A good bit of my reflecting time and my conversation time these days is taken up with trying to figure out a way into the very uncertain and ambiguous future of congregational ministry. So many cultural shifts have taken place over the past 25 years that the context in which the local congregation does its ministry is hardly recognizable compared to the context in which I entered parish ministry 29 years ago. There’s no time to waste in engaging the challenge of adapting the form, structures, and practices of parish ministry. I’m so grateful for colleagues, congregational leaders, and indeed, a whole congregation willing to enter into this uncharged territory with me.
As we embrace the conversation and try to figure things out, we are always looking for dialogue partners who can help inform our own hunches about what lies in the future. Yes, I believe they are really little more than hunches; no one has firm, well-shaped answers for what’s next.
I most recently found a worthy dialogue partner in the book Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century, by Beth Ann Estock, and Paul Nixon. I know that I’ve uncovered something useful when a book pushes my thoughts in multiple directions, and when I can’t wait to talk about what I’ve read with colleagues and other lay leaders.
Estock and Nixon begin their book with a brief explication of Spiral Dynamics, a theory of human bio/psycho/social evolution. The theory suggests that throughout human history the species has followed a particular pattern of change and growth in human and cultural development. In these opening decades of the 21st century we are witnessing a transition from the rigid rules of character and morality, through the secular organization of society for the sake of the individual, and into a values system that goes beyond the needs of the individual and begins to focus on the needs of the larger community. In part, they suggest, the convulsions the church is currently experiencing is because our model for ministry is still focused on the spiritual needs of the individual, and we have not until recently paid more than lip service to the communal work of caring for all people, issues of equality, consensus, reconciliation, and care for the planet. I’m not enough acquainted with Spiral Dynamics to make any evaluation of its pertinence to congregational ministry; however, I’m also not sure that one has to buy into the theory to find value in their analysis and provocations for thinking about ways to move forward in fruitful congregational ministry.
The first half of the book offers a brief explanation of seven shifts that the authors believe are essential if Christian congregation ministry is going to be viable and sustainable in the coming decades.
- Let go of our fears of decline as measured in the things the church under Christendom has measured — attendance, members, budgets. Move into the freedom of a hopeful future guided by the Spirit. Clearly this is an attitudinal shift more than a behavior shift.
- Shift the focus from seeing the congregation and the current members as the primary constituency for ministry and move towards seeing the neighborhoods and other people gatherings that our members are a part of as the primary constituency and location for ministry.
- Give up the illusion that the society in which we live is a Christian society; the society in which we live is governed by economics and politics that are in contradiction to a Christian understanding of the world and human community. Instead, adopt the mindset of the early church of going into that world as subversives for the sake of God’s rule.
- Give up the mindset that views people as either in the church or out of the church. Rather begin to view all people as God’s people; the witness of the church is to accompany people in trying to make vibrant and living the relationship with God that they are already seeking and yearning for.
- Give up the notion that the ministry of the church is to give people the right knowledge about Christianity. Rather, our ministry is to draw people into a lively relationship with God which is more a matter of the heart than the head.
- Shift from trying to control how things work and develop through an institutional structure (the local church) and just start stuff and let it go, giving our work the permission and the freedom to grow organically in ways that we can’t predict.
- Shift our understanding of leadership from skillful managing of an institution to incarnational leaders who enter into relationship with others and mentor them to do the same.
Even as I write these down for this review, it strikes me that no one of them is unrelated to what I’ve come across before. Still, I found it helpful to have them stated clearly and succinctly. (I’d encourage taking a look at the book to get the full treatment of each of the shifts.) I’m interested in having the leaders of my congregation take a look at these chapters and engage in conversation of the implications for this little corner of God’s kingdom.
The second half of the book is a collection of 18 short examples of how congregations and ministries around the US have experimented with these various shifts. I’m grateful that the authors explicitly offered these examples not as blueprints for what any other congregation should do, rather as examples of the creativity of faith communities seeking to do God’s work in the world and respond to the cultural changes going on around us. I can’t wait to lift these up with my leaders and see what creativity it might spark among us.
Here again is a hopeful treatment of the church today, a book that isn’t forecasting the complete demise of Christian congregations in the US. I also do not think that’s where we’re headed. With the authors of Weird Church, I, too, am tremendously hopeful for what will emerge and tremendously excited to be part of both conversation and action as we seek to do God’s work in the world in our very specific corner of the kingdom.