Re-Imaging Church - A deeper look at the future of the church
As we continue with the great challenge of ‘Re-imagining Church’, I wonder where your thoughts have taken you since we began this journey last month (part 1). Although many of us long to return to the normal way of doing Church it is unlikely that this will happen in the near future, or perhaps if ever. The thoughts in this article are part of our commitment to venture deeper into the unchartered waters of the future, although we do so with the collective wisdom of two thousand years of experience to guide us.
Rediscovering The Power In The Collective
Most active church goers have probably heard a sermon on the Body of Christ at least once in our lives. However, few of us can articulate what this essentially means. In its’ simplest form it teaches that every believer has a vital role to play in being the representation of Christ on earth. When each person fulfils their God-given role and uses their spiritual gifts effectively then the Christian faith starts to fully live out its mandate.
Sadly, I have heard of stories where pastors have been accused of ‘delegating their jobs’ by preaching on the Body of Christ, emphasising the role of each member in the collective community. However, if the Church is going to be an accurate representation of Jesus on this earth, we must remember that this won’t be achieved by just one person (the pastor), while the rest of the Body of Christ cheers from the side-lines. This was exactly Paul’s point when he wrote to the early church in Corinth:
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
The Mega-church False Dawn
For too long the modern church has fallen into the trap of relying heavily on a single personality. When the Mega-church movement started to become en vogue it ticked many of the right boxes, but still struggled to mobilise every member effectively and usually lost momentum when their key leader moved on. Even smaller communities believed that modelling their churches on the mega church idea was the answer to the myriad of issues they faced, but this also proved to be a false dawn.
When Brian McLaren suggested that churches become “authentic communities for the good of the world” I believe he was reminding us of how the true Body of Christ can shape the world we live in. If each member of our churches was challenged and encouraged to love extravagantly, then we may begin to see the revival we all long for.
Showing Compassion To The Broader Community
Sometimes in trying to DO church we forget why we exist in the first place.
Jesus expressed his mission clearly when he said: “I have come to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Many local churches seem to have lost our way and have opted for the approach of “let the lost seek us out and we will help them find Jesus.”
Stanley Hauerwas says it best when he writes,
“God’s truth is credible to the world only when it sees a community shaped by the truth … if the Gospel is to be heard, it must also be seen.”
In Re-imagining our approach to being the Church we must rediscover our love for those on the fringes of our society and who are unlikely to ever step into our church buildings.
Compassion Is Not For The Select Few
To be fair, there are still many compassionate people in our churches, but we have placed the burden onto a few people who we label as being ‘called’ into this ministry or seem to have the right personalities. In my opinion, I don’t think Jesus was delegating the task of showing compassion to a select few of us – I think he meant for all of us to take up this banner. Jesus’ words to his disciples were not simply good advice; they were words of intent and purpose:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
A Living Faith Not Caught Up In Structures
As a minister within a large denominational church, I have witnessed both the positive and negative impact of being part of big organisation. It is a reality that when any church denomination experiences growth, the more structures it needs to create in order to cope with the influx of believers. Initially this seems like a lovely problem to have, but the danger is always that we end up losing ourselves in red-tape, systems and bureaucracy. It is a tricky balance between sharing our living faith within impersonal church structures.
Sadly many pastors are inadvertently caught up in these systems and can easily slide into the role of becoming a manager, while also finding themselves burdened by the expectations of the local church and the broader parent body. Often the passion and energy that the pastor initially experienced in their ministry is channelled into avenues of performance and ‘doing church.’ The call for the individual believers to express a living faith and to BE the church can be lost as the church finds that the old wineskins can’t cope with the new wine.
Church Is More Than A Weekly Service
It is also a great challenge for the church to rediscover that being a Christ-follower is more than just clocking in for an hour on a Sunday. As George Barna remarked, “a vital connection with God cannot happen in an hour a week in a religious environment.” The Sunday worship gathering will always have a place in our communities, but I believe that we may need to shift our attention to other important elements of Christian life.
For example, the emphasis of experiencing a living faith must move us outside the church building into the arenas were we spend 99% of our lives.
A Rediscovery Of Effective Discipleship
It is interesting that churches keep track of our membership rolls with a fair amount of attention, but we are less aware of how our members are living as effective disciples. I feel we have lost the art of making disciples and now spend a great amount of time appeasing our members. It is interesting that the word ‘disciple’ appears nearly 270 times in the New Testament alone, while ‘member’ appears only 14 times and in a different context entirely.
We have become focused on getting numbers into church (remember the ABC’s of part 1 of this article?) and have lost track of the fact that many names on our membership rolls remain nominal and sadly luke-warm. It is almost as if joining a cell group or small group is an optional extra for people in the church who are serious about their faith or who have time. I know that I used to think these exact thoughts as a younger Christian, but grew to realise I was wrong.
I believe we need to rediscover effective discipleship and mentoring of our members. When Paul offered young Timothy advice at the start of his ministry, he said:
“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”
This was a clear reminder that we have something worthwhile to share with others and we must equip them to also pass on the gospel to others.
The Year Of The Lord’s Favour
As I have spent time reflecting on what the Church could look like in the future, I realise I have very little concrete answers and more probing questions. The only thing I am convinced of is that Covid-19 has given us a gift of re-imagining what our Christian communities could look like. The global Church has stumbled into inertia and this is dangerous territory for us to remain in. Being part of the Jesus movement has also included the underlying premise that we ‘move’ and have life in the midst of a broken world. We can’t afford to remain fast asleep while many are looking for the gift of life in all its fullness.
Lastly, as wrestle with the future, let us hold unto the words of Jesus as he clearly stated his purpose:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”