- Strangers meet on common ground. Dare we assume that strangers bring gifts, not threats? In today’s outside world, we are taught to steer clear of the stranger. “Don’t make eye contact!” But it hasn’t always been this way. In our congregations, we have a laboratory for reaching out beyond ourselves and our families. Can congregations open us up to at least civility to those beyond our community of family or friends? Dare we think of the possibility of a public world ruled by the values of hospitality? Can our congregations demonstrate that possibility to each of us personally and train us for that kind of public life?
- Fear of the stranger is faced and dealt with. We do have fears about people who are not “like us.” We have all sorts of stereotypes and prejudices, all kinds of unexplored myths about “others.” Such paranoia cripples the social order and sets discriminatory processes in stone. All congregations, even the most seemingly homogeneous, have within them a mixture of ages and sexes, points of view and backgrounds. Can our congregations be seen as safe places where we can reach across boundaries, where we can support experimentation? Can our congregations become intentional laboratories for exposing us to people outside our groups?
- Scarce resources are shared and abundance is generated. We seem to be a social order in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Who is there to speak for and act on another vision? Who will speak if not the children of the scriptures, the Book in which poets and prophets made it crystal clear that God has a special concern for the poor among us? In the public realm our social order speaks with fear of diminishing resources: If you get yours, there is less for me. Our biblical heritage speaks of abundance, not scarcity: The more you have, the better I will be. Can we bring this consciousness to the world we inhabit? Can we nurture it in our congregations, or are we, too, going to become locked into scarcity thinking?
- Conflict occurs and is resolved. Our congregations, whatever else they are, are seething pools of conflict. But times are changing. We are trying to learn how to reach consensus, how to rebuild when fights fracture our communities. Our tradition brings perspectives about forgiveness and reconciliation that help us reach out to one another for community—not just cessation of hostility. As we deal with our differences, we learn about reaching beyond hostility in the public world toward a different vision of society. Can we learn to use our own spiritual resources of forgiveness and reconciliation within our own communities, learning to bear witness to the same power in the world outside our congregations?
- Life is given color, texture, drama, a festive air. Every act of worship should be a laboratory in celebration of community. These dimensions in our congregations and in our communities give us opportunities to dramatize a oneness and commonality with others. A Church on Easter, a town park on the Fourth of July—both speak to what community means, and our presence involves us in that community. Congregations need to help their members engage in celebrations of community and engage the public in its celebrations that pursue a vision of what the larger community is called to be.
- People are drawn out of themselves. The locked doors and barred windows of city living, the residential sections protected by gates—these realities speak vividly of the isolation toward which our society pushes us. Congregations have a mandate to reach out and to bring in. We bear a high tradition of hospitality. In that sense, congregations are countercultural—or at least counter to the way the culture is drifting. As congregations reach out to the isolated, they become places where the isolated can engage with others. In a society with strong pressures toward privacy, the public realm needs congregations to have vision to root people out of their hidden aloneness and train them for community. Members of congregations need to become neighborhood leaders helping citizens enter the lives of their neighbors.
- Mutual responsibility becomes evident and mutual aid possible. Many congregations have a list of people to pray for—the sick, the shut-ins, the grieving. And many have cadres deployed weekly to take flowers to the sick, to take elements of the Eucharist to those who cannot get to church, to call on people in the hospital. Taking responsibility for one another is taken for granted in our congregations but not in our public arenas. Can our ordinary community life be a beacon to our society at the same time that it prepares us to offer these gifts of service outside our congregational bounds? And should not congregational members be among those who lead and carry out efforts to rebuild neighborhoods and encourage citizens to care for one another’s safety and security?
- Opinions become audible and accountable. In this I must admit that congregations have as much or more to gain from as to give to the public. The modest political systems within congregations need to be opened up to the candor with which public figures articulate and defend positions. Congregations would be strengthened by more such accountability. Having said that, I also note that congregations and their members do have much to contribute. They generally have a feel for the legitimacy of opposition, for the ultimate value of those who oppose one another. Congregations can bring a dimension of civility to public contention.
- Vision is projected and projects are attempted. People in congregations are regularly exposed to transcendent visions of what life is supposed to be. They seem indefatigable in trying to address hurts and pains they see. An invaluable gift congregations bring to public life may be the way their hope is grounded theologically in this conception of God. Congregations bring persistence to the table. Because their visions are grounded in an understanding of God and God’s purposes, congregations are not as likely as the general public to drift away from important visions—such as caring for each person. Congregations are grounded in a sense of God’s purpose and movement through history—something that does not fade after a few decades, as does political optimism. There is a big difference between optimism and hope. Congregations bring the latter. In a gun-flooded society, congregations know about a world in which swords are turned into plowshares. In a society of gangs and drugs, congregations witness to a world in which the lamb and the lion can dwell together. We bring visions. That is part of what we are.
- People are empowered and protected against power. The check and balances of governing structures should provide a framework that protects the citizen against unwarranted assumptions of power. At the same time, these structures give space and scope for a citizen’s gifts to be shared. Congregations, in their life of worship, act out and celebrate the importance of freely given gifts shaped and conformed by structures of authority and custom. They also understand the limits of human integrity, the presence of sinfulness, and the necessity for larger frames of value.
Adapted from Transforming Congregations for the Future by Loren B. Mead, copyright © 1994 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Transforming Congregations for the Future
by Loren B. Mead
If God is calling the church to reshape itself, on what basis do we begin? Declining membership and surveys on worship attendance suggest that the church is no longer a source of hope or a compelling resource to deal with the turmoil of today’s changing world. Mead suggests we may not be living and breathing the Good News promise of spiritual transformation for all to see. He challenges readers to examine the transformations inherent in God’s call to renew the church.
Mead takes a broad look at past and present changes in the church and postulates a future to which those changes are calling us. In a post-Christendom era, the old assumptions don’t work, and our institutions are breaking down. Thus, the church needs to be—and in fact is becoming—reinvented for the new mission. Mead provides a fascinating look at where we may be headed and how some of us are already working to get there.
Five Challenges for the Once and Future Church
by Loren B. Mead
Mead presents five key challenges facing today’s churches and how they represent opportunities for the evolutionary, transformative changes he believes must take place in congregations if the church is to remain a viable institution into the twenty-first century. Readers of Mead’s The Once and Future Church and Transforming Congregations for the Future will want to continue the journey begun with those books. A must for congregational leaders at all levels.
The Once and Future Church Collection
by Loren B. Mead
In 1991 The Once and Future Church by Alban Institute founder and former director Loren B. Mead created an instant sensation in congregational circles with its prophetic insights into the life of the church in a post-Christendom era. Still quoted often and in demand, the book stands as Alban’s all-time best seller. Two subsequent titles, Transforming Congregations for the Future and Five Challenges for the Once and Future Church, extended Mead’s original vision with similar success.