Church must change! How, exactly?

Congregations must change–drastically–according to what I think it is fair to call conventional wisdom that has coalesced with increasing speed among church leaders over the last ten or twelve years.

Peter Steinke summarizes this point of view comprehensively in a column distributed today by the Alban Institute.

Stienke suggests that the question I have posed in the headline of this piece cannot be answered in advance. He writes:

Faced with a strange new world, the church is challenged to be true to its purpose and attuned to its context. I believe the paradigm shift of rapid change constitutes a rich opportunity for the church. God has set the door open to the future. But the new day is as perplexing as it is promising. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains, “It is abundantly and unmistakably clear that we are in a deep dislocation in our society that touches every aspect of our lives.” We are living in a new context where old certainties are disappearing, old institutions are less dependable, old assumptions are questionable, and old neighborhoods are less cohesive. Logically, if not spiritually, we may even have to allow for the possibility that these dislocations could be part of God’s new creation. It may be God working through the unknown that contributes to the destabilization of the world. God is no stranger to Eden’s deportation, Babel’s scattering, the exodus, the exile, and crucifixion. God can be surprising, mysterious, taking history into unexpected turns.

The challenge of change for a congregation on a steady downward slope is precisely to redefine and redirect its mission. They have to realize that decline is not an end to mission. Yes, they are mere shadows of their past. Yes, rethinking mission is difficult, for congregations are burdened by big or deteriorating buildings, smaller staffs, a paucity of young families, and a shortage of hope. But expansion is not the sole gauge of mission orientation. One problem with this thinking is the belief that, for congregations, all things are equal. But congregations are not in the same place, same stage, or same circumstance. That’s not reality.

Congregations may hanker for a technique that will bring about results they want to achieve; they want to replicate what has been discovered by someone else: “Give me a copy of the wonderful plans.” Seeing what those plans have done for others, they want the same result—but without going through the process that got the others to that point. The shortcut of imitation certainly bypasses a lot of pain. How churches hunger for precisely this situation.

Meaningful, lasting outcomes are the result of the journey and the learning that takes place. Maybe a word of caution should be stamped on all programs: “Not transferable.” Transition time is life’s curriculum. Being on the path opens new insight; being on the path, not the steps one takes, is the very condition necessary for learning.

I don’t doubt what Steinke is saying here. My business partner Rebecca Wilson and I say similar things about the importance of matching a congregation’s gifts to a neighborhood’s needs in developing strategies for evangelism. But here is where I think the rub is: we are asking people who are having a hard time keeping the lights on, the building heated and the rector’s pension paid (assuming they have a full-time priest), and who may love coming to church for the same reasons that they have always come, to risk the survival of their congregation to do something different–but we can’t give them much guidance about what.

I think we need to admit at least that: a) we are asking a lot from people and b) much discussed changes to our governing structures or the location of the church’s principal offices may have little or no effect on the outcome of this enterprise.

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