would you?

7 Nick Horton November 12, 2013 at 12:57 pm

I like the analogy. The LEGOs in this case is the Gospel; the Word of God. If we build on the Word and constantly go back to the Word there is no problem, in a broad sense, of building on the foundation of those who come before.

If however our foundation is built (continuing the analogy) of the platform of the day, it is obsolete when the next platform or system rolls around. If you build your church to be “seeker-sensitive,” your target is constantly moving because “seekers” are an ever changing group.

We do not need to window dress the Gospel. We simply need to proclaim it, faithfully, and let God work. The more I see, the more convinced I am of this. That does not mean we don’t do things excellently, but it does mean we do fewer things.

Sorry.. rambling thoughts…

8 Mike Leake November 12, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Not rambling at all, Nick. That’s the point of my article. The only way to really ensure backwards compatibility is to build upon the foundation already laid by the Lord and the apostles in the gospel. Anything that doesn’t come from that platform is bound to be in the bargain bin at next year’s Christmas sale.

9 Tim G November 12, 2013 at 2:52 pm

I get the point of the post but I disagree with it using the legos illustration. Here is why. If the legos are old and something else is out there to get the job done better and more efficiently – the legos gotta go. In theory the post is good. In practice, it is situational.

Change is occurring fast and furious. Societies schedule has changed. We work different etc.. One key factor to remember is that much of what is done in church today was done 25 years ago and is now the socializing avenue for our seniors. We have to preserve their contacts with people but we have to get ministries positioned for effectiveness in today’s schedule of life.

10 Mike Leake November 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Tim, it seems silly to defend an illustration…but, here goes. I use Lego’s because of backwards compatibility. When the company tried ditching the brick to reach a changing generation they almost sank the company. In order to restore the company they had to get back to the basics of the break–become backwards compatible again. The church must always be “backwards compatible” in that our foundation is the gospel.

In the illustration Lego’s=foundation of the gospel. Therefore, I don’t think you’d say, “If the legos are old and something else is out there to get the job done better and more efficiently – the legos gotta go.”

But hey, it’s just an illustration…so long as the larger point is understood, no big deal.

11 Tim G November 12, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Mike,
NEVER change the Gospel. I was thinking on the function of ministries in churches. The lego illustration breaks down quickly if it is used for something other than the Gospel.

12 Mike Leake November 12, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Yep. And that’s actually my point. The gospel is the only sure foundation that we can have.

What happened with LEGO is that they threw away the foundation and started building something that kind of looked like LEGO but without the bricks. They did it to reach a new generation. Churches do this all the time and pastors lead the charge. It looks like the gospel but it doesn’t organically grow out of the gospel. It’s built on other foundations. Sometimes even implications from the gospel. And so when a new pastor comes in he throws away everything and starts over again–and the church goes through the whole process.

LEGO got back to the brick. We must get back to the foundation laid by the Lord and the apostles. Build from there and the pastor after you shouldn’t have to scrap it.

13 Adam G. in NC November 12, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Those kids in the picture are so accomodating and backwards-compatible that they’ve mastered playing Mario Bros. without power to the console and the cartridge on the table.

14 Mike Leake November 12, 2013 at 3:36 pm

haha! That’s amazing. I didn’t notice that. Also one of the kids must be doing the typical “playing along’ even though the other kid is the one controlling Mario. No two-player co-op on Mario.

15 John K November 22, 2013 at 4:24 am

Mike,
Allow me building up my question with you touching upon the essence of all this regarding the church being ‘backwords compatible’. Afterall there is Church and church (, isn’t there?). First, is the backwords compatible church ‘my’ problem or ‘His’ problem? The link is our freedom received by grace. If we lose the connection between the two, even a ‘backwords compatible church’ will not survive as an Inspired gift today from the risen Lord, and transmission is at high risk. Second, this risk can only be contained by conversion taken as an open invitation day-after-day. Third, for this conversion to become operational in Him -”… Your will be done on earth as in heaven…”- we need LEGO as the building blocks of our faith via the gospel; we need the SEARCH -”… search, and you will find …”, which is personal and communal- ; we need OPENING of the door of our heart(s).

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