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The times they are a-changin’

Clara, ready for times that are changin'

Rev. Gary Step reminds us that we live in changin’ times, and often feel like we are sinking. He describes some excellent swimming lessons.

Associate Director for Congregational Vibrancy

Some of you might recognize my title, it’s an old Bob Dylan song from 1963. Dylan was well-known for his poetic songs that spoke into a culture that was going through a major disruption. At the end of the first stanza verse he writes; 

“Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.”

This really hits home as our society navigates this pandemic disruption. We have all been challenged over these past months with sink-or-swim ministry decisions. As we move into unchartered waters, we will inevitably experience the feeling of sinking and swimming daily or even hourly! I pray we are all learning to at least tread water!

That sinking feeling

In some respects, I have lived this poetic verse since I started ministry. My passion and calling are to revitalize the local church. This often equates to swimming upstream against the current church culture. (Defined as “We have always done it this way.”) I was leading a meeting at a church this week and one person stated that the pandemic has created a willingness to try new things! She stated that in many ways it has been good for them to rethink all that they do. However, in the same breath, she said it is exhausting! Amen to that!

The photo above is my granddaughter Clara as we ventured up the Grand River in Grand Rapids. This is how she engages life …fearlessly! To quote her: “I don’t need any help, I can do it by myself!” She gets furious if you try to help her with anything. Then, at a certain point if she can’t do it herself, she will say those words that melt my heart; “can you help me with this, Grandpa…?” She will relinquish control and allow you to help her. Jesus stated that we must “become like little children” in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I think we all have a little Clara in us, and we need to come to the realization that we can’t do it alone; we need to admit we need help.     

In the last five months, there have been numerous times that I have felt like I was sinking. Turning on the news can quickly turn into an emotional undertow as our country continues to deal with the pandemic, the financial woes, and business layoffs and closures. To add fuel to the fire, it is an election year and the nation is trying to confront its deep-seated racism. It is easy to feel like the world is out of control, and we begin to sink.

Deciding to Swim

Since Clara is fearless her parents decided she needed to take Survival Swimming Lessons. The idea is that just taking regular swimming lessons is only the first step in safety. The important next step is learning what to do when things go wrong. The key in survival lessons is learning not to panic and stay calm by first floating on your back. Then when the child is more relaxed, the instructor teaches her to turn over put her face in the water and swim towards the ladder. In order to complete the course, Clara had to dress in her winter clothes and fall backward into the pool. She stayed calm and floated on her back as she flipped, put her head down, and made her way to the steps! She passed with flying colors!

Clara rolling
Clara learning the techniques of Survival Swimming. She doesn’t panic and comes up smiling. ~ screenshots of video courtesy Gary Step

Each of us must, like Clara, decide to swim. We need to stay calm, keep our eyes focused on Jesus, and float! In Hebrews 12:2 it states: “We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.” It’s also key to find a group you can float with!

Since 2012, I have worked on the conference staff either teaching or directing leaders to “Survival Swimming Lessons.” The Michigan Conference Staff has also created or curated multiple resources for churches and leaders. I invite you to check out the Conference Website page listed as Resources. It gives you a variety of ideas and skills to help you swim!  

For these last eight years my focus has been in the area of Revitalization. One resource I would like to highlight is the REACH Movement. This includes the REACH Summit in October, followed by the REACH Network Groups that meet the following year and REACH Resources, which are available all year long.   

We have transformed the REACH Summit into to a one-day online event on October 24, 2020. I invite you and your church to join us for a full day of learning. During the event (if you will excuse the overuse of the analogy), you can sign up for Survival Swimming lessons called Reach Network Groups. The uniqueness of these groups is they are long-term and meet in cohorts that learn together. Each Network group relates to a specific workshop being presented at the Summit. The Network groups will go beyond offering a nugget of learning, like a workshop. These groups of peers will meet throughout 2021 sharing ideas and living ministry together as you float on your backs and stay calm as we navigate this next year together.

The network groups include; Growing Young– with Lisa Batten, Youth Ministry– with Christy Miller White, Leadership– with Dirk Elliott, Cultural Vibrancy-with Brittney Stephan, Children’s Ministry– Kathy Pittenger, Large Churches-with Brad Kalajainen, Lay Leadership– with Laura Witkowski, Hospitality– with Abby Young, Readiness 2 Launch (R2L)– with Cathy Townley, Fresh Expressions– with Dirk Elliott, and Church Unique – with Gary Step. Check it out at

Happy Swimming!