In 1991, The Once and Future Church by Alban Institute founder and president emeritus Loren B. Mead created an instant sensation in congregational circles with its prophetic insights into the mission of the church in a post-Christendom era.
Two subsequent titles extended Mead’s original vision with similar success. Transforming Congregations for the Future (1994) examines closely research on American religion and discusses its serious implications for the apostolic and discipleship tasks of the church. In Five Challenges for the Once and Future Church (1996), Mead explores the opportunities and challenges presented by issues of clericalism, community, institutional frameworks, spirituality, and mission.
In celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of The Once and Future Church, Alban is proud to release all three of these books as epubs.
Twenty years later, Loren Mead’s classic works still speak to the present time and now to a new generation of congregational and denominational leaders. Consider the excerpts below taken from throughout the series.
God is always calling us to be more than we have been.
In this book , I will try to spell out some of the implications of that statement for the world I know best—the churches. My reasons are very simple: It is my conviction that religious congregations are the most important carriers of meaning that we have, with one exception. They are the most important ground of purpose and direction that we have, with one exception. They are the most important source of an essential element of life—human community—with one exception. The one exception is the human family.
We face a significant problem: Our need for a clear consensus on mission from which we can construct the forms of a new church is no guarantee that we can find it. There is no certainty that we shall be led to a sense of mission as compelling as the one that drove previous generations. That time of clarity may be over. The denominational families with which most of us have had a love-hate relationship for years may have already become antiquarian relics. God may have a more challenging future in store for us, calling us out of these structures altogether.
We must also be aware of our temptation to expend all our resources and energy in shoring up collapsing structures, holding onto the familiar long after it has lost its possibility for new life. One inelegant rule of thumb I use in this area is what I call the “M-T-M ratio.” By that I try to state how long I think a particular organization deserves to have mouth-to-mouth resuscitation practiced on it. Everybody needs help from time to time, but I see all too many religious organizations that drew their last unassisted breath a decade ago.
Within all of this, the local congregation is critical. The congregation is where people touch the church and are touched by it. It is there that literally millions of people are struggling to understand their own personal sense of mission and to get the strength to pursue it. The congregation is where new people are brought into a faith-heritage that connects them to the biblical story and to the life of the people of God.
Against this background, the fact that our churches and the congregations that make them up are in trouble is a concern not just to the religious community. It is a matter of concern for the health of the society itself.
In this book, I contend that the storm buffeting the churches is very serious indeed. Much more serious than we have admitted to ourselves, and much more serious than our leaders have yet comprehended. The problems are not minor, calling for adjustments or corrections. They are problems that go to the roots of our institutions themselves. What I am describing here is not something we will fix. It is a state of existence in which we must learn to live even as we seek new directions for faithful response.
God calls us to a daunting task: to take those structures and those resources of faith and re-present them in forms that will carry them into the next century. I am astonished that God would invite us into such a task of co-creation. God obviously sees potential in us that we have a hard time accepting. And I believe that potential can be approached only as we in our differences enter into dialogue with each other. This book is my attempt to work at that task.
If I am right, we do not need a new set of programs. We need churches with a new consciousness of themselves and their task. The structures we have inherited have shown little capacity for such radical rethinking of their identity.
We have invented an enormously expensive form of professional theological education, the graduates of which are priced out of the financial reach of more and more congregations. We are not alone in this. Other professions (legal and medical, to name but two) have developed similar overcapacity for training. My crystal ball does not tell me what might happen in this realm, but I note it as an important worry for us all. Whenever there is such an excess of capacity for training in comparison with the market for services, there is cause for concern.
If the churches are in the middle of stormy times, facing perhaps unprecedented challenges over the next few generations, it is important that we be clear about what we need our congregations to be. If we are to transform the congregations, we first need to get clear about why we need them and what we need them to be for us. Earlier generations had assumptions about what congregations were. Those assumptions worked for hundreds of years, helping Christian men and women carry out what they understood mission to be in their time. Those assumptions led to the establishment of institutions and structures in addition to congregations, all shaped by the church’s concern to build Christendom. Those assumptions no longer work in our times.
I think the task of the local congregation is to help ordinary people become engaged in that mystery, people willing to make the leap from the known to the unknown as Peter did; people who act on the basis of the new society, who claim the power of that kingdom, who then act for peace and justice and love and healing. The congregation’s task is to call that faith forth in us and send us to act with no positive assurance that anything at all will happen.
In all the complexities of history, in all the encounters with organizational realities, in all the theological debates and philosophical analyses, I think we have lost sight of that simple focus of faith. I have no idea if congregations will grow or decline if they act on that focus, and frankly I don’t give a damn. But I know they will lose their soul if they don’t. That part is simple.
How to do it is not.
The first task in our transformation is the rebuilding of the city wall. The city wall of Jerusalem distinguished what was inside the city from what was outside. It helped the city establish its identity. So for us in our congregational life. We must clarify what makes us different, so that we can undertake our vocation as apostles. This requires us to establish the authenticity and distinctiveness of our congregations so that we live visibly in our faith, shaped by the biblical heritage, not by the least common denominator of local values and morality. We must build congregations where people know and follow Jesus, not the latest polls.
In this book I discuss the obstacles we need to address in building the church of the future. I do so with humility; I expect to be proven wrong many, many times. But I do so also with considerable confidence in what lies ahead. In the final analysis, the outcome is in the hands of God. For now, here are the five challenges I see we have ahead of us:
- To transfer the ownership of the church.
- To discover new structures for the church.
- To discover a passionate spirituality.
- To make the church a new community and source of community.
- To become an apostolic people.
In America, the church is owned by its clergy.
We need to recognize that a classic conflict of interest is at work here. Clergy-dominated institutions make many decisions in which clergy have a direct stake: salaries and job security, for example—sometimes involving prestige and preference. In our society we generally feel that institutions that nurture “conflict of interest” frequently make bad policy—policy that supports the welfare of those with the conflict of interest not the welfare of the entire institution.
We have discovered that although many principled people are able to make selfless decisions, it is wiser to ask a legislator not to vote on a bill in which he or she has a substantial financial interest. We ask judges to excuse themselves from making decisions on cases in which they or their families are directly involved. We urge doctors not to practice medicine on themselves or their close kin. Aspirin, yes; surgery, no. In our country we long ago made the decision that basic policy decisions about war and peace should be made by civilians not generals.
I believe there must be a new dialogue between clergy and laity, a dialogue in which neither seeks to lord it over the other, neither defers to the other, but both give their best to the relationship. It will be a relationship in which the historic power of the role of religious authority is claimed and taken on without apology by those we probably will continue to call clergy. It will also be a relationship in which those we now call laity will see themselves as fully functioning colleagues, standing on their own feet and assured of the authenticity of their witness and work.
In the process of building religious institutions, we have created a power and ownership structure in which the clergy wields most of the power. They are now trapped in that role by history and by the arrangements locked in place by customs and laws intended to preserve the institution. In fact, the “arrangements” keep the clergy in institutional power but make it increasingly impossible for individual clergy to carry out their mandate to be bearers of the religious mystery, to have religious rather than institutional authority.
The institutional framework of our churches is no longer working. So far, we have not been able to build a framework that is adequate for the years ahead.
It is also true that every generation is tempted to preserve the structures rather than the insights of the previous generation. When that temptation wins out, the critical task is to break through the structures and help the insights—if they are still viable—find structures more adequate for a new time.
Two themes dominated Jesus message to his followers about that mission: (1) that every follower of Jesus was called to reach out as a caring servant of others, like Jesus himself; and (2) that the church itself was to be a community that expanded to the ends of the earth, bringing all manner of people into its life and embrace; the church was to encompass the world.
But I have enormous confidence in the One who led the people through the Red Sea to become a great people. I have great confidence in the One who went into exile with the people and led them to new life there, bringing dry bones to life. I have even greater confidence in the One who lived among us as our servant, died, and was raised to new life to open that life to us. And in these later days, when we seem to have strayed away from what Christ calls us to, I have confidence that he continues to call and that he will shape our life to reflect his loving will for us and for all humankind.
What we can know is that God is faithful. We can know that in Babylon God called a lost people, and they responded. Their bones were covered with sinew and flesh and then brought to life by the breath of God. We can trust that God will be faithful to us through our times of change and trial. When, in God’s providence, these dry bones leap to life, we will discover again the powerful breath of the Spirit, bringing us and the church of the future to new life.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Adapted from The Once and Future Church, Transforming Congregations for the Future, and Five Challenges for the Congregation by Loren B. Mead, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
FEATURED RESOURCES 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.
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 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.
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.
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