Perils in Transition!

Post-Christendom

A major shift is taking place in our midst as we move from a Christendom culture to a post-Christendom culture.  This shift is identified in different ways, but the gist is this: The church is no longer at the center of political, social and cultural life.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t healthy vibrant churches all around our country, but that, by and large, the roll of “the church” has shifted from the center to the margins.  [For the purpose of this post, I won’t lay out the case for this.  I recommend reading Post-Christendom by Stuart Murray for a primer on the subject]

As the culture shifts outside of the church, it is prompting shifts inside the church as well.  This is not unique to our time and place, but this is always the case.  As the church embodies the good news of the Kingdom of God, it embodies it in particular forms that are influenced by culture even as the church influences culture. [I’m speaking here of form not content].

A major shift inside the church is the move away from institutional forms of organization and approaches to ministry towards cooperative, egalitarian, “flat”, and organic forms of organization and approaches.  A simple example is the shift in language from “committee” to “team” or from hierarchical terms like “Lead Pastor” and “Associate Pastor” in many new churches.  At the same time, many ministries now begin from outside the official structure of the church as individuals feel called by God to respond to or proactively engage an issue or need within the community.  Christendom structures insist on hierarchy and authority.  Post-Christendom structures take decentralized and mutual forms.

Peril

The peril comes when churches have a foot in both worlds and it comes in a very specific form: those that serve within Christendom structures can be overlooked as organic forms of service are championed.

Case in point

The congregation I pastor is almost 200 years-old.  It’s glory days were in the early 70’s when Christendom was in full swing.  The church was highly structured, very organized, and accomplished a lot of great ministry.  That legacy remains.

At the same time, a vast majority (as in almost everyone I can think of) serves the church and the community in some way.  We are a service oriented church.

The reality is that most all of the people who serve do so within and through Christendom structures and programatic forms.  They do great ministry.  These forms still function, particularly among baby boomers and older generations.

But they often go unnoticed…

What does draw people’s attention?  The new thing, done in a new way, with new people.

It is true that old forms will give way to new forms over time.  But there are always times of transition between the two forms.  It’s here that leaders and community members need to be careful.  As one form gives way to a new form, it is crucial that the old form isn’t abandoned too quickly. If it is, a church can throw out the baby of existing positive ministry with the bathwater of old forms.   At the same time, structures and ministry forms are made up of actual people.  They are made up of people who have served their church and neighbors in particular ways most of their lives.  It is crucial that a church not throw out the people doing existing ministry through old forms as they champion the people doing a new thing.

As a pastor and leader, I confess that this is tough and I don’t always do a good job.  I suspect that, in part, this is what Paul was referring to when he talked about different gifts and the profile that some get over and against others.  It is far too easy to take some people for granted while the stories of others are told often.

The peril in transitions is that the old will be dishonored in favor of the new.  

The truth is, the stability that comes with an existing faith community is a stability that rest on the old forms.  If they were removed in an existing congregation, the new would have no foundation to stand on.   Moving forward is inevitable.  Change is inevitable.  However, how movement happens and how change comes about is up to communities.

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One thought on “Perils in Transition!

  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking post. As I travel around and relate to many different faith communities, I am impressed with the reality of which you write. There is indeed a major shift going on. Seems to me that the faith community, at the local level but also at conference or denominational levels, must learn new ways to non-anxiously and creatively live in response to the changing realities all around. Maybe Isaiah can be of assistance.

    Isaiah 43:18-19
    Do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.
    I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
    I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

    Isaiah 46:9-10
    Remember the former things of old;
    for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is no one like me,
    declaring the end from the beginning
    and from ancient times things not yet done,
    saying, “My purpose shall stand,
    and I will fulfill my intention.”

    One might hear Isaiah like this:
    Remember to forget! — and — Don’t forget to remember!

    Both are crucial. The trick is knowing how to do one without neglecting the other. So, how can a congregation or conference possibly know how to do both — at the same time? Only with the Holy Spirit’s assistance!

    Thank you!

    Chuck Neufeld
    IMC Conference Minister

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