Vol 1, Num 5 :: 2002.11.08 — 2002.11.21
Imagine for a moment that you, your family, and everyone in your church have all just set sail from the shores of England bound for a “New World.” For the next three months, you brave the elements, pray for calm waters, eat stale food, and spend the bulk of your time in cramped quarters with the people who are the most important to you in the whole world. What will you talk about?
The purpose for your trip, you all agree, is to start over. In the new world you will build new homes, plant a new church, form a new society, and create a different culture. So you talk. You debate. You discuss. You strategize, and plan, and pray, and talk some more.
But here’s the question. When you arrive in the new world, will you build something really new? Will it be a community and a church and a culture specifically designed for a new world? Or, will it be more or less the old, reshaped a bit by fresh surroundings, but true to the ethnic, confessional, and cultural roots from which you have come?
A few months ago, this was the scenario I laid out before the leadership of the local church I serve. We are wrestling with how to build and grow a local church that is faithful to Christ, honors our denominational heritage, and is radically relevant to our culture and community. In that process I believe we need to recognize that most of the models and paradigms of church with which we are most familiar and experienced may not be relevant or effective in the new cultural world into which we are rapidly traveling.
This is not a new thought, of course. Talk to the youth pastors of the past several generations. Most of them will lament the struggle to get one generation (usually older) to see the world from the perspective of the other generation (usually younger) in order to achieve harmony, progress, and growth. Or, talk with first generation immigrants from many different countries who will share painful memories of the struggle to enter a new culture and build new relationships, community, and churches.
But there is something unique about the cultural shifts through which multiple generations are passing in these early stages of the 21st Century. It appears to me that we are in an epochal sea-change, perhaps even more significant than the last great cultural transition about 500 years ago, when the world crossed over from the medieval to the modern era. During the past few decades of my own ministry, breakthroughs in technology, communications, cultural diversity, science, economics, politics, philosophy, and psychology (just to name a few) are combining to create a new matrix in which we who identify ourselves as Christians now live, worship, work, and pursue our mission.
We are “exploring off the map” looking into mysterious territory beyond our familiar world on this side of the river, this side of the ocean, this side of the boundary between modern and postmodern worlds. We are looking into an exciting, unmapped world on the other side of all we know so far.
That’s the way Brian Mclaren puts it in the preface to his recent publication The Church on the Other Side. Mclaren offers thirteen strategies for a local church to navigate the modern/postmodern transition. “As incomplete and imperfect though these proposed strategies may be,” he states, “God willing, they will get many of us thinking together and working together in what may be the most important, most revolutionary task of our generation, planting and developing the church on the other side.”
Our local church leadership is taking time each month to discuss and evaluate how those strategies might impact the way we are building and growing our church right now. This experience has forced me to do some serious reflection on my own view of the church. I ponder whether I as a leader am contributing to real progress and growth, or simply getting in the way of God’s purposes for His church. I wrestle with letting myself truly envision a church “on the other side,” and working hard to reform the church as I now know and experience it. Let me try to explain.
Several years ago I accepted the call to serve as a part time consulting pastor to a young “seeker sensitive” church plant in Northwest Indiana. Though most of my professional and pastoral experience to that point had been with “para-church” ministries, I longed to be part of a local community of believers who were committed to being the hands and feet and voice of Christ within and to our culture. At the same time, it was my passion to remain actively involved in the marketplace through a small television and video production company. This was my way of following in the “tent-making” footsteps of the Apostle Paul.
What’s exciting about starting a local church from scratch is that dreaming is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. Crossroads Community Church founding pastor, Kris Vos, never tires of challenging the leaders and members of the church to think “out of the box,” to brainstorm fresh new ways to communicate and live out the Gospel. The challenge, however, is to define next steps by looking out and forward rather than searching in and backwards. There is also the inherent danger that we create the “new” church based on the images of the “old” so long embedded in our heads and hearts.
For example, we are affiliated with a denomination of churches. Therefore, we need to hold to our heritage while pioneering new forms of ministry. There are traditions that we must preserve while being free from their control. We must adapt to seekers and unbelievers without taking on their beliefs or values, and maintain unity while encouraging diversity. In short, we must change while not changing!
I struggle with issues like that.
I also find myself reacting strongly to pat answers and clich’s from so-called “church growth experts,” or colleagues and members of my own church and denomination. I ask, How do we contextualize the simple Gospel without just focusing on methods or activities? What about the core philosophy of the messengers? What to them is the church? What are its purposes? What should it look like in the “new” world?
This month, with over 1,500 churches in North America, we committed to 40 Days of Purpose. Following the lead of Rick Warren, senior pastor of mega-church Saddleback Community Church in southern California, we have studied, discussed, acted out, and prayed about what he describes as the five purposes of the church revealed in the Bible: Worship, Fellowship, Discipleship, Service, and Evangelism. In a few weeks, when our forty days are up, we will gather the key leaders and volunteers of our local congregation and wrestle together with our next steps in each one of these areas.
I’m expecting great results. But as we race along in our little local church boat, talking and planning and dreaming and strategizing, I’m praying that the church that we see on the other side will not just reflect the images and institutions of the past, but actually become the living presence of its head, Jesus Christ.
As the *cino community discusses The State of Church this month, I would also offer a few questions to help guide us in the New World to which we are inevitably traveling: