The context in which we do ministry today is radically different from the prevailing context at the time some of us entered ministry a couple of decades ago. Once we catch on to that fact, we begin to see why what we’ve “always done before” no longer works. It’s as though we began our ministries playing a game of football in a football stadium, but when we came out of the locker room after halftime, the field had been rearranged for baseball. We wonder how these bases we keep tripping over got here, but we go on playing the second half as if we were still playing football. Just below consciousness, our kinesthetic sense tells us that the field has changed from a rectangle to a diamond; still, we wonder why we run out of bounds so quickly as we head toward the end of the field where home base is located.

Slowly it dawns on us that our problem is that the way we think about ministry is still rooted largely in a modernist paradigm more suited to the waning era of Christendom—a Christendom framework that no longer applies. But we don’t yet understand enough about the emerging postmodern, post-Christian, and postdenominational era into which the Spirit is now leading the church to do anything more than guess at what might replace these older models.

A New Context for Ministry you remember taking pictures with a Polaroid camera? (How quickly we have passed that image-making technology by!) As soon as you snapped a picture, the camera would eject what looked like a blank photograph. Slowly, over a couple of minutes, an image would emerge as the picture developed. First, only the slightest change in shading would be evident. Then the outlines of figures would become faintly visible. The picture continued to become incrementally clearer. Watching the emergence of what finally became a sharp and clear image was part of the fun of using a Polaroid camera.

In a similar way, we are only now beginning to take our first Polaroid snapshots of the new cultural context into which the church—along with the rest of society—is moving. The picture of that world is only beginning to emerge. We now can see only the barest outlines of its shape, contrast, and hue. If we are asked to guess how the picture is going to turn out, most of our guesses will probably be wrong. We just can’t see the image clearly enough yet.

At the same time, our gut tells us that we don’t have the luxury of waiting until the image is fully developed before we begin to make some radical changes in how we live out the gospel. If we wait until we are confident in our understanding of the newly emerging cultural context, American society will have moved beyond us. Americans will be living out their postmodern 21st-century lives while we offer them worship, education, and fellowship more suited to the mid-20th. If we wait until we are sure we know what to do, the church will have missed its best opportunity to proclaim the gospel in ways that postmodern Americans can hear.

How Do We Begin?

As Leo Tolstoy asked, what then should we do? How do we discover those new forms of church life that will faithfully re-present the gospel in a postmodern, post-Christian America? Try anything that pops into our minds? Encourage an ecclesial version of Mao’s invitation to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” and then sift through the experiments to see which ones work in this new context and which don’t? Immerse ourselves again in the great tradition of the church to rediscover its core meaning, so that we can translate that core through new symbols and new patterns of living? Peruse the works of third-century theologians to learn how to be faithful in an alien culture?

I think the answer to all these questions is, at least in part, yes. When we know that what worked in the past no longer works, but we don’t yet see what should replace our former practices, we need to step out intuitively and cautiously into the future until we can see more clearly.

Developing Our Peripheral Vision

To stick with the image of “seeing” the future, if we can’t see our way forward, maybe a different kind of sight is required, one that will enable us to move cautiously, but with hope, into the church’s future. Normally, as we move through life, we focus on what lies straight ahead. However, if we stop focusing on what lies directly in front of us, we will begin to notice objects in the periphery of our vision, objects that were there all along but that we did not notice because we were so focused on looking forward.

We are at a moment in the life of the church when what lies in our peripheral vision may well be far more important than what we see by looking straight ahead. Our intuitions, the nudges of the Spirit, and our hunches may provide a way forward out of the stuck place in which we now find ourselves. New images for the church’s mission are beginning to appear as shimmering figures just at the edge of our peripheral vision. Often all we can discern is that something is jumping around. Occasionally, we are able to begin to sense its shape and the direction it’s moving. But when we turn to look at the image head-on, it vanishes. Perhaps all we can do at this point in the church’s history is to learn to pay attention to our peripheral vision. It may take a while for those shimmering images to shift into our direct line of sight, allowing us to describe them more clearly.

A Name for What We See

I find it helpful to name what is beginning to shimmer in our collective peripheral field of vision as the “emerging church.” A new way of “doing” and “being” the mission of God in a postmodern, post-Christian culture, the emerging church often reveals itself in liminal experiences—bubbling up slowly from the ground of our awareness, showing itself just beyond the threshold of our ability to see it clearly. Its outlines are faint. We can’t yet discern the exact shape it will take. It’s far too early to describe the developing image accurately. But we all have had experiences that hint at where we should look for the birth of this new way of being church. My guess is that within 50 years, we’ll all be able to discern its shape far more clearly. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the resources to begin that discernment right now.

The outline of the emerging church will become clearer over time through a bottom-up rather than a top-down process. It won’t be handed down to congregations from on high by academic theologians who don’t engage daily in the messy experience of trying to build Christian community in a changing cultural context. Rather, any consensus will emerge only as thousands of pastors, lay leaders, and congregations begin to experiment. They will begin to work with their best hunches. They will talk with other Christians about what they’re learning. Together, they will begin to describe where the Spirit is leading the church.

The process through which the emerging church will make itself known will necessarily be messy; it may occasionally lead to conflict. However, if our deepest desire is to be faithful to God through our congregational life, we can begin to experiment, follow hunches, and trust that the Spirit will help us discern the most faithful forms of emerging church life. Trying to figure out the shape of the emerging church is not a luxury for those of us who lead Christian communities. The new cultural context demands it.

But how can we know whether what we glimpse in our peripheral vision is, in fact, that emerging church toward which the Spirit draws us? Our current experimentation can lead either to more faithful or less faithful form
s of church life for the future. Our hunches will not always be right, or Spirit-filled. Just as the author of 1 John reminds us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1), so must we test over time whether our experiments are faithful to God, and whether they produce the fruits of the Spirit in the dawning postmodern era. In a word, we are called to practice discernment. Not every idea we have about changing the forms of church life to adapt to a postmodern context will be a winner. Not all of them will be “from God.”

Discerning the shape of the emerging church will be an inexact process, especially for those of us who still have one foot firmly planted back in the old modernist and Christendom paradigm and are only beginning to understand the impact of the new postmodern and post-Christian context for ministry. Because that process will often be confusing, we need the Holy Spirit to lead us through it. If we could rely only on our own bumbling efforts at discerning the shape of the emerging church, we would be in trouble. As a friend once described the way a new pastor is called to lead a congregation, “It’s so crazy, you have to believe the Holy Spirit is in charge; or you’d go nuts!” In a similar way, we would be tempted to despair in our attempts to discover the emerging church, were we not confident that the Spirit is at work in and through us.

Guidelines for Discernment

Here are four guidelines for the process of discernment that I suggest from what I have learned about it from my own ministry setting.

First, pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as you begin the process of discernment, and assume that you will be granted that gift.

We will not have the wisdom on our own to know which of our experiments and hunches will be most faithful and most useful for the mission of God in this new era. What we need is Holy Wisdom, the leadership of the Holy Spirit, to lead us toward the more faithful options before us. When Jesus promised his disciples that the Spirit would guide them “into all truth” (John 16:13), they were facing a situation similar to our own. The context in which they sought to follow Jesus was about to change radically with his death and resurrection. No longer could they rely on his leadership to show them the way; now they would have to find it on their own. The Spirit, Jesus assured them, would help them discover new ways to follow him faithfully on the other side of resurrection. We now find ourselves at a similar moment of change in context; and, like the Twelve, we can be confident that the Spirit will lead us to discover new ways to follow our Savior faithfully in this new context for ministry.

Second, understand that whatever new shape of congregational life we discover through discernment, it must remain consistent with the tradition of which we are heirs, and especially with the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If we are to continue to call ourselves Christian, then—no matter what forms our congregational life may take—what those forms contain must be that same kerygma (core of the gospel) to which the Spirit has always led the church to give witness. We can get so caught up in the efficacy of new forms of church life that we lose sight of whether they tell the central story of God’s love for humanity, revealed finally in Jesus as the Christ. We can’t, for example, be satisfied with a new style of worship that attracts many new people if that worship is not focused on the praise of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Success does not always equal faithfulness. Many worship styles entertain the congregation but fail to proclaim the kerygma fully. Certainly, in the years ahead as in the past, the Spirit will continue to help us gain new insights into the timeless truth God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Third, find colleagues—both clergy and lay—who are also seeking to be open to the leading of the Spirit in this enterprise, and compare notes with them.

The process of discerning the outlines of the emerging church cannot be a solitary pursuit. We will need one another for both encouragement and mutual critique. Talking with colleagues who also are seeking to pay attention to their fields of peripheral vision not only serves to confirm our intuitions but also helps everyone involved in the conversation to see more clearly. As we are being healed from the cataracts of modernity, we will often mistake what we see, especially as those images first begin to emerge in our peripheral vision. Colleagues who are paying attention as we are can help us discern whether it is really trees we see, or people (see Mark 8:24). We can have more confidence in our hunches and our experiments in ministry when they are congruent with the intuitions of people whom we trust also to be open to the leading of the Spirit. Conversely, we need to think again about those guesses we make when colleagues we trust tell us they don’t think our most recent hunch will take us in the direction the Spirit is calling the church to go.

Fourth, as you begin to employ your best guesses, watch to see if they produce good fruit of the Spirit.

For example, if you change the structure or the “feel” of your liturgy in a way that you think will be more faithful in the emerging church, listen for the feedback you receive. Do people tell you the changes bring them more fully into the presence of God or better enable them to express their thanks and praise to God? Or if you are seeking to lead your congregation in the practice of group discernment, are you hearing people say that the process helps them listen more carefully to God’s leadership in the decision you are making together? Especially because we are feeling our way into the emerging church, our intuitions about where the Spirit is leading us may be fully known only in hindsight. All along the way of discernment—at its beginning and at its end—we will need to ask whether what we propose bears the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22).

Adapted from The Postmodern Parish: New Ministry for a New Era  by Jim Kitchens


Featured Resources

AL270_SMThe Postmodern Parish: New Ministry for a New Era by Jim Kitchens

Congregational leaders will appreciate Kitchens’s pointed and realistic analysis of fundamental shifts in ministry that have taken place in our postmodern, post-Christian, and postdenominational world. He also demonstrates that we need to create a different sort of church if we are to be faithful to the gospel in this new cultural setting. Kitchens shows congregational leaders how to learn to be the body of Christ in ways that will be both faithful to the Gospel and responsive to our newly emerging cultural context.

AL302_SM Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power by N. Graham Standish

In Becoming a Blessed Church, Graham Standish shares the story of his congregation’s journey to become a spiritually deep congregation–one that is psychologically, physically, relationally, and spiritually healthy. Becomi
ng a Blessed Church will help you discern God’s purpose and the path God is calling your congregation to walk. This book will help you find Christ in your midst and become aware of the many ways the blessings of God’s Spirit flow through your congregation.

AL277_SM The Postindustrial Promise: Vital Religious Community in the 21st Century by Anthony Healy

Tales of demise and decline have come to characterize news on the state of religion and congregations in America, but author Anthony Healy says that the changes in religious life and among congregations are being misunderstood. Contrary to the stories of decline, Healy finds that congregations are making it possible for people to reconnect with the stories and traditions of previous generations and have become the places in society where the reembodying of religious and cultural narratives is taking place.