The 2007 film “No Country for Old Men” is a crime drama about a man who finds a pickup truck surrounded by dead bodies full of two million dollars in cash and a load of heroin. When he takes the money, he sets off a chain reaction of violence that an aging cynical sheriff can’t begin to contain. The ending of the film isn’t real clear. Lots of people die and the sheriff ends up believing that he can’t keep pace with the violence of society and it’s time to retire.
What does that have to do with “old folks” in church leadership? Actually, quite a lot. An older generation can often be stuck in how things used to be. When culture changes, it can be easier to remember the “good ‘ol days” than become a student of the emerging culture and reenvisioning your ministry for a new season. If you research the people in your community and if you learn their needs, God will show you how to meet their needs in Jesus’ name.
Seasoned leaders bring a wealth of experience into the places they serve. The problem with experience is that we may be tempted to rely on the past instead of allowing God to define the ministry of our future. The new generation before us is not the same as the generations now passing. It can be frustrating for any leader who is trying to coach the team they used to have instead of discovering how to coach the team they have.
Use Your Experience
My wife Bonnie and I moved to the Iron Range in January of 2017 to church plant. We have over three decades of church planting experience in several denominations. We have always had to think like missionaries; we never assumed that we fully understood the culture around us. It takes effort to learn about who you are ministering to and it takes patience to allow the Holy Spirit to help you unpack the stuff that matters as you reach out to them with the gospel.
The Vineyard Church in Eveleth, MN is the first Vineyard Church Bonnie and I have pastored. We would have loved to be working with Vineyard sooner, but we both believe that the time spent working with other church movements has broadened our ability to relate to a very diverse church culture.
Understanding basic theology and traditions of different church backgrounds can be a great tool. For instance, a person’s background might tell you something about how they feel about communion or baptism or their experience with the Holy Spirit. You may find they have a deep history of piety and spiritual awakening or some may be more progressive. Knowing this can give you a better chance at building a conversational bridge. You may even discover some surprising insights on discipling people in a manner that uses their history in a beneficial way. It’s possible to connect current church issues with ancient ones and bring wisdom and unity to the Body of Christ.
Look at the Data
Successful leaders of any age must study the demographics they serve. It may be time consuming to dig through data, but demographic studies from the U.S Census Bureau or county websites are worth looking at. It’s helpful to know if 10% of your community’s households are run by single moms, or that one out of four families live below the poverty level, or that one out of five people in your area are struggling with an addiction. Knowing who your potential audience is will inform your prayers as you ask God to guide the what and how in your efforts to make disciples.
When we planted, we also talked to many people about the area. We spoke with business owners and asked them what was good and bad about running a business on the range. We heard multiple business people telling us that they found it hard to hire people because few applicants could pass a drug test.
One of the first doors to open for our church was to reach out to people with addictions by working with a local chemical dependency treatment center. We also host a weekly recovery small group. These are great opportunities to listen to, love, and pray for people as they seek freedom from drugs and alcohol.
We feel that everything that we have experienced has prepared us to be exactly where we are. Think about where you are right now. Perhaps the place you are at is a gateway to a new season as a church planter. Who you are matters. The place you are at right now matters. You are part of God’s equation in reaching a broken world. Don’t forget to continue asking questions, looking at data, and evaluating your assumptions as you keep reaching your community.
No ministry for old folks? Nah! Old folks rock!
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Don and Bonnie Guttormson have been pastors and church planters for over 3 decades. They have been married for over 40 years, and have three adult children, Lars, Yulanda, and Bjorn. Don and Bonnie are passionate about introducing people to Jesus and helping them discover who God created them to be. They desire to bring people understanding of how much God loves them, and that He has a plan for their life.