I'm a field agent serving over 800 churches, and I live at the most eastern edge of the area I cover. So, I get a fair amount of drive time between Augusta and Atlanta. Have you ever driven that stretch of Interstate 20 in Georgia? It's a stereotypical interstate in a rural area without much to see along the way. I've driven it many hundreds of times over the last five years of my current job serving the larger Church.
Car time is my office time, and when I'm not on the phone, or working out a sermon or presentation in my head, I often find myself praying for communities, and churches, and clergy and laity along my path. I do it in that order because as United Methodist who follow the ways of John Wesley we talk about the "world is our parish." Theologically and missionally I know most churches need to break out of their church box and become very incarnationally active among their neighbors. We need to learn how to follow Jesus out in the streets again.
I was in that frame of mind thinking about the beloved communities of middle Georgia around Greene, Putnam, Baldwin, and Morgan Counties when I had an interesting string of thoughts.
A lot of my work these days is about the culture shift, the generational shift, the community shift, and how churches need to adapt our style. How does a congregation adapt itself in style in ways that engage their neighbors? How does a church adjust mission and ministries for today and tomorrow to engage new and different people rather than continuing to replicate past activities for current members? How does the old crowd smoothly and graciously give over the "keys of the car" to the younger generation?
This is a very challenging conversation for many churches as we often change NOTHING intentionally, don't evaluate much formally, and often put a high premium on continuing our congregational traditions which are often deeply rooted in relationships inside the congregation. We haven't changed much in the last 30 years in many places as we've tried to keep all the consumers, the church insiders, happy, present, and giving. So, even if we preach and teach about loving our neighbor, it's another story to put that into practice, and let go of the style church we prefer. We probably love our children and grandchildren, but may not easily give up our preferences much less give the church building, programs, funding, identity over to others. We need to more fully live out more Bible and more theology rather than only talking about the stories. And this calls for a new congregational model and corporate spiritual disciplines that emphasize our neighbors and the church God desires tomorrow.
As the miles were rolling by, and now 90 minutes into the drive with the coffee fueling my brain, I began to think of the hundreds of churches I'd already passed in my urban, suburban, rural trip. Those many churches reflect a variety of locations, different church sizes, sometimes reflecting different eras of life and culture, and certainly some variety of theological traditions that have some roots in their own context and congregational history. Assisting change in one church is a challenge, and across a system of hundreds of churches is demanding and can be daunting.
With this rolling around in my mind, I was most aware of the current culture/ generational shift which also necessitates a church shift. In many churches an outsider might be hard pressed to tell what year it is though the guess may be 1985 or perhaps 1995. I'm 56 years old, and in many congregations I visit I'm one of the younger ones present despite the fact that the median age of the whole population of my north Georgia area is 38. While some churches are content to continue "doing what they do" there are growing numbers of churches who clearly see the problem and are ready for action. Many churches see the disconnect with their community. A key turning point is when the church quits trying to do business like they've always done things and launches into a new spiritual journey in their own community.
I began to wonder about the variety of clergy, and especially laity, that would be most useful for effective churches during the next few years. In Georgia we are seeing many clergy who were educated and became proficient in the day of the Bible belt culture. The church was the center of the community, and church preferences were respected and steered the culture, and laity were very comfortable with this status in their community. The attractional model could work well if folk were looking for a church, so our emphasis was on attractive building, attractive clergy and programming, and having a good show for the consumers. These clergy and laity best know life in one style church that is quickly disappearing. Often the church, and church folk, of the last 40 years were the majority of the community, the power structure, and the cultural guardians and keepers of the status quo. What sorts of clergy and laity leaders are needed if the church is a minority movement, not as institutional, and not in charge in community life?
I found myself thinking about congregations as missional outposts and the pastor as more of a lead missionary, as opposed to CEO, with laity who practice everyday incarnational ministry in the community even more than inside the church building. In many cases clergy are currently more like the chaplain of a family chapel in small and medium membership churches with primary attention inside the church, with laity who run committees and programs inside the church. In a church movement that will likely be smaller, lean in resources, and always eager to engage and involve church outsiders, how does the pastor and church leadership shift in style to become a different type organization? This is where many congregations are currently re-organizing and adapting to the current realities.
These thoughts had me wondering about the best models for church leadership in this next chapter of congregational ministry in the United States. This new model clergy and laity would require different education and experiences than the preferences of the last 50-100 years of the US institutional church. We'll probably return to more the pattern from earlier in history, and around the globe, of a highly missional, discipling, smaller membership church systems. Such lean, highly engaged church systems will be productive in different, deeper ways though we may go through a significant time of adjustment and right sizing. The younger crowd will lead the way in these things, so it will only be the churches who more quickly adapt to reflect their neighborhood and can learn to make adjustments that will still be here in 10-20 years.
Of course, we often put a LOT of emphasis upon clergy, but the laity really determine the trajectory of a church and how much change is acceptable. The laity, and sometimes that may mean a few power brokers in a faith community, are the ones who can become the limiting factor, or the growth factor, of a congregation. If we are so set in our ways, or determined to have our way, that we can't turn over the church to the next generation then we will have already decided our fate as a congregation. If we are content to age or slowly decline and die as a congregation we can easily do that.
So, even if we discuss and can create new clergy models the real challenge will be to create new laity models and renewed church cultures. This shift will be from consumer church to missional, discipling church.
It appears that the next chapter of church must be highly engaging of the next generation. Further, it must be more relational and less institutional than previous generations. It should be highly contextual and adaptive willing to risk and be counter cultural in ways that previous generations would have avoided. This is likely more of a small group movement, of life lived together, with more emphasis on deep relationships, as opposed to the larger group, consumer driven models of attractional church which have predominated for so long.
A missional church, that is more of a minority movement, with emphasis on doing life together and being the church in the community seems to resonate with many people.
For existing churches, and current church leaders- laity and clergy- this will call upon us to embrace new church models & practises rather different, but not totally foreign, to what we've known throughout our experiences. I'm thinking of it visually as the difference between one era of Methodist church that had the circuit rider as the symbol, the last period which had a church building as our compelling image, and the emerging pattern which is likely more relational and everyday looking more like Jesus with the disciples - one named and known and the other mysteriously unnamed- on the road to Emmaus.