It was sometime in 1993 that I finally verbalized a thought that had been gradually forming in my mind for a number of years. I just blurted it out in the middle of a church board meeting. When I said it, board members were taken back. I was shocked. Since then, however, that statement has shaped both my study and practice of ministry. The statement I made that fateful night was: virtually all the old answers about what it means to be and do church don’t work anymore.
Perhaps you have sensed it, too. Boards continue to meet. They continue to plan programs—good programs. Worship continues in the established patterns of the past years—the music is as good as ever; the quality of the sermons hasn’t declined. You’re still offering a high-quality graded Sunday school for children at all levels. Maybe the congregation has made some adaptations to better respond to the realities it is facing. Perhaps you’ve reduced the length of terms on boards to two years from three because you found that people did not want to make long-term commitments. Perhaps you’ve added more contemporary music to the worship service or even established a “seeker service.” Perhaps you’ve changed the Sunday school curriculum in order to make it more teacher-friendly or activity-based. But somehow something is missing. It’s still difficult to recruit the board members. Worship attendance has hit a plateau or is declining. More and more it seems like you’re just going through the motions. You’re doing what you know how to do. You’re doing what has always worked before. But now, it just doesn’t seem to be working. And you wonder what’s wrong—what’s wrong with the church, with the people, with the leaders, with yourself.
That’s what I had been struggling with for a number of years in two different churches. And yet more and more I found it all but impossible to avoid thinking that I was just “playing pastor”—doing the things I had been taught to do in seminary and by my mentors, keeping the organization running, leading meaningful worship, planning interesting programs. Yes, more and more it seemed to me that I was simply going through the motions and it just wasn’t enough anymore. I could literally feel the energy draining from my body and the congregational
body. I knew something different was needed, but I didn’t know what. When I spoke those words that evening they really surprised me. I had never said them before, even to myself. I had never put it that way before, even in my private thoughts. All the old answers about what it means to do and be church don’t work anymore. I’d said it at last. Now, what could I do with it?
First of all, I knew I needed to have some sense of why that was true. Why didn’t the old answers work anymore? Why did doing the things I had been trained to do and could do well seem more and more like going through the motions? Why was it so hard to get things to work the way I knew they were supposed to work, so that we could really be the church that God had called us to be?
A major factor was that significant changes were taking place in the world. What seemed obvious and commonplace for me as I was growing up was no longer the reality I was facing in my daily life. It was hard to estimate the extent of these changes, but they seemed significant. More and more it seemed as though it was these changes that were the most important factor in the reality I was facing. If the old answers didn’t work anymore it was because the world in which they had worked was no more. A new world had dawned and new answers were needed for that world. Something extremely significant is happening in the world and in churches. Profound changes are taking place.
As I looked further into the nature of these changes I discovered a factor that most people think is of great significance: the decline of Christendom. For the first three centuries of its existence, the Christian church existed on the fringes of society. It was a minority group, proclaiming a faith that seemed strange by almost any prevailing standard. That all ended in 313, when Constantine proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Over the years since then, Christianity has been involved in a complex relationship with government and society—each supporting the aims of the other, while also using the other for its purposes. This relationship has taken many forms during that time, but it has almost always meant that the church could rely on cultural support for its beliefs and practices, which also meant that it could count on a steady source of members.
That is no longer the case. The decline of Christendom has meant that there is no longer any strong cultural support for practices that encouraged church attendance. In a very real sense, the church is now left to itself to reach and involve people; it can no longer rely on cultural forces to do that.
The more I looked at it the more I began to understand that these broader changes taking place in the world were the key to understanding why the old answers didn’t work anymore. It wasn’t that I wasn’t as capable or faithful as some previous pastor. It wasn’t that the members of the congregation weren’t committed or that young people didn’t care. Once we accepted that reality we could move beyond the very natural tendency to find someone to blame for our sorry situation. Instead we could begin to consider together what we might do about it.
It is important for us to bring a faith perspective to this discussion. What is God up to in all of this? What is happening through the challenge to old understandings of the church brought upon by our post-Christendom, postmodern world? I continued to wrestle with those questions and they led to even more questions. Could it be that the church itself has become too reliant on someone else, namely the state, to further its teachings and values and to provide its members? Could it be that the church has become so much a product of the age that it has lost a clear sense of its own unique role and purpose? Such a church is a church in name only. It is a church without passion or purpose. God would surely have little patience with such a church. God would certainly want to shake such a church out of its complacency. If we can bring that perspective to our understanding of our post-Christendom, postmodern world, then we need to be open to the possibility that the struggles of these times are God’s way of calling the church to be what it is supposed to be, to do what it is supposed to do in this new world. Maybe that is why the old answers don’t work anymore. Maybe this is God’s way of telling us that it is time to take our faith deeper. Maybe in this time God is offering us a great opportunity to discover anew what
God has called the church to be, a chance to take on the challenge of seeking God’s new church and actually helping to shape it.
Adapted from Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations by Jeffrey D. Jones, copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations
by Jeffrey D. Jones
By becoming congregations of disciples, churches and their individual members will prepare themselves to do the hard work of seeking God’s will and discerning God’s call, finding new possibilities in old answers as well as radically new ways to be and to do church. Jones guides readers through what it means to be a disciple, from key experiences that contribute to the growth of disciples to the practices of disciple-forming congregations.
Heart, Mind, and Strength: Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership
by Jeffrey D. Jones
Leadership, observes Jeffrey Jones, is never about you. What happens to you as a leader stems from a vast array of issues and dynamics over which you have little or no control. Leadership, Jones also insists, is always about you–Christ’s disciple, part of the system, an individual with your own anxieties and a personal life that shapes both your personhood and your relationships. Heart, Mind, and Strength is about dealing with the tension between these two realities. It will enhance your practice of ministry by providing well-grounded theory related to the practical concerns you encounter in the daily work of balancing what you know with who you are.
From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations
by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking
From Nomads to Pilgrims is the highly anticipated follow-up to The Practicing Congregation. The contributors are innovators, representing some of the most dynamic leadership voices among today’s clergy. Their experiences challenge conventional thinking and inspire creative experimentation. Congregational leaders searching for positive models will appreciate these insightful essays.
The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier
by Loren B. Mead
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.