During the glory days of the Gold Rush, the California Trail was the best way to cross Mid-America. But not for long. Better roads and vehicles provided new ways and means of transportation. First via wagon train and stagecoach, then it was the railroad. Next came the Lincoln Highway with its heyday in the 1930s, ultimately replaced with the modern interstate system.

The mission never changed: “Go west, young man,” but methods of achieving it were continually updated and upgraded. Today if you travel to California, you might not buy an ox for the journey or rent a covered wagon. You hop in your Honda and cruise west—or you could do something radical like fly there.

History buffs identify places where the old wagon trail used to be. They point to the ruts. While speaking at a Rocky Mountain camp meeting near Casper, Wyoming, I took my morning prayer walk along the ruts. To think that hundreds of thousands of emigrants traveled this same road filled me with respect for their vision and sacrifice and awed me with a sense of rich heritage.

As Mid-Americans, the ruts of our pioneers should be profoundly special. But not sacred. Not unchangeable. Because what used to be the best way to go can become, over time, a hindrance rather than a passage for fulfilling God’s purpose. Blindly following the human methods of the pioneers while forgetting their divine mission causes the church to be stuck in ruts. And when we imagine those ruts to be sacred, we entrap ourselves ever deeper in them.

I think you can see where I’m going with this: mission never changes, but methods of fulfilling it must continually be examined and improved. Acknowledging this simple reality does no disrespect to our pioneers. It’s just good sense and responsible stewardship. Paradoxically, to maintain the spirit of the pioneers we must continually transcend their methods by pioneering new ways of fulfilling God’s unchanging mission.

The mission of the church is the same as it has been for 2,000 years, since Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations …” (Matthew 28:19). Some individuals and organizations have forgotten this mission, to their peril. You can drift from it by chasing the latest fads, just for the sake of doing something new. That’s one extreme. But you can drift just as far from your mission by clinging to the past, faithful unto death in sacred ruts.

Sacred ruts are just as bad as rabbit trails that lure the impulsive spirit. Maybe worse, since rut-dwellers think they are preserving the purpose of the church when they are just stuck in the ways and means of yesteryear. Meanwhile God says: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19, NIV).

I’ll try to make this practical and personal. Many years ago I graduated from a beautiful rural academy back east. Recently the school shut down, not because conference constituents wanted to do that but because they had to. Their purpose was not to destroy Christian education but to preserve it.

Student population had dwindled due to a number of factors: changing demographics, a shift away from farming as a career into new technologies, kids unwilling to go to school “out in the middle of nowhere,” increased reluctance of parents to entrust their kids to a boarding academy—even a good school with a fine staff. Other reasons also contributed to the school’s demise.

Some of us alumni fought hard to keep the academy open. The school even flew me in to speak for alumni weekend (which shows how desperate things were getting). Not surprisingly, my little pep rally didn’t save the school. One fund raising campaign after another fizzled and failed. Nothing worked. Meanwhile, enrollment drifted further downward while financial deficits soared accordingly. Conference leaders finally took the only responsible option available: calling a constituency meeting to deal with their dying school. Some delegates resolutely reminisced of years gone by, others kindly reminded them about the undeniable realities of their present situation. It was an agonizing experience, but at the end of the day the delegates did what they had to do. A majority vote closed the school.

No longer did that conference have a boarding school of its own, but nearby academies and local K-12 schools made up for the loss. The church’s grand enterprise of Christian education went forward, strengthened rather than weakened by the closing of my beloved alma mater.

It’s not that my school had failed but that changing circumstances had rendered it irrelevant, despite its rich heritage.

Everything in this world has a shelf life. Yesteryear’s hot technology gathers dust in 2011. And what works today may not be optimal next month. My wife loved her 1992 Camry and hung on to it dearly until it stranded her one last time. As the tow truck pulled it away, she finally was willing to let it go.

“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, NKJ).

Even beloved saints come and go, and the church must move forward without them. “David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers” (Acts 13:36, ESV). His former subjects mourned their loss but did what they had to do and laid their beloved king to rest. His work for God was finished. It was time for transition, carrying with them fond memories of the past as they fulfilled God’s purpose for their future.

What’s true about people and about technology is also true about institutions: blind sentimentalism stuck in the past hinders responsible stewardship for the present, and success for the future.

But oh how it can hurt to let go. With my old academy, everybody was sad when it shut down. We didn’t even know where to have alumni get-togethers. Then somebody noticed that many of the old gang had migrated to Florida. So that’s where we decided to get together. We enjoyed the same fellowship we had in years past, in a new context—and actually had more fun than we ever had before.

Meanwhile up north, some people not only stayed sad but were mad. A few may have whispered about replacing “stubborn and insensitive” conference leaders—the courageous ones who dared to fear the Lord more than they feared disappointing humans.

Godly leaders always put stewardship above politics. They compassionately empathize with the inevitable suffering that comes with necessary change, but they cannot pander to the pain. They point the church to God’s throne of grace, from which He turns every death into a resurrection. When one door closes, He opens new doors of opportunity. Our responsibility is to dry our tears and move forward. Weeping endures for the night, but joy comes in the morning to those willing to talk in its new light.

Sometimes you have to lose life to save it—whether in a personal or an institutional context, not only for schools but for churches, too. Some congregations with a century of history have shrunken into small group fellowships. Their favorite Bible promise is: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20, KJV). Amen, God is there—even if a pastor cannot be present.

Should pastoral assignments recognize this reality and focus on viable congregations and new church plants? What would be optimal evangelistic stewardship of tithe dollars in fulfilling the gospel commission?

Tough questions. No easy solutions, even when the answers are self-evident.

Remember the old California Trail. We respect its historical ruts while realizing that we cannot ride them into the future. Otherwise God’s church in Mid-America will become a hospice instead of a maternity ward.

This article first appeared in Outlook magazine in January, 2008