It’s the day before an ironman distance triathlon in Grand Rapids: 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles cycling and 26.2 miles running. Gary and I arrive at Versluis Lake in the morning so I can take a quick trial swim. I put body glide on my legs and begin to squeeze into my wet suit. Ripppppp! I am horrified as an eight inch gash appears in my wetsuit right above my right knee.
Yes, my wetsuit is thirteen years old, and yes, it has many other minor tears, some of which have been patched with wetsuit cement. Never, however, did I imagine that a wetsuit could be rendered completely dysfunctional in a split second. I’ve heard people described as having a ripped abdominal area, I know personally what it means to be ripped off, and I have experienced the shame of “gripping and ripping” a golf ball, only to see it dribble a few feet off the tee.
But a wetsuit? The day before a major race? Not even having a chance to try out the lake? Yikes! I consult with a few triathlon officials, who recommend that I ask for advice from the wetsuit people at the race expo or use the best all-purpose solution to any problem: duct tape.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any duct tape, although Gary thinks I carry all of my possessions in my bag. Several dozen other swimmers are preparing to enter the water, but no one has duct tape. Another race official arrives with duct tape but no scissors. I ask around for a scissors but no luck. Really. Why would swimmers carry a scissors?
Finally, someone says, “I think my son has a little scissors in his pocket. Joe, come over here. Can this woman borrow your scissors?” The biggest smile crosses his face, and he says, “Sure!” Gary wraps bright orange duct tape around the gash, I thank the little boy for his gift, and off I go for a twenty minute swim.
It works – kind of. A few hours later at the race expo, I show my wetsuit to the swimwear rep. He carefully examines the rip to see if wetsuit cement will hold it together.
“I see your wetsuit has been patched before.”
“Yes, it’s been well used. And there are new tears that haven’t been fixed. I’ve been meaning to get to that.”
“Well, the duct tape didn’t entirely work. There is a new two inch gash in your wetsuit. There is nothing I can do to prevent further ripping, and you’ll probably be swimming for ninety minutes or so. A ripped wetsuit will no longer keep you buoyant, which is the primary goal of wearing it in the first place. I’m selling new wetsuits for 20% off. Wetsuits have come a long way since 2001.”
“All right. I’ll try one on.”
“She’s cheap,” Gary says to the wetsuit guy after I leave. “We’ll see if she goes for it. She’s a fool not to.”
The rip is long enough. I buy the wetsuit. It’s not a rip-off. It costs less and has a better quality than the wetsuit I purchased thirteen years ago.
As I steadily and slowly stroke my way through 2.4 miles during the race the next morning, my new wetsuit feels great! Why did I wait so long? I reflect on the fact that my initial desire to fix my wardrobe malfunction with duct tape is very similar to the way congregations function when something is not quite right. I didn’t want to change, and neither do churches!
I felt comfortable in my old wetsuit, even though it now leaked and was going to drag me down. The lighter, more advanced technology of the new wetsuit was appealing, but I’d always been told: NEVER TRY ANYTHING NEW ON RACE DAY! The truth, however, is that when the rip is long enough, some things simply cannot be fixed except by letting go of the old and trying something new.
It’s the same in the church. Perhaps there is a major rip in the fabric of congregational life. Because of declining revenue and membership the current budget can no longer be sustained and staff will have to be cut. Church members are not of one mind about worship styles, the youth group has dwindled to next to nothing, and no one is stepping up into leadership. Vision is gone, the congregation is unwilling to connect with its community, structures and systems are outdated and once vibrant and buoyant programs and ministries are sinking under their own inertia. The ship of the church is rudderless.
How do we fix what’s wrong in the church? Unfortunately, duct tape and bandaids are often the first choice because we’re in denial about how long and deep the rip is. Plus the mantra is now shortened to just four words, “NEVER TRY ANYTHING NEW!
We just need more new members. If only Ben would stay on as Trustees chair for the twenty-fourth year. Maybe using the piano instead of the organ will help. How about a bake sale or a chicken BBQ? If Jane would come out of retirement to teach Sunday school we might have some kids. Instead of honestly evaluating our ministries, rethinking our mission and core values and seeing our future with new eyes, we play it safe, refusing to jump into the water because we fear failure.
Jesus had something to say about rips. In the second chapter of the gospel of Mark, some people come up to Jesus and ask, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus replies, “If you’re at a wedding, you’re not going to fast while the bridegroom is there. You’re going to celebrate! There will be plenty of time to fast later. In the same way, you’re not going to sew a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak. If you do the new patch will rip! And if you’re smart, you won’t put new wine into old wineskins. If you do, the wine will bust out of the skins. New wine is put in new wineskins.”
Sometimes we just have to stop patching things up in the church and say, “Duct tape is not enough. This rip is too long and cannot be repaired. It isn’t working, so we’re going to reinvent ourselves as a congregation. We’re going to do our homework, engage our community, create a compelling vision and go for it. And if we don’t get it right the first time, we’re going to stand by the words of Thomas Edison, ‘I am not discouraged because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.’”
September marks the beginning of a new program year in most churches. What new wineskins are you trying out this year? Are you ready to put the duct tape away, reimagine your future and create something fresh? A new class? A new worship service? A new outreach ministry? A new attitude? Most organizations have to completely reinvent themselves every seven years in order to stay fresh and innovative.
In the recently released movie The Hundred-Foot Journey, the Kadam family arrives in a quaint French village after their popular restaurant is burned down during rioting in India. They open a new Indian restaurant just one hundred feet across the street from an elegant French restaurant. This romantic comedy about battling restaurant owners, played by Helen Mirren and Om Puri, opens up our senses to different spices and flavors as well as differences in cultural understanding.
Only after both restaurants are ripped apart do the owners arrange a truce by having the brilliant Indian chef Hassan apprentice in the French restaurant. The young chef experiments by using Indian spices in traditional French recipes, creating stunning new dishes that take Paris by storm. At one point Madame Mallory asks her apprentice why he would change a two hundred-year-old French recipe, and Hassan responds, “Because two hundred years is long enough.”
Two hundred years was long enough to wait for cumin and saffron to enhance a traditional French recipe. How long is long enough to put new wine (Methodist wine, of course!) into new wineskins in your ministry setting? How long is long enough to admit reality and reinvent yourself, your career, or your congregation? It took a massive rip to remind me that thirteen years was long enough to hang on to my old wetsuit. The new one worked like a charm, and I had a rip-roaring beautiful day in the race.