Saturday, April 10, 2010

re-thinking church (change the world)

I have been reflecting for some time about the need to re-think what is happening in and through the church. Some of this is blindingly obvious----the shift from a church culture to a more secular/entertainment driven context, the accelerating pace of life, the chief symbol of which is the computer or mobile device screen you are now reading, illiteracy in relation to both scripture and tradition, the mounting extremities of human need locally and globally, and the distrust of institutions, among them the organized church (witness the global outcry toward Pope Benedict regarding pedophilia). I could also add the latest statistics related to membership loss and a decline in giving in my own denomination (United Methodist), a trend that shows no sign of easing.

All of this makes for a much more complex environment in which to give leadership and to do ministry. Some of my assumptions about it all are intuitive and anecdotal, but the cumulative effect can be, when one has time to rest and think about it all, rather striking. This is not my grandparent's church, and it will not be my grandchildren's church either.

So, I have taken some time to enter into conversation with a few voices who seem to be paying attention to all of this, and most of them describe what is being defined (yes, rather loosely) as the missional church. I find the contrast between the missional church and the attractional church to be quite compelling. The intellectual roots of all of this, at least in modernity, seem to be in the writings of Leslie Newbigin, a missionary who returned from India in retirement to Great Britain and discovered it to be a mission field (and this was some years ago---1974, in fact; the perception would be stronger today). The attractional church was/is an attempt to meet the needs of the unchurched by programs designed to be a cultural match for them---divorce care, different music, etc. The attractional model has been very effective in megachurches, which have been the source of a stream of publications and resources (Willow Creek, Saddleback), and among baby boomers, a huge demographic in the U.S (those born between 1946 and 1964; I was born in 1957). The attractional model has had some unintended consequences---it does make the person who attends the service the client/customer, and thus tends toward a consumer model. Interestingly, both Bill Hybels (Willow Creek) and Rick Warren (Saddleback) have made strong moves away from the attractional model in some of their programming, sensing some dissatisfaction with it; see the Reveal study. This could be some mild form of mid-life crisis, and also the prompting of their spouses, but surely also the work of God! The most notable exponent of the missional church model at present in the United Methodist Church is Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio (see his Change The World).

Most of the literature on the missional church arises from the reformed stream of historic Christianity. This could be due to Newbigin's influence (although Methodists should note the work by Geoffrey Wainwright on Newbigin's life and legacy) and the members of the Gospel and Our Culture Network. I am somewhat surprised that more work has not been done linking the historic strengths of the Wesleyan movement with the missional church (the world parish, the social gospel, prevenient grace, connectionalism). We have a much greater affinity with the missional church than the attractional; indeed, to use an overworked term, it is in our DNA going back to 18th century England. And for me the Wesleyan tradition is more compatible with the missional church than the Reformed, whose reason for being was related more to intellectual struggle than missionary encounter.

I would encourage United Methodist pastors and leaders to read Slaughter's Change The World, and alongside it Introducing The Missional Church by Roxburgh and Boren (Baker, 2009). To paraphrase Roxburgh and Boren, we will likely discover in the coming years that our constituents are tiring of the attractional pattern of doing church (for many of the reasons I note in the first paragraph above); at the same time, many young adults (16-35 year olds) hunger for missional church, or at least missional experience (evidence: Katrina, Haiti, Bono, Teach for America, the Obama campaign, etc.). To be missional is to enter into the strange world of the Bible---the call of Abraham, Isaiah's prophecy to rebuild the ruined cities, the inaugural sermon of Jesus in Capernaum, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, not to mention the Book of Acts, a neglected resource among mainline churches in general) and the tradition. At our best, United Methodists have always been missional, and when we have been missional, we have changed the world. There will continue to be attractional churches who do their ministry with excellence, but for the most part they will attract mobile United Methodists seeking similar programs and practices (I am thinking of the United Methodist who moves from Charlotte to Indianapolis, or vice versa).

At the risk of seeming U.S.-centric, we do find ourselves, as United Methodist Christians living in the U.S. in a mission field. For this reason our structures, shaped for a church culture, no longer quite fit, and the expectations of clergy (note recent discussions of guaranteed appointments among elders, or the desire for a larger parish the next time around) can no longer be fulfilled. We can take what Roxburgh and Boren describe as the "developmental" approach---working hard at improving what we are already doing. Here we would keep all of our systems (from local church committees to annual conference staffs to general church agencies) in place, opting not for reform or change but for improvement and efficiency. To do so would not be the end of the world, but it misses the point.

The changes in the culture and the needs of the world, and, indeed, the dreams of God call for re-thinking and, in time, a missional reformation. This would be an exercise in appreciative inquiry, the rediscovery of our core strengths as the people called Methodist; it is finally why God called us into existence in the first place, and it seems the historical moment in which we find ourselves is either a lament or a call. This has implications for the way every local church engages in "risk-taking mission and service" (Robert Schnase) with its community (or, to use Roxburgh and Boren's preferred term, neighborhood), but it is also a challenge to our institutions. What would it mean for our hospitals, colleges and universities to take this mission seriously? I am aware that there are some institutions who have heard this call---I think of the Church Health Center, related to Methodist Hospital in Memphis, and Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama--both institutions located in the poorest region in the U.S., both thriving in the discovery of who they are and where their mission field is located. I name just these two as parables and signs of how transformation can happen, and not merely transformation of institutions, but lives. There are others, and their stories need to be told. I am also aware that there are local churches, and clergy and laity who "get" all of this, and they are located in every region and jurisdiction.

Finally, three voices who have profoundly influenced this thinking should be acknowledged. Ken Callahan's focus on mission growth in the Twelve Keys materials (and the recent revision is excellent); and Resident Aliens by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, which clearly communicated the changing context, one we are still living into twenty years later.

The conversation will continue, because the trends are unavoidable, and those who care about all of this cannot continue to exist in a state of denial. The question becomes: Could we re-think the purpose of the church, and re-design the mission of the church, so that we might---yes, with the help of God and in the movement of the Holy Spirit---change the world?


Blogger Steven Manskar said...

Thanks for this post. Your comments are n line with my thinking and work for the past couple of years; since I came across Newbegin, Bosch, Guder, Roxburgh, Hirsch, and others. Yes, there definitely is a strong connection between the Wesleyan tradition and 'missional church.' In fact, I've been working on a book that makes that connection explicit and gives recommendations for change. However, no is interested in publishing it.

Therefore, I'm organizing the Wesleyan Leadership Conference that will be held in Nashville October 14-16 of this year. The keynote speaker will be Dr. Scott Kisker from Wesley Theological Seminary. He will speak about the arguments he makes in his book "Mainline or Methodist?". He and Elaine Heath have also written an excellent book that I highly recommend, "Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community".

I hope to see you there.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Ken Carter said...

thank you for this note, steve, and for your work, and i hope you will find a publisher! the conference sounds great and perhaps we will be able to be there. i really love elaine heath's work on the mystic way of evangelism, and think she is on target in the comments related to purgation and detachment. we need to detach from the attraction model...maybe God is helping us toward this?

12:37 PM  

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