Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?

As I go back and forth between this tab and my twitter feed, I realize that so much communication happens in 140 characters or less, so I thought I would try to answer the question in 140 characters or less. Here goes:

More community, fewer committees. Shared leadership, shared fellowship. More out there, less in here. More questions, fewer answers. Honest.

More community: the church needs to be a koinonia, reclaiming that gift from the early church that is intimate fellowship and sharing - and often tied directly to the act of sharing the communion meal, as in 1 Corinthians 10:16. The cup of blessing and the bread we break is a koinonia (translated sharing, communion...) of the body of Christ. People are hungry for community, and there are many ways to participate in communities today: online, at work, in school, through sports, the arts, civic organizations, etc... But the church has the opportunity to offer something different: community that is intimately grounded in the Holy Spirit, uniting people in time, space, worship, and mission that also tends to the spirit. The sacramental connotations of koinonia are also significant. Regular celebration of the Lord's Supper and remembrance of our baptisms consistently brings our focus back to who we are, whose we are, what unites us, and what sustains us.

The church of the 21st century will be community based. Already the vast majority of our Presbyterian churches have fewer than 100 members. We need to recognize that reality and learn to celebrate the gifts of the gathered community, no matter how big or how small. To be small (especially after having been much bigger) is often seen as a sign of failure or death, but there are opportunities to be church in new and different ways that must be honored and celebrated. I think that many churches will continue to be small, and there might be structural changes that we need to make in order to support those small churches and their ministries.  There needs to be more training and support for bi-vocational ministers. Many small towns that cannot afford a full-time minister also do not have the economic opportunities for a minister or spouse to earn enough to supplement even a part-time income.  If, at the very least, pension credits, death and disability, and health insurance coverage was guaranteed for all ministers, regardless of congregational size, that could help to meet immediate and future needs of the minister, who could then be more flexible in finding other income sources without worrying about those benefits.

On the flip side, there will continue to be large churches, and those churches will continue to thrive - particularly if they can foster growth of smaller communities within the bigger one, through small groups or other similar programs. Our largest churches can also be in a position to plant new churches, or neighborhood fellowships, or they can offer support to smaller churches within the area. Again we can learn from the early church in the sharing of resources.

The church in the 21st century must be a place where genuine community is fostered and nurtured, where members encounter Christ in the body of Christ, and are then equipped within that community to go out and share the good news that they have heard. The community of faith will be a place where lives are changed through encountering the triune God.

Fewer committees: For many elders, there is little difference between serving on the church session and serving on the board of a nonprofit organization. Both involve lots of meetings and lots of work to accomplish the tasks at hand, and often, at the end of one's tenure, one steps down for a much needed break. Sometimes the least active members in a church are the ones who have recently completed a term on session or service on some other major committee, such as a Pastor Nominating Committee.

Church governance structures will be more fluid. Recognizing that we are continually discerning God's call for our ministries, many programs or functions of the church can be organized by ad hoc groups - or communities within the church - for a specific time or season. Church "business" at its best will be carried out in communities of spiritual discernment rather than by standing committees modeled after corporate boards. Just as we now have a leaner "Form of Government," I think we will need to evaluate church structures at the church, presbytery, synod, and general assembly levels and become leaner, more nimble, and more mission-driven.

Shared leadership: As our church communities and structures become more flexible, we must also be more open and welcoming to new members, less rigid in doing things the way they have always been done. People will move in and move out. What works well in a community for one particular season may no longer meet the same needs a year down the road. If we truly believe that we are the body of Christ, and that each of us is a gifted and necessary member of that body, we must actively seek and encourage input and participation from each member of the body. We should also seek out those members of the body who are absent, to invite them to share their gifts so we may benefit from their voices, as well. Authority in the 21st century church looks much different than it did before. It is recognized and shared only within the context of community, and ultimately, comes only from God.

Shared fellowship: Church is not something that we do on Sunday mornings. It is a fellowship that ought continue throughout the week. Weekly worship might not happen on Sunday mornings, and it might not happen in a sanctuary. Worship shapes the fellowship that continues 7 days a week. If we are serious about developing communities of faith, we need to seriously attend to the fellowship that we share - time in worship, communal prayer, study and discussion, support, and celebration. Fellowship will be shared over meals, over drinks, and in mission together. It will all be part of the rhythm of our life together as a community of faith.

More out there: There will be more integration of faith in our daily lives. We will be church in service in the local community and beyond. We will bring church to homes, restaurants, bars, and workplaces. We will see ourselves as members of a community sent out each week to share God's love and bring the good news of the gospel into the places where we live and move. In other words, church will be more relevant in our lives and in the world.

Less in here: Let's first address the building. Many of our churches struggle with dwindling budgets and old buildings in constant need of care and repair. In my humble opinion, the extent to which some church budgets are tied to upkeep and maintenance of a historic building is idolatrous. Then the primary "mission" of the church is literally just keeping the doors open. What if we took the building out of the equation, or at least changed the equation a bit? Some churches have sold their buildings and used the proceeds to fund important ministries. Other churches, building-heavy but member-lite, have opened up their space to community groups, to other worshiping bodies, to service agencies, or for other purposes that can use the space and help to pay the bills. As new church developments or new fellowships begin, existing churches can provide space and support. Or new developments can actually meet "out there" where the people are - in coffee shops, bars, apartment buildings, schools...

What happens in the church building - if there is a building at all - will be a much smaller part of being church. So many of our churches are so insular and inwardly-focused. We want more members to come into our churches (with their wallets) who can take on their share of the tremendous burden of serving on committees, running the same programs that have been run for the last 50 years, and helping us to keep the church going. It's almost parasitic! We are recruiting new blood to come in and give us a transfusion so we can continue to do the same things we've done that have led to our dire need for new blood...

The church is called to ministry at the risk of its own life. We are not called to save the church, to resurrect the body of the 1950s, or anything like that. We need to be less concerned with maintaining what is "in here" and more concerned with bringing God's message of hope and peace to the world that is "out there."

More questions: We live in troubling times. We live in confusing times. We live in changing times. All of that raises questions. As a church, we need to be a place where questions can be asked, where doubts can be raised, where fears and anxieties can be shared. We also need to be asking more tough questions. Questions about the poverty and injustice that we see around us. Questions about greed and ethics. Questions about prejudice and hate. Questions about the implications of our faith in the complex world in which we live.

Fewer answers: Preaching and teaching will be more dialogical in nature. Theological training must also be more nimble, preparing leaders for changing contexts of ministry. We will be in deeper dialogue with Scripture and with each other. Remembering that Jesus often answered one question with another, we will wrestle with the questions that Jesus asks. We will spend time waiting on the Holy Spirit, asking questions that lead to more questions. We will have to become more comfortable living within the tensions of life, embracing the uncertainties while grounding ourselves in the hope of God through Jesus Christ.

Honest: as in authentic. In much of what I have written thus far, I have painted with broad brush strokes rather than filling in details. I think the church of the 21st century will have many different and varied expressions, but each one must be authentic in its context. There must be honesty in preaching and in leadership, authenticity in sharing and in fellowship. The church must respond to the realities of context, and context can vary widely from one place to the next.

The church must be honest about God, and unabashed in sharing the gospel, in proclaiming the good news, and in inviting others into relationship with the triune God. The church must be honest about ourselves - that we are all broken people, in need of healing and salvation, that we participate in systems that oppress and do not honor the image of God in all of humanity and creation. We must be honest in our encounters with the Word of God, illuminated by the power of the Holy Spirit. We must be honest in our task and charge, to proclaim the coming reign of Christ and to work for reconciliation in the world today.

And honestly, if we try to do any of this on our own, without God's guidance, help, strength, and wisdom, we will fail.

No comments:

Post a Comment