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by Rev. Matt Ashley, South District Missional Strategist and Superintendent

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” ~Mark 2:22~

David Rich had a problem.  It was 1975, and he was the operator of the McDonald’s on Fry Boulevard in Sierra Vista, just two miles from the main gates of Fort Huachuca.  Everyday thousands of potential customers drove by the restaurant without stopping.  Military regulations didn’t allow soldiers in uniform to appear in public, so military personnel on their way to and from the Fort couldn’t go inside to order food at the counter.

To reach all those potential customers, Mr. Rich had to try something new.  He had to innovate.  Drive-through windows had existed at other burger stands for decades, but it had never been done at a McDonald’s.  To get those soldiers to stop for a meal, Mr. Rich had to be able to serve them in their car, and so he had a window cut into the side of the restaurant, put someone there to take orders, and just handed the food out the window – the world’s first McDonald’s drive-through.  It worked so well that now just about every McDonald’s you can find has a drive-through window.

John Wesley had a problem too.  The future founder of Methodism was an Episcopal priest in 18th Century England, and his ministry was falling flat.  He’d stand up at the pulpit of his church every Sunday and deliver a sermon to a small group of dull-eyed, bored attenders.  People in his country just weren’t enthusiastic about coming to church in those days, and Wesley didn’t know how to break through and get people excited about their faith.  Every day people walked by the doors of the church and didn’t give a second thought to coming inside.

Sound familiar?

To reach all those potential Christians, John Wesley had to try something new.  He had to innovate.  He had an evangelist friend named George Whitefield who took a different approach to ministry known as field preaching.  Whitefield would find a farmer’s field or public square or other outdoor space and lead outdoor worship.  It lacked the decorum of a proper Anglican worship service, but it drew worshippers who’d respond to the Good News with heartfelt expressions of faith.

I’ve heard it said that first John Wesley didn’t think any properly educated Anglican priest should try something as common and undignified as field preaching.  It wasn’t respectable, and it wasn’t the way worship had always been done.  But Wesley couldn’t deny that Whitefield’s method was working, and in time, Wesley had a change of heart.  He gave field preaching a try, and in that different context his preaching impacted people in a way it never had in the pulpit.  Soon he was drawing crowds as large as Whitefield’s, and lives were being transformed.

David Rich didn’t invent drive-through windows and John Wesley didn’t invent field preaching, but they both recognized a good thing when they saw it and they were both willing to try something new.  They were both willing to innovate.

The word ‘innovate’ comes form a Latin word that means ‘to alter or renew’.  To innovate is to alter your course, to make something new by trying something new.  If you innovate, you look at a way that something is currently being done and figure out a way to do it more effectively, like selling soldiers cheeseburgers or reaching people for Christ.

That Sierra Vista McDonald’s is still there, though I imagine it’s been remodeled a few times.  In 1975, Sierra Vista United Methodist Church stood right next door to it, where Walgreen’s stands today; that was the church’s original location.  I wonder if the people of SVUMC in 1975 were also trying new ideas to reach those soldiers who drove past their church every day?

It is tempting to want to go back to the way things were before Covid, but maybe this is a good time to try something new.  With challenges come opportunities.  To reach our neighbors, we have to try something new.  We have to innovate.  We have to be willing to try new ideas.

We have twenty-nine churches in the South District, all with sparks of vitality, all with wonderful people, and the love of Christ is ready to shine within us so that we are shining like stars in the world.

In my last two newsletter articles, I’ve talked about how I hope the churches of the South District will be joyful and compassionate churches.  I hope too that we will be twenty-nine innovative churches.  Churches who are willing to risk trying new things.  Churches who know that new ideas often fail but every failure is an opportunity to learn.  Churches who aren’t content with the way things always were but excited about the possibilities of what can be.  Churches who will eagerly look for ways to make a difference in the lives of all those neighbors who drive past each day without stopping.

We are meant to be an innovative people.  After all, you don’t put new wine into old, worn-out wineskins.  When someone visits your church, are they there because you were willing to try something new?

Thanks for listening –
Matt

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