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Distinguish between renewed, restored, and reinvented churches, and focus on the last.
Here we are, in this middle zone, this transition zone. Behind us is the old world, and on the other side of our middle zone is the new world. We are struggling like swimmers in a crosscurrent, trying to figure out how to get out of these frightening waves and make some headway, wondering if we'll make it. Some are trying to tell us the currents aren't so bad, that we will be okay if we just hold steady; soon everything will be as it was before if we just hang in there, resist the change, and go back. It is comforting advice and appeals to many--but I think it is fatal.
That is why our first strategy is to maximize discontinuity. That is to say, maybe small changes, superficial changes, were enough in the past. But the degree of change we are experiencing now is such that small measures, even a lot of them, aren't enough. Instead, we need major change, qualitative change, revolution, rebirth, reinvention, and not just once, but repeatedly for the foreseeable future.
Margaret Wheatley, in her inspiring book Leadership and the New Science, tells a story of the famous physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenburg. In the early twentieth century, they faced a situation analogous in many ways to ours: Their theories didn't fit their newest data. Heisenburg recalled the emotional upheaval of that time:
I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?... here the foundations of physics have started moving; and ... this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.
From that frustration, as the old Newtonian paradigm proved inadequate to cope with subatomic reality, a breakthrough occurred and quantum theory was born.1
For us, the upheaval is equally intense. Our theology, our ways of doing ministry, don't seem to work or fit anymore. We have long discussions, take long walks, and ask agonizing questions, but can't see yet that a breakthrough may just be around the corner, opening the way to exciting new discoveries. We need hope.
If we could get even a brief and dim sighting of where we're going, of what life and faith will be like on the other side of this frustration, I think we would gain new hope. Because as frightening as these crosscurrents may be, we will see that on the other side is, as the children of Israel discovered, 'a good land, flowing with milk and honey.' If we can get a vision of what the land on the other side is like, we can help others make the crossing, too. It all starts with a glimpse, a sighting, a shout: 'There it is, over there! That's where we need to go!'
Many gifted leaders and wise writers are helping us get the needed sightings. They are painting vivid and inspiring pictures for us: the rediscovered, seeker-driven church (Bill Hybels), the purpose-driven church (Rick Warren), the permission-giving church (William Easum), the resurrected church (Mike Regele), the twenty-first century church (Leith Anderson), the metamorphosed church (Carl George), the new apostolic church (George Hunter), the missional church (Alan Roxburgh and others) and more. And on this they nearly all seem to agree: The future belongs to those willing to let go, to stop trying to minimize the change we face, but rather to maximize the discontinuity. William Easum writes,
A new form of congregational life is dragging Christians kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. The self-understanding, focus, corporate culture, leadership, organizational styles, and strategies are radically different from those experienced throughout the twentieth century. The future church offers new opportunities and problems and requires a new mindset....
We live in a time unlike any other time that any living person has known. It's not merely that things are changing. Change itself has changed, thereby changing the rules by which we live.... [T]here is more to this change than simply a linear extrapolation of rapid change and complexity. Quantum leaps are happening that are nothing like evolution. They remove us almost totally from our previous context. Simply learning to do old chores faster or to be able to adapt old forms to more complex situations no longer produces the desired results.... Running harder and harder in ministry will not work in this new world....
Established churches are becoming increasingly ineffective because our past has not prepared us for ministry in the future. The discontinuity we have experienced because of these quantum leaps is comparable to the experience of the residents of East Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down. Nothing in their past prepared them for life without the Wall. Very little in our past has prepared us for ministry in today's world.'2
To maximize discontinuity, it helps to distinguish between three kinds of churches: new, renewed, and restored.
As we shall see, it is possible to have a new church that is not a new church, and an old church that is a new church. New, as we will use the term here, means new in kind, not in age. A new church is one designed for the future, reinvented and reintroduced for the other side. It is an evolving organism at the beginning (or end) of an ice age, capable of adjusting to the coming climatic and environmental upheavals. But the new, reinvented church--the church on the other side--must be distinguished from two other subspecies in the church genus: the renewed church and the restored church.