Last week, while worshipping at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, I realized that we, as a congregation, have made a significant upgrade. While it was subtle and occurred over time, we have replaced an old way of doing things with a new paradigm. We have always had announcements, but we now spend a portion of that time welcoming those who worship with us online, via live streaming—people from 44 states and 23 countries. What once was just a congregation on 29th and 5th Ave. in New York City is now becoming a church for the world.
Some would deem this an upgrade. Others may question how the church they have come to know and love is still going to remain their own church. Any upgrade both opens opportunities for learning and exposes tensions or bugs that need to be addressed. The key is to navigate the upgrade in a way that brings forth acceptance, greater knowledge, and a clearer more focused way of doing things. Upgrades are intended to enhance, and yet if not introduced and taught well, they can leave some feeling frustrated or confused.
Upgrades also open up opportunities for questions. Some of the questions we at Marble Church are now engaging in are these:
- How do we do discipleship for a church that reaches out to the world?
- How do we offer pastoral care for those who are not in our neighborhood but consider Marble their church family?
- How do we celebrate the sacraments in a way that is both grace-filled and blessed with a global fabric of community?
Jesus told John the Baptist’s disciples that old wineskins were not appropriate for new wine. If new wine was poured into old skins, they would crack under the pressure. He instead encouraged them to put new wine into fresh wineskins, so that both old skins and new skins would keep in good condition.
The wineskins are an age-old parable that can help congregants take a fresh look at congregational life. New wine, new ideas or upgrades, need places to reside where the flavor is enhanced, the richness experienced—places where the change can breathe. But the old wineskins can’t be ignored. When making an upgrade, one needs to pay attention to the operating system that has existed and then explore what changes need to take place for the church to retain its unique context, embody its theology and tradition, and at the same time be prepared and ready for what God may do.
I will be the first to admit that I’m not as computer savvy as I would like to be. In fact, I even get nervous when update announcements come across my screen telling me there’s something newer, better, and fresher. I find myself saying, “I like it the way it is.” But with some convincing from my husband (who is a computer guru), I oblige and install all the updates. And over time I realize that once I take the time to learn the new way of doing things, the updates are usually improvements.
Marble Collegiate Church is one of oldest churches in America. Yet we as a church continue to wonder how and when to press the refresh button to become a newer version of ourselves. To upgrade well, it is necessary to explore what needs to be added, tweaked, revised, and perhaps even deleted in order that the new body will be more colorful, fresher, faster, and more engaging. One person suggested that upgrading is the process of replacing a product with a newer version of the same product. In other words, new wine in new wineskins.
Neil Cole, well-known author, has tackled this subject of church upgrades in his book Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church. He maintains that the universal church needs a complete upgrade to a new operating system, a shift from a program-driven and clergy-led institutionalized approach to one that is relational, simple, intimate, and viral. His hope is that the church is not seen as a program to reach out to the world, but as a people that bring God with them into the world. Cole has an inspiring vision for upgrading the church as the whole. However, each of us as congregants need to begin looking at our own traditional operating systems while exploring how God can do something fresh to bring our church into this new connected world.
The words from The Message translation of Isaiah 43:19 say, “Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?” The mistake we sometimes make is thinking the work of upgrading is all about us. Notice God was ready to do a new thing in Isaiah’s day, and God is still doing a new thing today.
Our role is to see it, be open to it, and have the courage and faith to click the “Install” button. Who knows? We might be surprised at how well it runs.
Kirsty DePree is passionate about walking with others on their journey. In addition to serving as Minister of Congregational Care, she is also the pastoral advisor to Stephen Ministry and Women’s Ministry. Before arriving at Marble Collegiate Church, she served as the Coordinator of Discipleship for the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and also served as a minister in three different RCA congregations in Michigan. Rev. DePree attended Western Theological Seminary and Hope College. She is married to Tim and has two children, Josh and Jeremy.