Some Keys for the Future

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.


4 Responses to “Some Keys for the Future”

  1. Rick Brooks Says:

    4. At the risk of sounding too modern, hasn’t “blurring the lines between church and the world” already compromised our mission?

    • clarkcowden Says:

      This is the opposite kind of blurring the lines. The negative kind, to which I think you are referring to, is when the world compromises the church, colonizes the church, and makes the church look just as bad as the world. What Van Gelder’s book is talking about is when the church is sent into the world, and is so involved in the world incarnationally, that the world looks at the church in a positive way as ‘being one of us.’ It’s when the church shows that it cares about its community. It’s when the world does not see the church as coming across as “better than the world”, arrogant, or judgemental, but a key ingredient to the positive health of the community.

  2. David Dawson Says:

    Clark, good material. What will it mean for PC(USA) structures, polity, and other institutional expressions? Dave

    • clarkcowden Says:

      Good question. I think it is moving away from a rules-based meeting format that focuses time on business and debate, and moving towards more of a teaching, conversational, learning community style. I think our gatherings need to provide teaching on Biblical, missional theology that becomes the cohesive principle that holds us together. It involves a lectio divina style of dwelling in the Word that gives us common sense of sentness.
      I think it involves seminars to help us understand our postmodern context.
      I think it offers training in adaptive and missional leadership.
      It encourages experiments, new ministry starts, and new kinds of new churches and new communities of faith.
      It focuses on the questions and ministry needs of congregations, rather than on the internal institutional needs of the governing body.

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