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In American culture today, huge shifts in expectations, lifestyle, and the understanding of truth are radically changing how people perceive the church and their very receptivity to the gospel. The advent of terrorist acts on American soil and rising levels of anxiety and uncertainty appear to have inspired fresh interest in finding hope, coping with fear, and finding something to believe in. Perhaps we are on the leading edge of a new "Awakening."
But even before these unsettling events, major changes in our culture were well underway. Christendom, the era in which the church stood at the center of the culture, is history. We are in a post-Christendom, post-modern world. In fact, a recent edition of REV magazine, an outstanding periodical on congregational and spiritual vitality, featured an article on post-post-modernism - and many of us are still trying to grasp what "post-modern" means. Indeed, things are changing so rapidly in American culture today that it's difficult for most of us to keep up. In this fast-paced, increasingly impersonal world, people hunger for personal experience, personal relationships, and personal involvement.
How should the church respond? The church is like a ship on a stormy sea without reference points from land or sky withwhich to steer a course. We have to use the "internal guidance" system that the Spirit of God offers to every body of believers, vital signs of a biblically consistent vision for ministry that we may implement in whatever culture we find ourselves. Significantly, these days are not unlike the days of the early church, when the church was not the center of our culture, and when there were many competing voices clamoring for people's spiritual allegiance. But because of our culture's great hunger for meaning, the church has an unparalleled opportunity to introduce people to Jesus Christ and involve them in the fellowship and support of the Body of Christ.
Michael Warden, writing for Leadership Network, describes the church's situation and opportunity clearly:
In the last half of the twentieth century, the American religious landscape was transformed. Commitment to traditional church structures steadily waned, while at the same time our hunger for spiritual fulfillment inched its way into the forefront of the cultural dialog. For the first time in our history as a nation, the concept of Truth began to lose its status as an independent reality. Instead, Truth became relative, dependent on an individual's circumstance or perspective.
This is a sign of the times ... only one among many. The culture is shifting. And many of the established paradigms by which churches have operated for decades can no longer support a populace that is looking for Truth outside the "box" created by our predecessors. By necessity, the twenty-first-century church is becoming more flexible and organic, adapting and changing to engage the culture that surrounds it.
This new environment is giving rise to a fundamental "re-design" of how the church carries out its mission. To be effective, churches once thought (and many still think) that all they needed to do was maintain certain expected church programs, provide a sanctuary where members could gather for worship, perhaps send out work teams into the community, or support missionaries at various locations around the globe. Effective missional churches in today's culture are breaking new ground, trying new approaches, and going back to the blueprint provided in Scripture to show them how to become an authentic "city on a hill that cannot be hidden."
The "saltiness" of the Gospel has not changed, but society is changing rapidly. As Warden makes clear, the church must change too if its message is to be heard and is to help. And now is the time: our evangelistic and disciple-making opportunities have never been greater. The church has a great message in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and now it is needed more than ever - to speak to the brokenness of society and to respond to the deep spiritual hunger we see everywhere. People still love, still hurt, still hope, and they still need to be shown love and respect.
What does it mean to be the church today? A central conviction of the Reformation was expressed by the Scots Confession of 1560, which declared three signs of the true church in which Christ is present: "the true preaching of the word of God," "the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus," and "ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered." We still affirm this conviction. At the same time, we all know of devoted, hard-working congregations that still lose members, struggle to sustain their organization, and worry about their future. Wherever you find yourself as a church, know this for sure: God has an exciting, life-building vision for the whole church and for your congregation. Ask for the faith to believe it, the grace to see it, and the courage to act on it.
Intense and demanding issues face many mainline congregations who are seriously interested in being part of a vital and vigorous fellowship of God's people. While it is true that some congregations in rapidly growing areas seem to have more people than they know what to do with, the vast majority of mainline congregations find themselves on a numerical plateau, trying to relate to the diversity of tastes and opinions both within the church and in the surrounding community.
Tom Brokaw's best-seller, The Greatest Generation, profiles the generation that was born in the 1920s; coincidentally, 1920 was the year my own father was born. You don't have to read much of Brokaw's book to realize how great the attitude shift has been between the generations in virtually every facet of daily life. In times gone by, the generational equivalents of the World War II builders, the Baby Boomers, and the Generation X'ers all worshiped together in the normal mix of any congregation. To varying degrees, mainline congregations could count on everyone being there and having their needs met. This is no longer true. At the same time, such congregations must cope with the changing environment of the culture. Further, not infrequently they find themselves in competition (if I may use that word) with vigorous congregations that tend to attract the most progressive and capable leaders from the surrounding region.
Congregations that grow genuine disciples, that effectively meet human needs, that help people grow in faith, that create a place to belong with friendships of the heart and ways to serve - they must work successfully across the generations as well as retain the participation of present members. Those of us who pastor and all of us who lead these congregations face two challenges: (1) showing love and honor to those who have been among us for generations - indeed, whose lifelong investment in our congregations has sustained them, and (2) adjusting our ministry to draw the lesser churched and the unchurched to Jesus Christ and into the fellowship of God's people.
For some of us, the dynamics of change required will be an "easy sell," with great affirmation of new vision. Others of us will face exceedingly complex dynamics in the effort to move our congregations in the direction of new life. Most of us are familiar with the amazing growth and imaginative ministry of the Willow Creek Community Church, located in South Barrington, Illinois. Each week it reaches about 20,000 people through worship and other ministries. The congregation was begun by Bill Hybels and has been recognized for its innovations aimed at reaching those with no church background.
Imagine that at some time in the future you are Pastor Hybels' successor at Willow Creek, with its thousands of worshipers. Suppose that you are given the mandate (for whatever surprising reason) to change the Sunday morning "Seeker Service" that defines the Willow Creek culture into a Mozart- and Bach-based service - without losing anyone.
Impossible, you say? Well, it would certainly be challenging! Many of us face that challenge in reverse in mainline churches today: how to expand the scope of our ministries to attract people of different tastes while keeping those members we have - without burning out or being taken out in the process. That doesn't necessarily mean that we will introduce "seeker services" into our congregations, but it does mean that reaching people today will require many of us to make major adjustments in our ministries.
Transition is not a strange concept for the church. Every congregation finds itself in the midst of some sort of transition. It may be as simple as the transition of people rotating on and off various boards and committees. It could be the transition that occurs when a once-vital congregation is losing momentum and members. But I want to offer a new definition of the transitional congregation - a church in transition to a positive, future-embracing vision that says, "We have not yet experienced this congregation's greatest ministry. Let us bless what God has done among us and add the ministry we believe will touch another circle of people."
People within churches that have reached a plateau know that things don't have to remain the same. Evidence of successful change is everywhere. There are many vital congregations scattered around virtually every metropolitan area which, though they reflect a diversity of theological viewpoints and cultural styles, nevertheless share many common characteristics. Vital churches of all sizes everywhere evidence vigorous worship, winsome discipleship, fellowship in large and small groups, and ministry as both program and personal lifestyle. They understand themselves as sent, in all humility, by God to pursue the work of Jesus Christ in the world.
Some may ask, Why can't we just maintain things the way they are? It is true that some things should be sustained. Most congregations have some activities - for example, a women's Bible study or a ministry of compassion - that have been bringing honor to Christ and building up people for many years. Yet many of the standard programs of the church are out of touch with people today. Pastors and congregational members alike are looking everywhere for "clues" about how to renew their churches effectively. Look at the vast numbers of people within denominational settings (and across the theological spectrum) who are going to congregations, seminars, and vendors outside of their denominational families and seminaries for training and resources in support of pastoral care, Bible study, small groups, music and worship shifts, short-term missions, Christian education, and overall vision for a vital church.
Furthermore, many changes in our culture call us to rethink what we are doing and how effective we really are. Here are three critical changes particularly important to the church:
The culture has definitely shifted away from a church-centered society.
We are in the most musically diverse age in the history of humanity.
The demands required to cope with life appear to be on the increase.
In Prepare Your Church for the Future, Carl George reviews the ministry of the traditional church, which emphasizes the pastor as primary caregiver, and the programs of many large sub-congregation groups. He contends, "The congregation paradigm describes most of North American religions and it's failing. Why? Because it's not prepared to cope with the quality of turmoil people are experiencing in their personal lives." Sitting in rows listening to a speaker in audience-oriented programming used to be standard in the church and adequate to our lives. It is no longer adequate, by itself, to meet needs and grow disciples.
In his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard offers these thought-provoking comments:
Think of how we exclaim over and mark as rarities those who seem truly to have the power and spirit of Christ about them. The very way the bright exceptions stand out proves the rule that the guidance given by the church is not even counted on by the church itself to produce the kinds of people we know it should produce.
No one is surprised, though we sometimes complain, when faithful church members do not grow to maturity in Christ. With steady regularity we fail to realize the "abundance of life" the gospel clearly promises. We know this to be painfully true. Experience has taught us this, though we may bravely try to ignore it.
This failure has nothing to do with the usual divisions between Christians, such as that between Protestant and Catholic or between liberal and conservative or between charismatic and non-charismatic, for the failure is shared on all sides.
Willard's observations are on point, I think: the church is not adequately addressing the turmoil in people's lives or helping them develop their spiritual maturity, and it needs to rectify these weaknesses. With all of its worship services, its Christian education programs, and its fellowship and service programs, the mainline church has somehow been ineffective in developing the kind of discipleship indispensable for both a vital faith and the vital church. We have assumed the discipleship of our congregants rather than working to lovingly, deliberately develop faith, hope, and love in their lives.
This book is about blessing and adding. It is about the clear and confident giving of honor to the people, programs, and events that have been God's instruments, up until now, for bringing spiritual vitality to the people and into the church. It is also about assertively advancing ministry by adding those emphases and initiatives that will give peace and hope to people when they experience personal turmoil and introduce them to the spiritual disciplines of genuine and growing discipleship.
This book aims to help you as pastors and other leaders conceive a clear vision to help your congregations move in the direction of transformational ministry. The groundwork for a vision requires you to think through the following:
1. the issues raised in this book
2. the present state of your congregation's life
3. where you would like to see your congregation go and grow with God's help
In the next chapter I look at some of the characteristics of the transformational congregation. In the subsequent chapters I discuss twelve specific shifts your congregation can make to "go and grow with God's help."
The Spirit gives us our particular ministry. Pray, asking God for wisdom, insight, and courage. Read the following material, thoughtfully reflect on it, then jot down a few ideas and "next steps" on paper. When you complete this assignment, join with others who are also eager to see your congregation develop a new vitality and begin the process of discerning and planning what you will actually do.
Excerpted from Twelve Dynamic Shifts for Transforming Your Church by E. Stanley Ott Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|1||The Church in Transition||1|
|2||Your Congregation Today||11|
|3||Shifts concerning Vision and Expectation||24|
|4||Shifts concerning Ministry to People||41|
|5||Shifts concerning Congregational Program||54|
|6||Shifts concerning the Practice of Leadership||67|
|7||Deciding on Your Next Steps||84|
|8||Implementing the Twelve Shifts: Some Examples||89|
|Twelve Dynamic Shifts to the Transformational Church||101|
|Information on The Vital Churches Institute||103|
|Resources for a Transformational Ministry||105|