My latest column at Christian Week:
David Hansen, a pastor and author, says that his predecessor’s library haunts him. When his predecessor left the church, he left the ministry and his library. “His library told the story of his ministry,” Hansen writes. Every trend of the decade of his ministry was represented. “The movements he followed actually had little if any effect on his ministry, except in a fatal way: ultimately he confused Christian movements with following Christ.”
I’ve been in ministry long enough to see the trends reflected in my library too. I’ve also witnessed the look in people’s eyes when they feel another trend coming. Weekly, sometimes daily, I get mailings and read articles about the next new thing.
I’ve recently sensed less of an appetite for the latest trend. Many are experiencing the disruption that comes as they experience tension with church as we’ve always known it. Instead of reacting with quick fixes, though, some are moving toward real change.
Disruption – Canada is changing. I’m finding more people realizing that our context demands change. I’m sensing disillusionment with past answers and methods, and great concern about our effectiveness.
A while ago I hosted a series of breakfasts to discuss Reggie McNeal’s book The Present Future. I thought some of McNeal’s statements were edgy. “The current church culture in North America is on life support,” he writes. “Many church members feel they have been sold a bill of goods…The church needs a mission fix.” I waited for the objections from the more conservative people at the table. They didn’t come. I looked around and saw general agreement. “Anyone with older kids could tell you this,” one said.
When a recent evangelical book dismissed the institutional church’s right to exist, I was surprised by the reaction. “Somebody else actually agrees with my position on the institutional church!” one person emailed me. When I said some positive things about institutional churches, a former pastor wrote, “I admire your optimism. I’ve seen traditional churches function as they should, so I know it can happen. It just seems like there are more around that don’t, and that drives me to be more cynical than is probably healthy.” Most people I meet realize that things aren’t working and are looking for change.
Quick Fixes – In reaction to disruption, some are abandoning church. Others, though, are moving toward methodological change. Conferences and books tell us how to do ministry better. I still get the mailings, so I know they’re still happening. I’ve been to a few myself. But Reggie McNeal is right: “The need of the North American church is not a methodological fix. It is much more profound.” Change has to take place at a deeper level.
Even the emerging church is changing. Kester Brewin, author of Signs of Emergence, recently predicted the collapse of the emerging church as a popular project in 2008. “I think that, whereas a few years ago people were excited by the prospect, people are getting used to/bored/fed up with ’emerging church’ as a concept, and will thus leave it behind…I think people have become tired of a whole lot of talking, and want to see things actually happen.” Some of the concepts will survive, but will be assimilated into practice quietly and without the label.
Some are still looking for quick fixes and new trends, but I am sensing disillusionment not only with the status quo but with the easy answers that are marketed to the church. People want to go deeper.
Real Change – I seem to be meeting more people who want to move beyond the status quo and the quick fix to deep and costly change. They are engaging the issues theologically and exploring issues of contextualization. They are rediscovering the gospel, prayerful dependence, and continual and joyful repentance. They believe that God’s Spirit is up to something in local settings, and that real change will come from rediscovering the gospel, depending on the Spirit, and wrestling with how to contextualize ministry.
“We must continually choose between deep change or slow death,” says one recent book on organizational change. I’m excited to discover more people abandon the status quo and the quick fix to embrace real change.