It’s not a revelation to say that our American context is dramatically changing. All of us know there are increasing numbers of Americans who are not susceptible to being ‘congregationalized’. Our country has become more secular and ever more suspicious of institutional religion. This is not news to anyone anymore.
The problem, however, is not lack of information, but lack of innovation. Many church leaders, aware of this increasingly challenging mission field, respond simply by “pimping out the walker” (a phrase borrowed from missiologist Stefan Paas). In other words, we respond by trying to implement better and flashier expressions of our current models. Trendier music, better programs, cooler sermons, hipper clothes, better technology, etc.
But the problem is the model itself may be a walker. We’re just taking older models of church and putting on some new bling, hoping the tweaks will attract all the people we are failing to reach. We are essentially creating better and better forms of church for a shrinking number of people.
So what’s the alternative? Something different than the walker. New forms of church for a new missionary situation.
When missionary Lesslie Newbigin returned to England after serving as a missionary in India for many years, he realized England had dramatically changed while he was gone. It had become as non-Christian as the India he had just left. But the Church in England seemed to be oblivious to this reality, and continued to operate as if nothing had changed. Newbigin spent the rest his life calling the Western church to recover its essential missionary identity in the new mission field of the so-called “Christian” West. He was convinced this would require radical new methods and innovations (which often were just a return to biblical models of ecclesiology and mission!) so that the church could be reconfigured as a missionary institution. In our new environment we have to think like missionaries.
We need new forms of church for a new missionary situation.
What does this mean practically? It might simply begin by measuring different things. We know the adage that churches tend to measure success by the “three B’s”: the size of our Buildings, the money in our Budgets, and the number of Bottoms in the Pews. These metrics suggest church is a Sunday-centric institution revolving around the events in a building.
If we want to start thinking innovatively about new forms of church, we might begin by considering some different metrics. What if we measure more than whether or not people are filling up our sanctuaries on Sunday? What if we begin to measure whether people are being discipled to follow Jesus in their everyday lives? Imagine if we measure not just whether our budgets are being met, but whether people are being equipped and sent into their communities as missionaries.
To measure different metrics is to ask questions like:
These questions don’t just think about tweaking existing models, they think about new forms of church for a new missionary situation. One movement thinking about questions like this is the Fresh Expressions movement, and I am happy to say ECO is an official partner of their National Gathering this week. If you are in the DC area, you should come and join us.
The point is this: we are at the beginning of a wonderful missionary adventure as we move into a new age, so let’s not waste our time by just trying to pimp out the walker. Let’s do something new.
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