not the church of your grandparents, or your grandchildren

There are many good reasons to re-think what is happening in and through the church. Some of these are blindingly obvious----the shift from a church culture to a more secular/entertainment driven context, the accelerating pace of life, the chief symbol of which is the computer or mobile device screen you are now reading, illiteracy in relation to both scripture and tradition, the mounting extremities of human need locally and globally, and the distrust of institutions, among them the organized church (witness the global outcry toward Pope Benedict regarding pedophilia). I could also add the latest statistics related to membership loss and a decline in financial giving in the mainline denominations, a trend that shows no sign of easing.   All of this makes for a much more complex environment in which to give leadership, to do ministry, to be the church!  Some of my assumptions about it all are intuitive and anecdotal, but the cumulative effect can be, when one has time to rest and think about it all, rather striking. This is not my grandparents' church, and it will not be my grandchildrens' church either.


So, I have taken some time to enter into conversation with a few voices who seem to be paying attention to all of this, and most of them describe the emergence or rediscovery of the missional church. I find the contrast between the missional church and the attractional church to be quite compelling. The intellectual roots of all of this are present in the writings of Leslie Newbigin, a missionary who returned from India in live in retirement to Great Britain and discovered it to be a mission field (and this was some years ago---1974; in fact,  the perception would be stronger today). The attractional church was/is an attempt to meet the needs of the unchurched by programs designed to be a cultural match for them---divorce care, felt needs, different music, etc. The attractional model has been very effective in megachurches, which have been the source of a stream of publications and resources (Willow Creek, Saddleback), and among baby boomers, a huge demographic in the U.S (those born between 1946 and 1964; I was born in 1957). The attractional model has had some unintended consequences---it does make the person who attends the service the client/customer, and thus tends toward a consumer model. Interestingly, both Bill Hybels (Willow Creek) and Rick Warren (Saddleback) have made strong moves away from the attractional model in some of their programming, sensing some dissatisfaction with it; see the Reveal study. This could be some mild form of mid-life crisis, or also the prompting of their spouses, or the work of God!

My sense is that we will likely discover in the coming years that our constituents are tiring of the attractional pattern of doing church (for many of the reasons I note in the first paragraph above); at the same time, many young adults (16-35 year olds) hunger for missional church, or at least missional experience (evidence: Katrina, Haiti, Bono, Teach for America, the Obama campaign, etc.). To be missional is to enter into the strange world of the Bible---the call of Abraham, Isaiah's prophecy to rebuild the ruined cities, the inaugural sermon of Jesus in Capernaum, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, not to mention the Book of Acts, a neglected resource among mainline churches in general.   There will continue to be attractional churches who do their ministry with excellence, but for the most part they will attract mobile persons who self-identify with particular denominations, seeking similar programs and practices (I am thinking of someone who moves, for example,  from Charlotte to Indianapolis, or vice versa).

Christians in the United States do live in a mission field.    Many of our intellectual squabbles are more modern than postmodern, and assume the significance of old battles that a younger generation has never invested in fighting.  At the same time, many of our structures, shaped for a church culture, no longer quite fit, and the expectations of clergy (who want plum assignments) and laity (who want a greater market share) can no longer be fulfilled. We can take a gradualist approach---working hard at improving what we are already doing. Here we would keep all of our systems (from local church committees to judicatory staffs to general church agencies) in place, opting not for reform or change but for improvement and efficiency. To do so would not be the end of the world, but it misses the point.

The changes in the culture and the needs of the world, and, indeed, the dreams of God call for re-thinking and, in time, a missional reformation. This would be an exercise in appreciative inquiry:  the rediscovery of our core strengths---personal transformation united with social justice, love of God and neighbor--- as the people who follow Jesus, the word made flesh.   It is finally why God called the church into existence in the first place, and it seems the historical moment in which we find ourselves is either a lament or a call.   

            The conversation will continue, because the trends are unavoidable, and those who care about all of this cannot continue to exist in a state of denial. The question becomes: Could we re-think the purpose of the church, and re-design the mission of the church, so that we might---yes, with the help of God and in the movement of the Holy Spirit---change the world?