Thursday, January 21, 2010

Discerning the Times for the Church

I think too much. I spend a lot of time thinking about the church. I think and pray about what is going on in my congregation but I also think and pray about what is going on in the church locally and around the world. One of the things that has become clear to me over the years is that we are living in times when much of what we know about church must change. The signs announcing this change are all around us. Oh, we're not going to stop trying to be what the Bible tells us to be. The church will still be a human organization trying to do Divine things, but many of the ways we seek to do those things will simply have to change.

In Mark 13, Jesus and his disciples were walking around the Temple in Jerusalem and the disciples were amazed by all the buildings. Jesus tells them that it is all about to end, that it will all be destroyed. The disciples want to know about the end times, especially when it will be. Jesus tells them not to worry about it. Instead of worrying, he tells them to look for the signs, to be discerners of the times. Jesus' followers are called to be watchers of the times and discerners of what God is doing.

I'm grateful for what I call the American Reformation that was brought about by the charismatic wave of the 70s and the shift in focus to evangelism and reaching the lost that was pioneered by such churches as the Crystal Cathedral and Willow Creek and Saddleback. I'm grateful for the lessons they've taught us and how the Holy Spirit has used them to speak to the church in North America (and indeed, around the world). But I sense an even greater change coming. It is more than simply considering the questions and preferences of the unchurched and how to address those. I sense changes coming that will fundamentally alter the way we "do" church.

Here are some of the things I'm wondering about:

How do we welcome people with no concept of "church" or Christ and also reverse years of laxity in solid, Biblical teaching? We have to renew our focus on teaching.
Even here in Iowa, far away from the cultural and ethnic melting pots of the major urban centers, we are facing our first unchurched generation. There are entire families that have no memory of church at all and may not see churches as something benign. How will we address this growing group in our society and invite them to meet Jesus? I feel that most churches are absolutely unprepared to do the very basic work of leading people to Christ and welcoming them into a life of discipleship. Most probably we are unprepared because we have turned church into something that we do for ourselves and quite frankly, we don't expect people we don't know to ever come into our church. Further, many in our congregations haven't learned anything new since confirmation and don't look to the church to teach them anything else about who God in Christ is. We must find ways of re-igniting historic, orthodox, biblical teaching.

Is the way we "do" church sustainable?
By this I mean the following:
A generation is passing who knew how to give to the church. The next generation is in debt up to its eye balls with school loans, car loans, credit card debt, mortgages, etc. The big budgets we've seen for the last two decades may no longer be sustainable. Can we learn how to do more with less? How can we to teach people who are leveraged beyond belief how to give?
Buildings. Many of them aren't paid for yet. Older ones need a lot of work. Will we be able to afford this expense going forward? And what if a generation who doesn't see the church as important suddenly doesn't think the church should be exempt from paying property taxes? We must learn to think of our ministries beyond buildings; that means beyond programming. Not that this will happen tomorrow, but what about in the next 20 years? This kind of thinking needs to impact our thoughts about building drives. Perhaps we should pay off debt instead of acquiring new debt? Perhaps increasing the size of our physical plant won't really help us as much as we think when it comes to future ministry. These are hard questions to ask in a church culture that measures success by buildings.
Gunmen. Nobody likes to talk about it, but churches have recently become targets of gunmen. How do we prepare for such challenges? God has to be our safety and protection. We also need to be conscious of this new reality and seek ways minimize risks without causing problems within congregations or making them look like airport screening lines.
What if a generation who doesn't value the church doesn't see why there should be a charitable giving deduction on our taxes? Is giving by our membership seen as a faithful response to God's love and grace or as a write off?
What if preaching about sin from the Bible becomes "hate speech?" We've seen this already happening in Canada.
What if future laws require us to provide a translator? Because we are a public event, it is possible that such future laws might apply much as the American's with Disabilities Act required us to modify our buildings.

We must raise up and equip new, young leaders for the future. Currently, few churches have plans for future leadership. The whole approach to leadership by most churches is rather haphazard. It needs to get much more intentional and fast. Everything from helping in discernment processes to helping to pay the costs must be examined. We need the right leaders, the ones that God has chosen. And we don't need them to be acquiring $100k in debt for a job that pays $30k. We doom them to failure by making them bear these costs alone. We need to learn how to embrace new generations and stop acting as if younger people aren't credible. "Let no one despise you because of your youth," Paul says to Timothy. We have to change the way we look at leadership and realize that spiritual maturity is not always age related.

We must become creative with staffing and in ways of making key volunteer positions sustainable. We need to actively fight against burn out in church workers and also prepare for a time when we might not be able to afford the salaries we pay now. Are we prepared to shoulder the real burdens of ministry and not just the financial costs? A sustainable future might very well involve large commitments of time to the church. And the church needs to explore new methods of "compensation," like affirmation, appreciation and encouragement.

We must consider carefully the effectiveness of our programming. In the past, much programming has sought to carve out a Christian subculture for our membership in the world. For instance, if the school has a Halloween Party, we have a Harvest Party. We frequently duplicate what the world is doing in order to put the stamp of Christ on the activity. But what if modern people are so busy that they need the church to offer less, instead of more, activities and opportunities. What if our time with people turns out best spent in teaching them and equipping them how to minister to "the church in their home" rather than being another source of entertainment or activity?

I realize that we must trust God in all things. My purpose here is not to be alarmist. I see it as simply necessary to realize that we live in a sinful world that hates the church and the Gospel. We simply need to be prayerful and aware. We need to be discerners of the times.

I'm reading quite a lot of stuff lately about the necessity of change in churches. Here are some interesting links. Enjoy. Please join me in prayer for the future of the church. God bless you. Thanks for reading. PJ. What the church can learn from Sesame Street.

George Barna: The State of Main Line Protestant Churches

Gracefully Passing the Baton by George Barna