I'm learning a lot about churches and communities all over North Georgia. There are 930 United Methodist churches in the North Georgia Conference, so I'm getting in plenty of travel and deeper immersion into communities.
Every day offers incredible conversations and discovery in this adventure serving on Connectional Ministries as a resource to the laity and clergy of our NGUMC congregations. Our role in equipping, resourcing, and leadership development offers the chance to "go deeper" in knowing the church and how we can best help one another in the good work.
Recently I've had some of the usual conversations about a new vision and approach to mission that helps the church connect in deep ways to the community. I've also had some exciting dialogue around the "Next Church," the church as community center, and circuits of churches with strong emphasis on the laity as a new/old way of doing Methodist ministry.
We are in a necessary shift in the United States as the last generation/s of church- think professional clergy, program driven, lots of infrastructure with buildings- gives ways to the next church. We seem to be entering a day of less funding available for churches, a tougher context in a more secular world, and a need to be flexible in how we create models of church which aren't overly dependent on what worked in program and style for the last generation thinking if we work harder this generation will learn to love it.
I certainly don't mean we'll do away with worship, discipleship, outreach (evangelism and outreach) as there are elements of Christian community which work in every age and place. But the style needs to adjust to what works today even as the substance of Christianity remains the same.
This will call for some experimentation a we create Next Church. It is vital we attempt styles of ministry and church that engages the under 40 age group. Authentic, honest, and real will carry this day. It is necessary for both denomination and congregation that we are better connected so that various age level ministries, college and campus ministries, clergy training, and the variety of agencies and units are all working with similar agendas. Though we'll come at it from various perspectives a primary driver must be engaging and incorporating new brothers and sisters into the life of the church. Too often, both in a church and larger grouping of churches, we've been disjointed, out of step with one another, and tended toward silo approaches. The beauty of a dovetail joint in woodworking is the image that comes to mind as I think of the Next Church. There is a simplicity, elegance, and power with a dovetail joint as single elements are combined together to make something useful.
We need to return to authentic evangelism that engages our communities into the life of the church in ways that bring life to all involved. We need to equip and deploy clergy in ways that work well. We need to build the Next Church which is true to our roots, yet enables us to be on all the frontiers we find. Some of the frontier will be a new way of being the church which may not be as large, as program driven, as clergy dependent, yet is vibrant and fruitful. It seems we can't put clergy in solo positions in congregations as we've done the past 50 years as many congregations can't afford full time clergy with all the perks. What will effective models of bivocational ministry look like for Methodists and how will we train for that and reorient the church culture around laity in witness and evangelism?
Some of my background has been with an understanding of the church being the hub of the community. In one place, we even intentionally spoke of our role as being "THE community center." Now, the intent wasn't to just have outside groups rent our space. Rather, we wanted to be "in the middle of everything" when it came to the community. And through that we wanted to build relationships, help people find their way into the life of the church, and bridge church and community.
I'm optimistic we can create these new realities as I meet so many hard working, creative United Methodists who follow Jesus. Surely, together, we can create the Next Church and not fall into the trap of yearning for "glory days" which never were and embrace a better way which God will create with us.