There was a time in Church history where denominations like ours enjoyed an era of expanding resources. They had the same mission as we do, to make disciples and build a vibrant God-honoring Church, but they were pursuing these activities in a markedly different ecology. They lived with growing resources to meet a growing challenge. Financial giving to congregations was up. Giving to denominations and missions were up. Everything was up, up, up!
Today our church leaders face a different reality. We still live in a time of an ever-growing mission field, but we see troubling dynamics lurking in the shadows.
As Gil Rendle writes in his brilliant article, “Waiting for God’s New Thing” (which inspired this series), funding for ministry as congregations and denominations is sustained “more and more by fewer and fewer people who are getting older and older.” In addition, Rendle observes, “Driven by generational patterns that are both constant and accelerating, people are increasingly not drawn to organized religion and do not resonate with congregational forms.”
When you put these dynamics together, it can seem a little depressing, until you remember that the church we are building is God’s Church and not even the “gates of Hades will prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). The future for God’s Church is always bright, and it is always best to focus our attention on what we can do to stay in the sunshine rather than to cower in the shadows.
Looking on the bright side of the seismic shifts that Rendle observes can also motivate you to look at our life together in a new way, to see our spirituality from a different perspective. For example, instead of lamenting the absence of the growing segment of our society that is “spiritual but not religious,” we may ask, “What is prompting such a vast number of people to be spiritual and not religious?” and “What can we learn from this trend?” Furthermore, we can ask, “What is it about our message as Christians that would resonate deeply with them and add to their spirituality, and theirs to ours?” Of course, these questions beg another that I find even more at the heart of our discipleship, namely, “What are we willing to sacrifice in order that we might share God’s vision of life and creation with them more effectively?”
Last month, as I was celebrating with you my appreciation for YouTube and the accelerated learning it offers, I mentioned how helpful it would be if the teachers were available in real-time for questions and encouragement. I also mentioned that because they were not available it forced me to conduct experiments which I also enjoyed and from which I learned.
What is interesting in the case of reaching this growing mission field of people who do not respond to current forms and practices of church is that experimentation is the name of the game. “Connecting with them,” Rendle writes, “requires leaders who are able to reverse their thinking—jump out into an unknown future to name what needs to be, and then work backwards from there.”
It is a “READY – FIRE – AIM” way to go about connecting with new people and one that is heavily dependent on learning from one’s experience, mainly because one is going where no one has gone before.
I mention this to name two distinct foci which church leaders are asked to pay attention to today, and which often exist in tension with each other. They are regularly asked to divide their attention and resources between the “work of improvement” and the “work of creation.” Each of these modes requires different forms of thinking and assumptions, which I will address in my next article. Each is equally needed in the church today.
I mention these because there is an enormous difference between improving the ministry you already know and creating something new. Not only that, it is difficult to find the energy and money to create something new while working so diligently to improve your current ministry.
But I hope this is where it is helpful to be in a community of congregations, a presbytery. Understanding that we live in a world where constant learning is required merely to stay in the same place, we have many structures and groups to improve the church we already know (Committee on Ministry, Healthy Congregations, Preparation for Ministry). At the same time, we spend a significant amount of our communal resources each year to help congregations develop leaders who can lead fresh expressions of Christian community (Cyclical Ministry and New Worshipping Communities Team). The opportunity and the danger is that we would privilege one over the other.
One of my favorite Bible verses was also the centerpiece of Rendle’s article. I like it because it speaks to the tension between the old and the new, but most poignantly about whether God’s people will have eyes to “see the new” when so many “former things” are begging for their attention. It goes like this: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
My hope is that we will continually have eyes to “see the new” even as we remain faithful to improving forms of church that carry out God’s mission on earth.
With you on the journey,