There is a Maori proverb that beautifully encapsulates their traditional world view:
“We walk backwards into the future, our eyes fixed on the past”
It gives us the picture that we approach the future everyday not knowing what it will look like as we can’t see into it, but that “(looking) to the past informs the way we move into future”
The Maori people understand the past and present as “a single, comprehensible ‘space’ because it is what they have seen and known. We walk backward into the future with our thoughts directed toward the coming generations but with our eyes on the past.” It’s akin to going on a road trip – you may not sure where it will take you but you know from where you came – you look both forward and also in the rear-view mirror.
As I read church history and stories of God’s faithful people moving missionally throughout time and space, I am often surprised how innovative and creative people are in their love for God and His mission. How they adapted to the culture, context and time that they found themselves in for the benefit of those who did not yet know the God of all creation and the saving work he accomplished through his Son, Jesus Christ. Often they stepped outside what was considered ‘traditional’ to innovate and map out a new pathway of being disciples so others could see their way to following.
There is a difference between tradition and traditional. Tradition is really about our why. Why we believe what we do. We look upon the ancient scriptures of the people of God and the new scriptures that tell of Jesus and his ushering in of God’s kingdom; we rely both on the early translators and interpreters and our contemporary translators and interpreters; we live into and share values and ethics that have been passed along for centuries. Traditional, however, is usually the way we do things. You’ll hear families around Christmas traditions complain when something changes with a loud “But that’s traditional!” In church life we often say “well that’s the way we’ve always done it!”
I’m with the Maori – we must continue to look to our past – it has formed us and gives us a foundation – we still believe God is the creator of all things, that he created humans as his co-labourers to steward the earth, that he called a people his own to be both salt and light so that other peoples could witness the glory of God lived out through them; we believe that God so loved the world he sent his Son….
But we always walk with these things in sight into a future for the coming generation and for the current culture. This means taking a good look at our traditional ways of being the church, having open hands and empty tables to release things we cherish and embrace things we may not find comfortable at first yet give movement to serving God’s mission of his kingdom of shalom into all the places and spaces of our human experience.
“Re-missioning established churches with movemental practices and missional theology is some of the most difficult and needed work in North America.” Josh Hayden
As churches, this can be difficult for us to do. We love so many of the traditional things we do! But if we are going to be people on God’s mission, then we need to frequently evaluate the things we do and the impact they have, not only on ourselves, but into the world to which we have been sent.
I encourage you to listen to Josh Hayden’s presentation here (the first 27 minutes with the rest Q&A), on Re-missioning the Established Church, for all things are possible if we are humble, open and lay down our lives for the sake of others as our discipleship demands.
One of my favorite paintings is Van Gogh’s Starry Night. One of the ways this painting speaks to me is in the imagery of the village. It is night and the glory of God fills the skies. The church with its darkened windows rests in the middle of the village. But the lights burn bright in the windows of the homes in the neighbourhood. There, people gather around meals, prayer, conversation, thankfulness with family, with friends, with neighbours. This is what I think of as I read this quote exerted from today’s guest blogger of viewing one’s one’s “own neighbourhood as a fundamental Gospel building block.”
In this New Leaf Network Blog Post, author Rohadi picks up on some of the thinking of our previous blog post on Abundant Community and the Kingdom of Godwithin neighbourhoods. Both these great posts were written pre-covid yet their relevance to the types of reflecting, processing, thinking and questioning the church is doing in the midst of our disrupted understanding of what it means to be the church is definitely worth asking yourself and your church some important questions about what God is saying to the church today, in times such as these.
My grandma used to spend the odd Sunday strolling to service two blocks from her home. She lived during a time when everyone went to church, or in the very least knew the stories. Church was part of her routine, part of her neighbourhood, and a part of Canadian culture. The time when the majority of Canadians attended a church service is gone, but I think there’s something worthy to reclaim from grandma’s church from the ‘60s. Not for its assumed position of privilege, but the value of local parish ministry living out a story of “the best yet to come.” Despite current trends to centralize the church (strategizing to strengthen what you have versus planting something new), the presence of the local parish may be a critical key to revitalizing Christianity in post-Christian Canada.
I’m somewhat surprised how, despite facing profound loss as a whole, church leaders implement changes incrementally at a time when most are clamouring to find ways to reverse the exodus. Maybe it’s too little too late? The way leaders justify incrementalism is by picking the latest strategies and tactics that seem to be working for resilient churches somewhere else. If it works for them it should work for us, they’d say.
Evangelicals are beating declining national trends that are most evident in mainline denominations. Some even report very modest growth. Does a silver bullet lie within the function of evangelicalism? Depends what the goal is. If it’s to ensure a resilient church for Christians then yes. If it’s to “preach the Gospel to the lost,” then no.
Tips to Success Want to lead a resilient and even growing church? Here’s what you need: strengthen programming to young families, ensure strong culturally relevant preaching, have exceptional music, maybe strong programs to baby boomers as well. This is a gross oversimplification, but if you can deliver programming with effectiveness, you’re going to hold your own, and attract the already churched. But in terms of conversion growth, that requires different expertise.
The Naked Emperor As a whole, evangelical growth occurs via very specific sources. When we consult the data, over the past twenty years churches that add members do so through three primary and almost exclusive ways.
Christians switching churches.
The best resourced churches “grow” because they can afford robust programming for new immigrants; are the largest and by default have the most births; and have the best music and preaching that attracts the quintessential consumer Christian. Not on the list of three? Evangelicals struggle to grow by evangelism. In their book, A Culture of Faith, Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson asked congregants in evangelical churches what they thought the highest priorities in their churches were–evangelism was one of the lowest. Despite the moniker, evangelical churches don’t grow by evangelism. Even the best resourced churches struggle to connect with a post-Christendom culture where fewer hold any religious memory of the bygone church/Christian dominated Canada.
Where do we go from here?
First off, we need to shift our theological paradigm of mission. This change is both critical yet difficult to adopt. Rather than mission being a program or support for professional missionaries somewhere ‘out there in the world’, can we re-orient mission to the forefront? Can mission become the defining filter for the entire function of the church here in Canada? The implications of shifting the paradigm of mission will alter your perceptions from a church devoted to Christians for Christians, to one that re-values a participating church in the restoration of neighbourhoods for the benefit of all (as fundamental identity and not mere outreach ministry).
Challenging old paradigms of mission (some would adopt language like ‘missional’) will require more than casual lip-service. Modelling is a necessary step to take ideas beyond planning. It will mean some discomfort as we alter the things we devote the majority of our resources to—namely the Sunday service(s) and programs—so they reflect missional orientation. For example, it is difficult to claim ‘priesthood of all believers’ or encourage congregational participation in the unfolding mission of God if our gatherings are exclusively run by the qualified clergy and staff. Upsetting the rhythm of our most cherished institution (the service) won’t be easy. On one hand it is expected that staff will do most of the work because they are paid, on the other, this expectation detracts from the development of congregations out of a consumer mentality of participation. Ultimately, consumer churches are not missional churches.
Secondly, once a paradigm of mission has been established (or unrolling) leaders will seek to implement strategic direction to increase participation. One of the ways to ‘cheat’ in this process is to look at the bright spots already unfolding within your congregation, and outside in your immediate neighbourhood. You may be surprised with what people are already doing on their own accord. On average, most people will wait to join some kind of ministry the church starts. Look for the anomalies who are already living out the character of Jesus in their space and place without permission from the church. Develop these people, partner with them, and send them resources.
Thirdly, connect people based on geography. The power of the neighbourhood, of presence and proximity, cannot be replicated because it is the very foundation of incarnation—of the Word made flesh whom moved into the neighbourhood. I’ve had conversations with mega-church pastors who legitimized commuting as an asset because driving 25 minutes to a small group demonstrated deep commitment. That might be true, but it utterly devalues the neighbourhood. Jesus literally meant, love thy literal neighbour, literally next door. Literally. Combining people based on postal code is a powerful tool to create groups that are centered in the same place and ready to live out the character of Jesus where they live with people they love. I can’t think of a better pursuit for ‘small groups’. This idea, however, requires the church to process idea #1, and indeed value its very own neighbourhood as a fundamental Gospel building block.
Admittedly, the paradigm shift towards a lens of mission is not an easy one to adopt. Encouraging entrenched churches to revalue proximity over commuting may be met with stiff opposition. Suggesting the resources committed for years (decades) don’t work is a tough pill to swallow especially for those who’ve spent most of that time planted in Christian culture. (It’s tough to see the world with different eyes when you’ve been inside the church the whole time.) Disrupting status quo isn’t supposed to be easy. The caveat is, over time, you will develop and attract focused people who will call an incarnational vision their own, and will give their lives towards it. Ultimately, that’s what we hope for: a community of witnesses on jealous pursuit of an unfolding love story in their neighbourhoods and beyond.
“During this time we have an incredible opportunity to rethink, reimagine and remission ourselves.”
Last week, as I was switching cell phone service providers, I had a conversation with the support tech around our new work-from-home reality. It was a conversation that was becoming quite familiar: people and families are awakening to a new dynamic of living that many are finding less stressful, happier, less costly and overall, more satisfactory, as they transition from commuting to workplaces to working from the home office. The dynamic is causing much rethinking and reimagining on how people want to live their life—their mission, so to speak—after the world returns to regular safe activities.
As churches we have the opportunity, as this blog explored, to rethink the way we gather and scatter. We have a window in which to reimagine what it means to be the church, the ecclesia, the ones called out as citizens of the kingdom of God to influence the world as people of Shalom.
Specifically, as we are thinking about meeting together in common spaces again, what kinds of hybrids might God be communicating to us? What new rhythms should we not discard once we can have “regular” life again?
To get you thinking, we’d like to re-introduce you to Andy Lambkin. The last time we shared Andy’s insights on the blog was in 2013! Andy works within church planting with the Alliance organization and has a network of churches in the Vancouver area that have already been on a twelve-year journey of rethinking, re-imagining and re-missioning.
Simplechurches is a network of house churches that are still very connected with one another. They have presence in multiple neighbourhoods, extending the Presence, grace and mission of God right where they live, work and play.
Of course, simplechurches was a church planting mission from the beginning. This gave them latitude to shift their cultural expectations of how the gathered church should look, even before they put the structures in place to do so. For the majority of us who meet in buildings together, there is a more complicated journey to re-missioning ourselves.
Our existing preconceptions and presumptions of what church gatherings must incorporate can often hinder us to imagine we can change anything and still have meaningful worship together. For many of us, we are finding that for some, it just “isn’t church,” if we don’t spend one or two hours singing together, praying and listening to teachings in a single location. Yet, our current reality has imposed upon us an opportunity to discover (and perhaps to be introspective) of what it is we value most and allowing ourselves to ask those hard questions, as posed in the previous blog, and be attentive to what God is communicating through all this and what it is we should be paying attention to.
What might it look like to gather together for fellowship, the breaking of bread, the Apostles’ teaching and prayer in homes on a Sunday, with every fourth Sunday all gathering together to celebrate God-With-Us in song, prayer, testimony, preaching? What might it look like if we did that with two or three other networks to share the building space and costs? How might these shifts end up changing how we are church in the world?
This is just one possible hybrid to explore, but it should get us started on our re-missioning journeys.
I encourage you to watch these two short videos, in which Andy shares the amazing way the simplechurches community discerned God calling them to rethink, reimagine and remission. Ponder, pray and give yourselves permission to rethink.
Video 1: In the Beginning
Video 2: God’s Going to Tamper with the Water Systems
“Adaptive leadership is called for when you are facing something you have never faced before. A term made famous by Ronald Heifetz and his colleagues at Harvard, adaptive leadership begins the moment you find yourself without expertise, and when you are truly facing the unknown.”
This quote from Tod Bolsinger, vice president for vocation and formation and teacher of practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, is certainly our new reality. As I’ve heard others quote “we’ve never been this way before.” At least in our lifetime and in our context.
How then, do we begin to face the future of the unknown as churches who value our gathered times and the things we do while together in a worship service?
For the most part, from the stories we are hearing, most churches have adapted their gatherings into some kind of temporary stop gap. But what if the stop gap is longer than what we envisioned the stop gap to be? What ways do we need to begin to rethink and reimagine what it means for a scattered community to be the witness to the world of God’s presence among us, in word and deed, that we are called to?
We are so conditioned to view the gathered community as the “way of witness” that we may have difficulty imagining how we are to be salt and light as the scattered community. Yet, this was exactly how the earliest of church witnessed – as scattered communities.
Read Tod’s article hereand ask the Spirit to guide you to what questions you should ask yourself, your leaders and your community.
We are quite literally in a time of learning as we go. Will we be open to learning what may challenge our own embedded thinking? Will we be open to God leading us to different ways of fulfilling our role as his missionaries here in our neighbourhoods and cities?
There may be tweaks and small adjustments to be made, or perhaps God’s calling us to consider a bigger-picture reframing or remissioning in this time of forced change. Will we be open?
As Tod challenges us to stare straight on:
“What if you thought about this present moment and asked, “What could we be doing now that would help us become the best version of our community after the pandemic?”
We’d love your thoughts, ideas and ways you are adapting to this new normal of being the people of God who is with us in the midst of all the strangeness of this current reality.
BTW, I was first introduced to Tod via his book Canoeing the Mountains. It’s a great read on leadership and very different to the corporate model of leadership expertise that is available to help us.
Cailey My husband Kyson is a fantastic photographer. He loves to capture the vastness of the ocean at sunrise, the intensity of colour in a flower petal, and the diversity of culture and personality in our community. During Lent,he took weekly prayer-photo-walks around the neighbourhood. For two of those weeks, he set his camera to only shoot in a 1:1 square ratio, in black and white,with a 35mm prime lens. No zoom. No colour. No cropping.
These creative restraintsforced Kyson to see the street that we’ve lived on for 6 years in a whole new light.
Kyson Morgan Photography
Kyson Morgan Photography
Kyson Morgan Photography
Kyson Morgan Photography
Kyson Morgan Photography
Kyson Morgan Photography
Kyson Morgan Photography
He found beauty, symmetry and life in places that had seemed barren at first glance. And the bright, shiny characters that usually drew his attention lost some of their luster when seen through the equalizing glass of the black and white viewfinder. By narrowing his field of view, he broadened his perspective.
My hope for each of us—and for each of our churches—is that the creative restraint of a social-distancing world will help us broaden our vision of what church is meant to be, and what that means explicitly for me and you and the Body of Christ right now in our specific ministry contexts.
What is God inviting your congregation into, in this very moment, in your tiny piece of the planet?
This is a question we should consistently be asking, whether we are gathered face-to-face in our communities or making eye contact with our webcams as we practice discipleship over Zoom.
Shannon A few weeks ago in a commentary in my city’s newspaper, a Bishop from the U.K was reflecting upon his hope that this time in our world of needing to stay home and socially distance from one another is a good time to rediscover things in our lives that we’ve ignored or disregarded due to the pace of life and expectations of that pace. As best as I can recall he said we can all reflect on “being who we’re really meant to be because the other things that have captured our attention aren’t available to us right now.“
I wonder how often, as followers of Jesus, we take the time to examine if we are living, acting, demonstrating and communicating who we’re really meant to be in every arena we are present in. We are so conditioned by the culture around us that has shaped our worldview, that we often reflect the same biases, judgments, and perspectives as all those other things that captureour attention–at the great cost of looking more like ourselves and less like those who love God with everything we are and love others likewise.
Perhaps this is a just the time to reflect on our own motivations and desires. Do they align with the teaching of Jesus that announces the kingdom of God is among us andwhich we are to embody?
As we reflect,can werethink? Can we reframethis resurrection life we’ve been raised into with Christ, andhonestly assess areas where we can imagine remissioning ourselves to be the collective light of the world Jesus call us to?This is who we were always meant to be, his witnesses, in both the demonstrating and the telling of the grand story of God’s love for us all.
Cailey and Shannon
Over the coming weeks we will be hearing from several sources around the idea of expanding our perspectives. This may mean remissioning in an existing church, clarifying direction of a new church plant, or introspecting about the example of mission we are setting through our lives and leadership, in the midst and aftermath of this pandemic as well as in our future patterns.