Wednesday, June 12, 2024
Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.



[or, “The Case of the Misplaced Bridge”

As noted in earlier reports, when not “on the road” with our motorhome your Roving Reporters live in Bend and Florence, and have the opportunity to participate with Methodist congregations in both locations.  With this report we’d like to share an interesting initiative that’s taking place at our Bend church home, as it has implications for our friends in Florence as well.

The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church has given careful thought to the need to reposition the church in today’s times.  Given the fast pace of change in the outside world, new vision is essential to support its core mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.   Note this statement does not suggest the purpose of the church is limited to ministries within the congregation.  Nor does it restrict the undertaking to our local communities.  It contemplates that the church sees its fundamental goal as helping to create new followers of Jesus Christ in order to bring much-needed changes throughout the world.  That’s an incredibly bold mission statement; and it requires an equally bold and creative new vision to successfully pursue it.


The program being undertaken by the Bend Congregation is a consultative process, facilitated under the leadership of the Assistant to the Bishop, Steven Ross.  It is taking place in several carefully programmed phases.  The first phase took place at the Bend church on Sunday, October 2 immediately following the morning service.  More than 70 in the congregation committed to participate in this process, the first step of which was the opening presentation by Pastor Ross.  The further steps will include focus groups; individual interviews; periodic reports to the membership; the drafting of a plan by the consultants based on all of the input from the members; and finally an up or down vote by the members on whether to adopt a visionary new action plan for the Bend UMC.  The purpose of this article is to summarize, in two parts, the presentation by Pastor Ross.  It examines the reasons supporting the conclusion that core changes are needed in order to reposition the church more effectively to pursue its guiding mission statement.  One might state this another way: The “case for” outlined below arguably compels the conclusion that in these vastly changed times the church needs to re-invent itself in order to carry out its stated mission.

[Ed Note:  While there were 70 members of the Bend UMC congregation that had the opportunity to experience the presentation that followed, it’s our view that the message was of such interest, and the logic so persuasive, that we wanted to ensure the content could be shared more broadly with other interested participants in the United Methodist Church -- and beyond.]

The Bridge that no longer Served its intended Purpose

The presentation began with a simple image on the screen.  Imagine this scene if you can: A projected image of an aerial photograph of a wide valley.  High ground is visible on either side of the valley, but the floor of the valley appears to be some sort of flood plain.  In the center of the floodplain there is a very sturdy bridge.  It is attractive in an architectural sense, and sturdy in terms of sound engineering.  Yet it stands on what is now a dry part of the flood plain.  On the right side of the valley there is a substantial river flowing.  The bridge is far separated from the river.

Members of the congregation, seated around small tables of 6-8 persons, were invited to take a couple of minutes to speculate among themselves what that image represented.  It didn’t take a a great deal of imagination to see what had taken place: The bridge was still standing where it had been constructed; but over time the river had changed its course.  As a consequence that sturdy bridge no longer was able to serve the purpose for which it was originally constructed.

Pastor Steve asked whether anyone saw similarities between the projected image and the status of the church in today’s world.  Looking at the faces in the audience, you could quickly see “the lights go on”.  Again each group was invited to briefly discuss their impressions with the group at their table.  No one had difficulty in seeing the parallel between the bridge and the church.  Time had dramatically changed “the world”, but both the bridge and the church had remained in the same place.  As a consequence neither was able to carry out the purpose for which it was originally designed.  

The “misplaced bridge” image  was an excellent way to paint the scenic backdrop for the discussion that was about to follow.

Oh How the Times have Changed!



It was more than 40 years ago that Alvin Toffler, author and futurist, published the epoch book “Future Shock”.  Long predating the extraordinary changes brought by future technologies, Toffler offered a prophetic thesis: too much change in too short a period of time.  While Toffler could not have foreseen the extraordinary ramifications of the new “high tech” society that was soon to emerge, his underlying theme of change occurring at an ever-faster pace surely has borne true as we venture further into the 21st Century.

Pastor Steve provided a number of statistics to underscore just how radically our lives have changed in recent years, due in large part to the accelerating pace of technological innovation in our everyday lives.  The profound changes in mass communications, and extraordinary and instant access to information have turned our traditional ways upside down.  Who could have foreseen even a decade ago that today’s average teenager would be sending over 2,000 text messages per month.  Consider the impact of digital images sent in microseconds to millions of viewers around the globe.  Increasingly people see the internet as their “instant information resource” as to what’s going on down the street or around the world.  Massive structural changes are occurring as advertisers shift their focus from the daily printed newspapers to a variety of emerging new media options.  Recent instability and volatility in the stock markets has been traced in considerable part to the exploding use of “program trading”, by which literally millions of trades can be executed each second!  We’ve come to rely on the internet for all types of purchase transactions, whether online or through pieces of plastic; and the entire financial infrastructure of the world is now dependent upon the continued viability of this digital network.  It’s now conceived that massive armies and armaments may be no match for control over this new digital universe.  

Consider too our contemporary means for communication with each other and with the world.  With massive numbers now embracing social media as their primary personal communications option, and with avenues such as YouTube supplanting more traditional publication methods, where does the church stand in its ability to “fit in” to these fast-expanding channels where the world is getting its information?  Is the church up to the task of having its voice heard?  If the power of these forms of communication were not fully demonstrated before, could there be any question now -- Arab Spring anyone?

A simpler example offered up by Pastor Steve from his own experience seemed particularly poignant.  Some years ago one local United Methodist church had a difference of opinion on whether there should be a street sign placed to indicate the church’s location. Some argued that if anyone really wanted to find the church, they could easily do so without a street sign.  That sort of discussion in today’s world completely misses the point, as studies have shown that 85% of today’s first-time church visitors have found the church’s location on the internet.  The day of the street sign may have gone the way of the buggy whip.  Or is it the bank teller or postage stamp?

Reflecting on any number of examples, there is a compelling case that we live in a strikingly different world today than just a few years ago.  It is one in which an understanding of the new realities of technologies and the resulting impacts on personal beliefs and motivations is essential for success.  These massive dislocations and changes are to the church precisely what that river was to the lonely bridge that now stands uselessly abandoned in the sand.


[Ed Note:]  The second and final part in this story will examine how these “new world” conditions have dramatically changed the views, perspectives, needs and motivations of the generation that it now influences.  It is crucial that we understand these as well if we are to propose a new pro-active vision for the church -- and bold new initiatives to pursue its ultimate mission.

We will also see how all of these factors relate to what might be described as the “default life cycle” of a church. We’ll be looking for an achievable plan to revitalize the church -- and by so doing move the bridge so that it will once again cross that river whose course was so dramatically changed by time.