There is a low-grade fever affecting many pastors and churches. Most of the time, we don’t acknowledge it. In fact we often just try to ignore it. It is simply a low-grade fever. But it is a persistent fever. And it won’t go away.
The fever is this underlying sense that church as it is in North America just isn’t working. More personally, pastors sense that the way their church and their ministry are going really isn’t working. It is a low-grade fever.
I speak with church leaders across the United States and recently in Australia. I sense the frustrations and body aches brought on by the fever. The fever is not readily spoken about. But when an opportunity is given, or when someone becomes vulnerable enough to say all is not well, church leaders begin to talk about the fever: about the changes in culture and ministry, about the sense loss and feelings of being in exile, about fatigue, low morale, and a disheartening sense of ineffectiveness.
This fever is a tricky thing. All around the United States we see glimpses of vigor: big church buildings, adrenaline enriched worship experiences, need-based programming. And church leaders ask: Why am I experiencing this low-grade fever in the midst of all this vitality?
Church leaders, pastors, want to serve well. We want to make a difference in the world. We did not step into this calling for fame or for financial gain. We believe that Jesus Christ, and his church really can make a difference in lives and in society.
But there is this low-grade fever—all is not well. There is no easy diagnosis or cure to overcome the fever, but explore some thoughts with me that might just point us towards a missional future allowing the church to become a source of blessing to the world in Jesus’ name.
First, the church experiences a rampant individualism and a missing ecclesiology. The church in the West is too focused on the individual and not enough on the communal gathering of the people of God. This individualism lessens our commitment to each other, and our witness to the world. Lesslie Newbigin reminds us that the only hermeneutic of the gospel, the only way the good news message really gets shared is “a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, p. 227). The church must take seriously its sense of togetherness creating an alternative, but not isolated, society within our wider world.
Second, the church experiences a rampant pragmatism and is missing a missiology. Because the church does not have an adequate understanding of how to minister in a changing culture, we quickly fall to easy, pragmatic solutions. We develop the “five simple steps” towards church effectiveness, or better worship, or spiritual formation. We lack a true understanding of missiology; we don’t really understand people, contexts or cultures. So we rely on programs, and methods. Our techniques fall short, impacting mostly the recently churched, or the dissatisfied already churched. North American pastors need to learn to be missionaries. Our paradigm must shift from a “come and see by great church” model, to an incarnational “go and dwell within culture as a follower of Jesus” model. The church today must ask the question Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked fifty years ago: who is Jesus Christ for us today? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: Touchstone, 1997, p. 279). That question forces us to engage in ministry differently.
Third, the church experiences a rampant rationality and is missing a sense of wonder and mystery. So easily we become the technicians who dissect the church and dissect God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the beginning of his lectures on Christology said that any study of Christ must begin in silence (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center , New York: Harper and Row, 1978, p. 27). We simply need to be silent and experience the wonder of the good news in our lives, in the church, in the world. We need to become children again: children before our God. This sense of silence and wonder will reorient our thoughts and our actions.
Fourth, the church experiences a rampant consumerism and is missing a sense of generosity. George Ritzer writes about the McDonaldization of culture (George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society , Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000); John Drane applies that specifically to the church (John Drane, The McDonaldization of the Church: Spirituality, Creativity, and the Future of the Church , London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000). We live in a consumer oriented world. That thinking has invaded and infected the church. How we admire the churches that function with the expertise and success of McDonalds and Starbucks. While we cannot escape our consumerist society, we can learn to live in this society asking new questions, bringing a holy critique, and offering, as servants, a gift of generosity and hospitality to the world.
We understand this low-grade fever. We must acknowledge the fever and take new and differing steps into the future. We must create a new theological and ministry stance. This is more than just recasting and rewording what we have been doing in the church. This is a time for innovation. Roman Catholic priest and missionary Vincent Donovan, author of Christianity Rediscovered describes it this way:
This is a movement not so much articulated in a book as acted out—something like a melody of a new unwritten song that haunts you, with the notes and the words not yet in place. It is there just out of your reach and the melody haunts you because it is not yet complete; a new song that many are trying to sing today ….You must have the courage to go with [people] to a place that neither you nor they have ever been….When the gospel reaches a people where they are, their response to that gospel is the church in a new place, and the song they sing is that new, unsung song, that unwritten melody that haunts all of us (Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered , Maryknoll: Orbis, 2004), p. xi).
This is a transitional time (see Alan J. Roxburgh, The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997). These times are chaotic and messy, but these times are also exciting and energizing. Together may we pray for, hope for and discover that new song in the church, and for the world.