Archive for October, 2010

Some Keys for the Future

October 31, 2010

There is widespread agreement today that the church seems to be living in a new time, a time when the terrain often doesn’t match the map. We are looking for new maps to chart our trajectory into the future. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. I recently read in the news about a large megachurch in southern California that filed for bankruptcy protection, with $55 million in debt, because it couldn’t make the paradigm shift that it needed. Denominations are also in a state of flux. In Craig Van Gelder’s book The Missional Church in Context, it describes four elements that are keys for understanding the future of the church and developing a twenty-first-century ecclesiology: a cohesive principle, context, leadership, and structure.

1. The Cohesive Principle is about the question: What’s the Mission? Any adequate answer will have to begin with a strong Biblical and theological base. Recognizing that the church is the one being sent rather than the sender means viewing the church as missionary by its very nature and requires the church to have a missional theology. This theology will be based on a view of God, the view of the church, and the view of the gospel. Gary Simpson has said that the Church in North America has an obstacle to overcome if it is to get past its impoverished missional imagination, and that obstacle is an inadequate view of God. Our view of God impacts our view of God’s mission which impacts our view of how the church participates in God’s mission. The Missio Dei is the core to understanding missional theology. God calls and sends the church to be a witness to the reign of God, proclaiming and living the good news incarnationally. This is the church’s reason for being. God has called the church to join in this mission of redeeming and transforming the world. It is the church’s mission to participate in God’s mission.

2. The Context is postmodernism. Postmodernism is the single greatest influence on the context of the United States and the church today. Postmodernism represents a rejection of the Enlightenment project and the foundation assumptions upon which it was built. It is a reaction to modernism. Whereas modernism was primarily concerned with principles such as identity, unity, authority, and certainty, postmodernism is often associated with difference, plurality, context, a rejection of objective truth, and skepticism. If church leadership is to meet the challenges of postmodernity, something different must emerge. The landscape in which the church was planted and flourished has now changed. While postmodernity is a national and global phenomenon, it gets played out differently in local contexts. The church must take its specific context seriously. Borrowing from what other churches are doing in other places will become more and more difficult. What works in one context will not work in another context. What transfers from one place to another will be minimal. We must discover what God is up to in our own local environments.

3. Leadership is about being missionaries empowered by the Spirit. While some aspects of leadership will always remain (preaching, teaching, discipling, evangelizing, etc.), leadership today looks different than it did in the past, and it will look different again in the future. The leadership styles will be indigenous, incarnational, and missionary. They will go where the gospel leads. They will follow the Savior into the streets. Postmodern missionary leaders demonstrate characteristics similar to Lewis and Clark as they explore postmodernity’s new terrain and draw wisdom from the natives. Leadership in this age depends more on authenticity than category or status. People care more about genuineness than educational background. The new leadership will be a broader mix of people, from different races, different ethnicities, different socio-economic backgrounds, and different levels of education. It will be more decentralized and more deployed.

4. Structure is about an Open, Networking System. A missional ecclesiology will always include organizational forms, but must always reflect the organic nature of its emerging context. The word ecclesia is used in three ways in the New Testament – to refer to a congregation, to refer to a group of churches in a local region, and to refer to the Church universal. Presbyteries, missionary agencies, and parachurch organizations are necessary in a missional ecclesiology, but they are intended to be supportive of local congregations. They are to function like connective tissue, helping church’s connect with the mission of God.

What if denominations in a postmodern age were about cultivating positive epidemics and missional experiments, similar to our earlier Great Awakenings, which moved across denominations and the country? The future work of denominations could be to fan the flames of the Christian movement, invest in a few critical individuals, and tend to the converts.

What is needed is a missional ecclesiology centered in a missional theology organized as a network of congregations that operate as self-organizing systems, led by missionary leaders empowered by the Spirit and grounded in the scriptures to create a Christian movement in a postmodern context. Apostolic leaders who understand the importance of context are sent out with the good news of the gospel, blurring the lines between church and the world. The church values the various gifts and passions each person brings into the ministry of a particular location, and its leaders earn the right to be heard in their given context by being genuine and authentic.

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Denominations are in Flux

October 3, 2010

In “The Missional Church in Context”, edited by Craig Van Gelder, it describes how denominations have changed in recent years. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, denominations started to become regulatory agencies. The professional, bureaucratic, and organizational structures that had begun to take shape in the preceding years were now becoming the norm. Yet, they were unable to provide the desired cohesion that was required to address the new diversity being experienced. Russell Richey says: “Denominations have lost or are losing long-familiar adhesive and dynamic principles and are groping, often desperately, for tactics that work and unite”. The notion of a Christian nation that earlier denominational leaders dreamed about was not to be, because the United States was well on its way to becoming a pluralistic society. At the same time, however, there was a rising effort among conservative Christians to reclaim a moral foundation for the country. During this time, Robert Wuthnow notes, denominations “split badly and fairly cleanly into theologically conservative and liberal camps”. Christian unity would not occur across the country – or even within Christian churches themselves.

Without a clear, cohesive purpose, denominations grabbed for control by developing themselves into regulatory agencies, and they sought to win converts by establishing new mechanisms through consulting, marketing, and offering grants. But these efforts, while offering some short-term wins, did not produce the long-lasting results that were needed. “The top-down, imposed, common denominational grammar began to erode. And, as a result, church members began to shop among denominations to find a church home. This required denominations to refocus their efforts on establishing their own unique identity, which called for denominational loyalty and refined church polity.”

Outside the church, “the advent of new social movements opposing the Vietnam War, imperialism, racism, sexism, and capitalist societies” were visible signs of an emerging stirring that was taking place. Just as the dream of the United States truly becoming a Christian nation within a framework of civil religion was fading, so were the hopes of the “enlightened” beginning to weaken. Sociology, philosophy, the arts, literature, and science all experienced the first tremors that would soon question many of their basic ideals. While no one could clearly articulate what was going on, something was in the air and many were beginning to feel a turn coming.

Currently, denominations are in a state of flux. The organizational structures that were created, and that devolved into regulatory agencies, are no longer affordable or sufficient for the twenty-first-century church mission. Some are pessimistic about the future of denominations and have proclaimed their imminent death, while others are optimistic and have witnessed pockets of vitality and innovation. While opinions vary on the future status of denominations, one thing everyone agrees on is that denominations are in a state of transition. Transition is not something new for denominations; but, in order to move through this transition effectively, they have to address some key questions: “What is the mission of the church in the twenty-first century?” And “What is the role of denominations in the future?”