The mission of the church is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to people in every generation. Because the world is in a state of change, the church must discern how the gospel will be shared so that it might be heard. Charles Wesley invites us to sing in the hymn O for a Thousand Tongues: “My gracious master and my God assist me to proclaim, to spread through all the earth abroad, the honors of thy name.” But it is not easy.
My wife and I have been parenting our children for thirty years. At each stage of their lives we have had adapt our methods of parenting. Treating our children today the way we treated them as toddlers simply would not be helpful nor well received! A changing reality requires discovering new ways to parent. Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis quotes Peter Drucker saying, “the world my parents were born into is essentially the same as the world of Abraham and Sarah in the Bible.” What Drucker meant is that his parents were part of the same agrarian world as the patriarchs. Now, the world has transitioned from that agrarian age, to an industrial age, to an information age and beyond. The disruptions in the world will shape the forms of church.
Over the past twenty years, we have noticed the social location of the church in the United States shift from the center to the margins. The church no longer holds a position of prominence. Many find the church irrelevant. Diana Butler Bass in her new book Christianity After Religion reminds us that in 2010 America’s third largest religious group at between 16-20% (depending on the survey) is the “unaffiliated,” a group of independently minded people with no single issue, theology or view of God.
Hans Kung writes in The Church: “The Church is always and everywhere a living people, gathered together from the peoples of this world and journeying through the midst of time. The Church is essentially en route, on a journey, a pilgrimage. A Church which pitches its tents without looking out constantly for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling.” We cannot remain where we have been.
You have heard the joke: How many Lutherans (or fill in any other Christian tribe, its works for all) does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Change? This is our reality. As much as we talk about change in the church for the sake of the gospel, and even when we know that change is necessary, it is tough. We get anxious when we hear talk of abandoning traditions. The way we do church now is comfortable and familiar. Change? Really? We know that our ways of being church may have to morph in order for this good news to be heard and received. We don’t want to be a settled, domesticated church; we want to be a sent, missional congregation. Lesslie Newbigin says: “the mission of the church is the radioactive fallout of an explosion of joy.” That is how we want our church to be characterized. But how?
There are no quick solutions. The church is more of a garden than a machine. A local congregation moves into the future through a lot of tending and nurturing, rather than simple action steps. Here are some thoughts though that might frame a discussion:
BE PATIENT AND TRUST: The renewing of a congregation is the Lord’s work before it is ours. The Lord is with us in the process. Congregational leaders need to exhibit qualities of patience, humility and courage for the days ahead. Movement does not happen overnight.
LISTEN: We need to listen to the Lord and to each other as we struggle into the future. Congregations must gather together, read Scripture together and be ready to hear what the Lord has to say. Alan Roxburgh reminds us that the Spirit of the Lord is among the people of God. God does not just speak through the pastor. Pastors help to create an environment where the church can hear from each other and from the Lord.
LOOK: What is happening in your neighborhood? What are the needs of those around you. How can your church respond to the cries and the hurts?
GET BEYOND THE CHURCH WALLS: The way forward for your congregation requires a shift in thinking. The church must willing to go to people as much as programs people into a building. The church cannot simply be a place that attracts people to it; the church will also have to step out and engage in the neighborhood. That gets messy.
CONSIDER WHAT YOU MEASURE: We used to measure church success by budgets (amount of income), bodies (baptisms, and attendance) and buildings (property and structures). Now we must ask are there better ways to discern if we are fulfilling our mission.
ATTEND TO THE FLOCK: Change is disruptive. It brings a sense of loss and sadness. Church leaders must care for their people in the midst of the transition. Being missional doesn’t mean you stop being pastoral.
BE SURPRISED: The ways of the future church cannot be dictated only encouraged. Watch what the Lord does. Watch what emerges. Give praise for what happens.
Change is never easy, but we move forward. Gospel urgency demands this. David Bosch writes: “The church is always in a state of crisis and its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it.” May we be aware and see what news things the Lord will do.