My hardest Thanksgiving was 1999, the year my Mother died. At Thanksgiving, she could still shuffle to the car, and Dad brought her over. She was dying of cancer. Weeks earlier, the doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do. Before dinner, my Dad cornered me in the kitchen, “Will you say the blessing? I just can’t.” This was shocking—my Dad always said the blessing at meals for us. He was a man of great faith, but in his grief, he could not pray. That was the last time my Mother came to my house: the last Thanksgiving with both my parents. Right before Christmas, my Mother died.

This year, Thanksgiving will also be different. In recent years, we have gathered for Thanksgiving with Ernie’s extended family at his sister-in-law Janet’s house on Cape Cod. Often there are 20-25 relatives and friends—a real madhouse of humanity. But this year, the younger generation started saying they wouldn’t be there: Tim and Alya are having a baby Dec. 6th and cannot travel, Colin and Anne had a baby in May and wanted to spend time together, Chris and Becky just saw their relatives in August and so wanted to spend Thanksgiving with friends … and so on. Pretty soon, we decided to have a much quieter Thanksgiving at Ernie’s sister Debby’s place in New Hampshire. Janet cheered us up by observing, “Sometimes it is time to adopt a new tradition.”

Churches today are examining old traditions and adopting new ones. In Canoeing the Mountains, Todd Bolsinger writes that churches have their own unique DNA, the “defining essence of code of that group…the particular pieces that make a congregation who they are. It includes elements like core values, essential theological beliefs, defining strategy and mission priorities.” (102) Healthy growth has to be congruent with the church’s DNA or code. Churches become unhealthy when the DNA, relationships, and purpose of a church are not aligned. When church activities, relationships, and purpose are aligned, a church soars. To be healthy, a church has to focus on both relationships and purpose (104):

Relationships Purpose
People are loved People are challenged
There is commitment to depth and authenticity There is space to welcome new people
People are accepted as they are  People are being transformed into a likeness of Christ
The church exhibits a deep desire to enjoy life The church exhibits a deep desire to together use resources to serve others

As I travel the District to charges conferences, I see churches actively engaging in the questions that Canoeing the Mountains raises. Administrative Councils are reading the book together, trying to figure out what their DNA is (what is essential and what is just accumulated tradition); where they put too much emphasis on relationships, turning inward; where they place too much emphasis on purpose, weakening the deep ties the Spirit is seeking to build within the community.

As our children have grown and married, our family has made space to welcome new people into the family. At first, the family gatherings grew until the younger generation outnumbered the older generation. Now, the younger generation is beginning their own traditions, focusing on their own “next generation.” The family tradition is adapting to a new context…a new generation. But we all share the same DNA. For us, Thanksgiving is about gathering together with family and friends, and giving thanks. This year, I will be giving a special thanks for a quieter Thanksgiving in the New Hampshire woods, where nature feeds my spirit. The smaller gathering will allow for deeper conversations and rest from a busy fall.

As you think about the DNA of your own church, I hope you will reflect on how your practices navigate the balance between relationships and purpose. I wonder what new traditions will emerge, so that you can go deeper in Christ, and wider out into your neighborhood, introducing new people to the family of Christ.