My latest column at Christian Week:
Alan Roxburgh is a preacher, teacher, and consultant whose books help pastors and church leaders understand ministry in a time of change. He currently lives in British Columbia, and has pastored churches in Toronto and Vancouver.
I spent some time in April talking with Alan about our changing culture and what this means for churches in Canada.
According to Alan, most recognize that Christendom has ended and Canadian culture is rapidly changing. This discontinuous change is more than a blip. We are not going back to where we were before, and this makes some anxious.
The story that shaped the church for much of the twentieth century is no longer the story that will move it forward. The habits and practices and the way we did church were developed for a certain kind of culture that no longer exists. Therefore, many of our old habits and practices no longer make sense. This is generally accepted and no longer a matter of debate.
Issues arise as leaders ask what it means to be the church in this new context. Some are trying to revitalize churches by changing at the surface level without understanding the underlying issues. These approaches fail because they do not bring about culture change.
When churches change at the surface, they take what they’re doing try to do it better. They hope that if they become welcoming enough, run the right programs, and hire the right pastor, they will attract people. The assumption is that the culture of the church doesn’t need to change; they just need better implementation and marketing.
These churches often look for solutions to come from the outside. A church or denomination calls in a great leader, and this leader comes in with programs to turn things around. This way of thinking leads to short term spikes but fails to bring about lasting change.
To really innovate, churches need to look at themselves in the mirror and ask what it means to be a church. This calls for reflection and a refusal to settle for superficial answers.
Alan says that transformation comes from realizing that the answers to all the questions the church needs are not found in programs or great leaders, but among the people who make up ordinary congregations.
The role of leadership is to create the environments in which the Spirit of God can work, believing that the Spirit of God is already among those people. Leaders understand that these people in this church, given the right environment, can begin to imagine how they might be God’s people in these communities. This is not a top-down process, nor is it easy.
To be effective at this type of pastoral leadership, pastors must commit to stay long enough to journey with a group of people, and build trust through competence at pastoral tasks. However, they must also go deeper and invite communities of people on a long journey. Pastors must become local theologians and poets, listening deeply to the narratives of people and helping to interpret them.
They don’t force change or despise people’s nostalgia, but love their people and live among them while asking permission to experiment. At the same time, they move away from top-down approaches like strategic planning, mission, and vision statements, and programmatic approaches to church.
This is a very different set of skills than most pastors learned in seminary. Since they can’t learn this type of leadership at conferences, pastors must humble themselves enough to admit that they don’t have the answers, and that they need their people and their colleagues. This is tough, Alan says, but it’s worth it. Even though many have written them off, God is up to something in ordinary local churches.
Writing about our interview later, Alan said, “Church transformation is a big deal! It’s not really about fixing anxiety, putting the church back together, making it work. It really is about being a people who, through the practices of Christian life test and experiment ways of being faithful communities. When we do this in the midst of honest relationships and conversations with others it is amazing what the Spirit does in the culture.”