As a new year arrives, I've been reflecting back over the past year. What is interesting to me is the amount of change that is happening in the world of the church. It isn't the typical type of change. People joining. Pastors leaving. New programs starting. Rather it is change at a more fundamental level.
What I'm seeing is an increasing level of questioning about the institutional nature of the church. What I find fascinating is the change in the question itself. It is now less a matter of whether Roman Catholic/Anglican/Methodist forms are more biblical than Presbyterian connectional or congregational independent ones. Rather it is more a question whether any institutional form can be considered biblical.
As this level of questioning has intensified, it raises for me the question as to whether we are witnessing the end of Protestantism. I know it seems silly as we see the proliferation of Mega-churches and huge Protestant denominations. But I think this maybe more a last ditch effort to preserve Protestantism's prominence.
If you spend any time reflecting on churches, one of things that I believe you will see is that increasingly churches are diluting their message and programs to that which is the lowest common denominator. One of the phenomenon's that I see in the midst of this is a growing resurgence of a call to committed community. It reminds me of a similar line of discussion that was present a generation ago. Today, there is a greater degree of urgency, and much less obligation to traditional institutional forms of church. In essence, a purging of institutional forms is happening, and the preeminent form of the past 500 years, the Protestant congregation and denomination, is feeling the effects of it.
As I have reflected on this perception that I have, I keep returning to a line of questioning that developed in my work with leaders and organizations, including pastors and churches. Four simple questions that look beyond institutional questions to a more fundamental understanding of the purpose of the church. I'm not looking for a perspective that proof-texts Scripture to argue an abstract conceptualization of the church. No, I'm thinking more of a set of questions that will reveal what I'm to do in the minute after I've answered the question.
The Four Questions that Every Leader Must Ask focus on clarity of thought that leads to action. If a church or a denomination were to ask these questions, they would ultimately find that institutional questions are secondary to those that identify the church's impact upon people.
The questions can be framed in many ways. We can ask the questions this way. What should be the impact of the institutional form of Protestantism? What should be the impact of a Christian community? If you look at the diagram to the right, you'll see that the impact question is focused on three separate dimensions that leaders must address. One is the dimension of ideas, another relationships or community and the last organizational structure. When you can answer what the impact of each dimension should be, then you'll begin to understand how to integrate the three so that each dimension's potential impact can be realize in coordination with the other three.
Is this an impossible scenario? Only if the church is unwilling to change, to adapt to a change in perspective. The value of asking these questions is not to get a correct answer, but rather to foster an environment where the Holy Spirit may speak through people to illuminate a church's potential impact.
Many churches are looking back to move forward. Many of my seminary classmates have left Protestantism to join Roman Catholic and Orthodox congregations. Other people I know have left the institutional church all together and cling to a faith that finds no place in the contemporary church.
Myself, I love the church, but at the same I believe God drugged me kicking and screaming into it. I am both a traditionalist and entrepreneur who loves change to preserve tradition. Make sense?
Much of the church's cultural baggage, the boredom of church services and belief systems, and the process-obsessed institutional structures lack relevance to contemporary life. As I see how people I know deal with the institutional church, and how my client churches address questions about the future, I realize that we are at the beginning of an era of change that is unprecedented in the past 500 years.
I won't say that we are witnessing a new Reformation. I really don't think that what is coming has any continuity with the past, except the past that is the eternal story of God's engagement with his creation.
Here's one example of what I'm seeing. I'm in the midst of reading The Starfish Manifesto by Wolfgang Simson (HT-Bill Kinnon). It is a free ebook written from a Pentecostal perspective. Simson expresses many of the ideas about mission that I find in many, many places, including many Presbyterian churches. I don't agree with everything he writes. We come from different traditions that are vastly different. However, what seems to be an important thread in his work, as for so many people writing about the church today, is the separation of the individual believer in Jesus Christ from the institutional form of the Body of Christ.
Here are two ways that I understand this change.
First, that the Christian church in the future will not be sustained simply by institutional forms, whether buildings, confessions, rules of order, seminaries or theological systems. What will sustain the future of the church is the spiritual character of individual believers. This is the hunger that is at heart of all change in the church today. It is a hunger for an authentic life of faith. Not just words or ideas, but faith that lives in our words and deeds. It is not a joining impetus but a contribution passion.
Second, that the Christian church will be sustained by our common life, by our relationships of service and friendship. For example, at my old traditional downtown tall-steeple Presbyterian church, a men's ministry has begun. The overarching desire of the men who have joined is for fellowship where trust and transparency live. It is not an institutional program, but a coming together of men who desire authenticity in their relationships with other men. This is a window on the future of the church.
So, what do we do with the institution of the church?
First ask the question, what should be its impact? More than anything, the institution should exist to nurture individual calling and the fellowship that is needed to sustain it. No more, no less.
Second, we should ask who should the institution impact? This isn't a question a planning committee answers, but rather asks of the congregation in a many that allows for reflection and vision creation.
Third, we should ask what opportunities for impact do we currently have with our present institutional structure. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Institutions are human creations, and adapt to human initiative. If the impact that the church should have cannot be met with the current institutional structure, then change it. Of course, this requires leadership.
Lastly, we should ask the hard question of the problems that our current institutional forms have created for us. When we understand what are the impediments to impact, then we understand where we start to change. It may not be easy, may not be able to be accomplished overnight, may alienate and confuse people, but in the long run, the impact that the church have will be realized.
As the new year turns, we are presented with an opportunity to talk with people about these sorts of issues. Asking the Four Questions That Every Leader Must Ask is a good place to start.
If you do try, let me know how it goes. If need to know more, just ask. Asking question is where all the right kind of change starts.
May God grant you and me the opportunity to have a greater impact than we did this past year.