Years ago I served as an intern at a church in Natchez, Mississippi a town that sits on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
I became familiar with a road that starts in Natchez in the southwest corner of the state and stretches for 442 miles northeast to Nashville. This ancient trail was first used by Native Americans in 800 A.D. and later became a main roadway linking up the early towns and settlements in Mississippi and Tennessee.
While there is a modern parkway today along this route appropriately called the Natchez Trace you can still see what is left of segments of the old road where the highway veers off of the ancient route.
There, the road is etched deep into the ground, revealing huge ruts created by foot and wagon traffic over the centuries. So deep were these ruts in places that steep banks to the road formed over time making travelers vulnerable to bandits and thieves on the high ground above.
Once a wagon's wheels settled into those ruts, there was no getting out.
Churches also create deep ruts carved into their organizational terrain that, over time, make it very difficult to escape.
Church ruts can be the style of worship that is getting old and stale, or the way team meetings are held and responsibilities assigned, or the calendar and routines and habits of the church that become like a mule trotting along a rutted path rather than a spirited horse moving swiftly to new vistas.
Ruts are the aged result of what was once new and exciting. Stories are told about how the road was first cut and laid out and made it easier to get around, but now the ruts actually work against the original vision. And the deeper the ruts, the harder to get out of.
We get used to them. They're familiar to us and everyone around us. And we just keep on telling the stories about how they were formed, living past dreams, while we sink even deeper.
Reading the biblical narrative, though, it is hard not to be impressed with God's prescription to being stuck in ruts:
It may be Abraham and Sarah getting the word that they were to leave everything familiar to go to a distant, foreign land and settle there. Or Judah, falling to the Babylonians and carted off to Babylon, later to return and start something new.
Perhaps the greatest biblical example is the coming of Jesus who courageously confronted the rutted and oppressive systems of the Pharisees to free people to redeemed life and worship with God through the Savior.
Without the Holy Spirit disruption of our comfort, our stable systems and our coffee-stained, dog-eared ways of doing things, our churches and ministries might grow dry and brittle and easily turned to dust.
So how do we avoid it?
For the sake of this short article, here is one of several ways to get out of the rut:
Recover the original purpose and start disturbing your church with it. For the Natchez Trace, it was creating an efficient way to travel from point A to point B, but the ruts took that away. For a church: get with your leadership team and rediscover your original purpose for existing in the first place, and then go about the hard Holy Spirit driven disruptive work of reinventing yourself to escape the ruts and get back onto the high ground of being an active, vital congregation.
Get rid of all that stuff that has accumulated in the spiritual closets of your church that are choking your ministry the clutter of archaic programs and redundant operational systems and ministries not central to who you are—and invent new, simpler, more effective ways of doing church. Take those old stories of who you once were and use them as a spring board to who you are going to be again, as if those who went before you would be nodding in agreement and supporting you like that great cloud of saints mentioned in Hebrews 12.
What I'm suggesting isn't easy. It takes courage to get out of the ruts and, frankly, most don't even attempt it. But the alternative is to sink further and further into oblivion; hardly the destiny God intends for us (Go into the world making disciples…). Become a Spirit-driven disrupter! Get out of the ruts before they grow so deep they swallow you!