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In the posts that follow, I outline some of the core convictions from which I am working and about which I believe  “soul-stretching conversations” (Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass) need to happen. I recognize that these convictions will not be shared by many people in the United Church of Canada. I hope that they provide a starting point for the conversations since it is in the conversations that the way forward will be found. I also outline some of the implications of those convictions for the ways in which we train leadership in the church.

Conviction 4:   The Church is missionary in its very essence.

The Church is easily drawn into many good and worthwhile endeavours. However, just as facing death causes a person to examine and re-set priorities, so the church in our time is being drawn back to basics. It is a time for identifying what the essentials are and for stripping away that which is extraneous. In a time of vast changes, what must be preserved and what is it that the church must let go of? In its most elemental form, what makes a church the church?

William Willimon, in Pastor, suggests that, in its most elemental form, what makes the church the church is the presence of the living Christ. Mark Allen Powell, in the introduction to  A New and Right Spirit says that “the mission of the Church is simply to love Jesus Christ. Everything else is just strategy” (p. viii). Tom Bandy pushes congregations further to identify, “What is it about your experience of Jesus Christ that the community around you cannot live without?”

Another way to approach the conversation is to ask, “What are the essential elements that make up the church?” University Hill United Church identifies five marks of the church: worship, service, community, teaching, proclamation.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann tells the story of an Anglican diocese in British Columbia. Its involvement in Residential Schools and the subsequent settlements of lawsuits for abuse suffered by aboriginal children at those schools led it to declare bankruptcy. At a news conference following the declaration, the bishop of the diocese was asked what the future of the church might be. He said, “We have a book, a towel, a table and a cup. We have what we need.” (http://time.com/110732/sermon-series-getting-smashed-for-jesus/)

Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor at The House for all Sinners and Saints, identifies the essentials in her sermon, “Stop Saying that the Church is Dying”: You know what the culture around us will NEVER do? Preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and proclaim forgiveness of sins. You know why? That’s OUR job. That’s our main job and while we are free as the church, to participate in any number of other activities in the world that seem bigger and more impressive let’s remember:  We are those who have been, and continue to be, entrusted with nothing less than the Gospel.”

Roland Allen, in Missionary Methods, looks at the Apostle Paul’s pattern for establishing churches and identifies that only four things were deemed necessary: “a tradition or elementary Creed, the Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion, Orders and the Holy Scriptures.” (chapter 4, e-book)

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century produced a number of definitions of the church. The most famous one is found in “the (Lutheran) Augsburg Confession of 1530. Its Article VII describes the church according to two distinguishing marks, namely as ‘the assembly  of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly’”.   David Bosch has pointed out that such a definition deals only with what happens within the assembly of the church, not with its calling in the world. Loren Mead, author of The Once and Future Church, “argues that the ‘crisis’ the church faces has to do with the church’s relationship to its ‘mission’. . . . there is something fundamentally flawed about the way the church does church” (quoted in A New and Right Spirit, p. 6).

The churches that are finding their way through this time of transformation are giving fresh attention to their calling in the world. Congregations that had drifted into being not much more chaplaincies or social clubs for their own members are reconnecting with their neighbourhoods. Some are experimenting with new expression of church that reach out beyond their own comfort zones. Some are engaging in the “missional church” conversation: listening to people outside the church; looking for ways to be active participants in the ‘new thing’ that the Spirit is doing.

The God who creates the Church is a God who is on mission in the world. The Trinitarian God is a sending God — the Father sending the Son; the Son sending the Spirit; God sending God’s people into the world. The Church is missionary in its very essence.

Some Implications for Leadership Training

A) Most ordered ministry personnel are not equipped to lead a church that understands itself as primarily missional — as existing for the sake of people beyond its own membership. Churches are largely shaped by a consumer mindset. Christendom models of church required clergy who were trained to provide good service to their members and to keep those members satisfied. What is needed now are leaders of faith communities who are equipped to cultivate a church environment where the participants are developing the capacity to discern where the Holy Spirit is at work in their neighbourhoods and are learning to ‘give account for the hope that is in them’ (1 Peter 3:15) to other people who do not share their faith commitments.

B)  The Church’s faith is an incarnational faith — lived out in the concrete realities of the neighbourhoods in which the churches exist. Since many communities are increasingly diverse, training for leadership will need to include training in cross-cultural realities and radical hospitality.

C)  Additionally, since the mission for such communities will be informed by the contexts in which they exist, and therefore will be very diverse, training for leadership will probably be mostly localized. Modernism privileged methods that were universal and standardized. In such a context, seminaries and training centres could be far removed from the local churches in which their graduates would served. It was assumed that the training provided in one place would be easily transferrable into any congregation across the country. This was never true: rural churches have known for many years that ‘national’ programmes and standards were much more applicable to city churches than to rural ones. Whatever training for leadership emerges to serve churches of the future will need to be far more localized and organic, growing out of the specific contexts in which churches are serving. Local congregations will need to become sites for leadership training.

D) Communities of faith will need to adopt an identity as learning communities. Leaders will need to be trained in cultivating churches that are discipling communities. The leaders themselves will need to provide a deep grounding in the traditions of the Church so that they can lead people in working with the traditions imaginatively and creatively. The leaders will also need to develop skills and capacities for passing that tradition on to the participants in the church. Frequently, leaders have offered Bible Studies or Study Groups but few people attend; often, those who do sign up stop attending after a session or two. Leaders will need to know: What are the attributes of the kinds of studies that people do want to participate in? What are different methods of delivering the information?

E) Discerning the Spirit’s leading requires a capacity for imagination. As Walter Brueggemann points out, the prophets in the First Testament were mostly poets — helping people break free from the status quo by helping them imagine that things could be different. Many leaders will need guidance in working creatively and imaginatively. Congregations will need to be places that curate the arts as a way of helping people pay attention to what is happening around them.

F)  A return to the essentials, to the basics, of Christian community will mean that new expressions of ‘church’ will have the freedom to emerge without being burdened with extraneous activities and requirements. If the church is essentially missionary in its nature, leadership within the churches will need training in birthing new churches and in equipping the people for evangelism that is authentic to their experience of faith. Doing church the way it has been done will not produce new results. Planting, birthing, new churches requires a different set of skills and capacities. Leaders will also need to learn how to train ‘missionaries’, who engage their neighbourhoods in appropriate ways which reflect the hospitality and humility, love and grace of Jesus Christ.

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One of the challenges that the United Church of Canada faces in the pioneering task that is before it is that it has no clear consensus as to what the gospel is. Within the denomination, there is a wide range of convictions about the basics of Christian faith and about the authority of the scriptures to guide us. There is great diversity in convictions about what the church is and about what its mission is. In the past, the United Church has prided itself on its capacity to hold differences within its unity. It is already evident that the churches that are emerging in this new context are going to exhibit even greater diversity than in the past. The denomination may find that the current upheavals and uncertainties will lead it to ask if such a lack of consensus is sustainable. Will the pressures on the structures of the denomination reveal deep differences that cannot hold together?

In such a time as this, it may be that a consensus about convictions is not possible. What may be called for are what Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass have called “soul-stretching conversations” (“Times of Yearning, Practices of Faith” in Practicing our Faith:  A Way of Life for a Searching People, ed. Dorothy C. Bass, p. 7).

Deep conversations are needed to discern what God’s Spirit is doing in this changed landscape. Those conversations will need to be with God (through God’s story and through prayer), with the new context in which churches live, and with each other.  The church conversations will be rooted in the basics of faith: gospel, church, scripture, mission, discipleship, evangelism, etc. The convictions that shape those basics will, in turn, shape the directions the church takes as it seeks to discern the kind of training that its leadership will need.

In the posts that follow, I outline some of the core convictions from which I am working and about which I believe those “soul-stretching conversations” need to happen. I recognize that these convictions will not be shared by many people in the United Church. I hope that they provide a starting point for the conversations since it is in the conversations that the way forward will be found. I also outline some of the implications of those convictions for the ways in which we train leadership in the church.

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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the ways congregations proclaim the faith (kerygma) as they find their way into the new shape of God’s mission.

5) Kerygma (Proclamation)

When churches existed in a culture that considered itself to be “Christian” (or at least based on Judeo-Christian principles), most members of the congregation would experience little need to articulate their faith to others. Now, as fewer and fewer people have any experience of the church (or only know what is portrayed in the media), the baptized are struggling to figure out what it means to witness to one’s faith in a culture where you exist as a minority among  people of many different faiths and of ‘no faith’. What will communicating the gospel look like? What is an appropriate way to share your faith story with someone who holds different convictions? The attempt to answer those questions has revealed a deeper question: What is the gospel? Before Christians can share faith with others, they will need to articulate what has grasped their hearts and minds and souls. Leaders will need to cultivate an environment where faith and theology are normal topics of conversation.

Another shift in the culture needs to be flagged: in Modernity, the issues of faith were often framed in terms of beliefs — doctrinal assertions and claims. Christianity was presented as a system of thought with which one agreed or disagreed: Can you believe in the virgin birth, in the resurrection of Jesus, in the miracles? Modernity is fading. The issues that have pre-occupied much of the church over the past few decades are becoming less and less compelling for younger generations. In a post-modern world, the issues that churches will be addressing with the unchurched will be less about beliefs; the issues that will increasingly be on the radar screens of the next generations will be about power and trust. A deep grounding in doctrine and theology will still be needed but the core issues will be about authentic relationships – with God, with each other, with the culture — and integrity.

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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the ways congregations live out the faith in service (diakonia) as they find their way into the new shape of God’s mission

4) Diakonia (Service)

The United Church of Canada has, from its beginnings, had a strong commitment to connecting people’s faith with social issues. Faith is something that is lived out in concrete actions. However, over the years, two shifts have moved people in mainline congregations away from that embodied engagement of their faith. In many instances, most of the members of the congregation no longer live in the neighbourhoods in which their church buildings are situated. They commute in from a distance and have become disconnected from the neighbourhoods and the people around the building. In addition, “outreach” became increasingly outsourced: “outreach” became defined as sending money to various groups and agencies who were doing the actual work ‘on the ground’.

Some congregations are recovering a ‘hands-on’ approach to outreach/service/diakonia. That engagement takes a unique shape in each particular context. However, there are some commonalities:

*the focus has shifted from ‘how do we get these people to come to our congregation?’ to a conviction that ‘the Holy Spirit is already at work in our neighbourhood. Where can we join in?’

*the assumption is no longer that Christians come into a situation as benefactors, bringing some project that they undertake to help those who are weak in some way; rather, they enter in as guests, receiving the hospitality of others, listening for signs of God at work in the lives of others, pointing to the outbreak of God’s reign among them. What ministry they offer is ministry with instead of ministry for.

*there is a turn away from going in to convert; instead, the community of the baptized are called to be a sign, witness and foretaste of God’s character, grace and truth. It is the Holy Spirit who converts.

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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the ways congregations teach the faith and form disciples of Jesus (didache)  as they find their way into the new shape of God’s mission.

3) Didache (Teaching)

It is not uncommon for leaders to lament the biblical and doctrinal illiteracy of the people of mainline congregations. There are long-term members of congregations who, if asked, could not find the book of Genesis in a Bible. Most clergy have had the experience of congregational members telling them that they want more Bible studies but, when the study groups are offered, few people sign up to attend; even fewer stay with the group for more than a few weeks.

However, there appears to be movement toward more intentional discipleship formation in some churches. Some of this is driven by the need to form Christians who are equipped to survive as Christians in an indifferent and sometimes hostile environment. The current context brings to the fore the challenge for disciples to be transformed by Christ rather than conformed to the culture.

When people are helped to deepen their discipleship, they become more willing to take on leadership roles that are shaped by the call of the Holy Spirit upon their lives. Taking on these kinds of leadership roles, in turn, often compels them to go deeper in their discipleship. They need to learn how to pray more deeply; they need to know better the story that shapes the lenses by which they see the world and gives hope; they need to recover the distinctive language of faith that articulates what God is doing in their lives and in the world; they need to develop maturity in Christ which includes the humility that shapes faithful relationships.

Congregations are finding new ways of delivering the content of Christian faith. They are more participatory and interactive, engaging not only the mind but also the heart and the body. They recognize that many adults learn best when content is not isolated into separate subjects but is integrated into and related to actual experiences.

Many congregations are finding that adopting Christian practices have helped people deepen their spiritual life and engage in the ministry to which they are called. “Practices are shared actions that, when taken together, weave a way of life amongst a people” (Alan Roxburgh, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The Shape of the Church in our Time, p. 49.) In particular, in churches that understand themselves to be mission outposts of God’s reign, practices help them see the world and God’s work in it in new ways.

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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the communal life of congregations as they find their way into the new shape of God’s mission.

2) Koinonia (Community)

Christianity is a way of living out one’s spirituality that is inherently communal. It is a corporate way of living that is countercultural in a culture where spirituality is mostly privatized and individualized.

Churches are communities where people care for one another. Baptism incorporates each person into the Body of Christ, in which there is a sense of mutual responsibility of all Christians for one another. That means that pastoral care is the work of the whole people of God, not just ordered ministry personnel. Its focus is not just on the health and happiness of people but also on their souls. We care by pointing people toward the God who cares for them, in whose life is our light(William WillimonPastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, chapter 4). Pastoral care for people includes paying attention to the intrusions of God in their lives; inviting them to let God move them more deeply into the new world of God’s grace; shaping their vision and their hopes by the presence of the resurrected Christ. Leaders will need skills and training and wisdom in navigating relationships where the Holy Spirit is at work, taking people in new and unexpected directions.

The organizational structures with which most congregations operate were created to serve congregations of the 1950’s and 1960’s. These congregations had enough people with the time and energy and motivation to sit on numerous committees. Those structures are under pressure as the number of people available and willing to fill positions and work on the committees decreases. In many situations, conventional committees are no longer considered the best way to get work done. These realities can be both a challenge and a blessing. They can push communities of faith to figure out how to be structured for relationships rather than around organizational needs. There is renewed attention to ‘spiritual gifts’ as a way of encouraging, equipping, and releasing people into ministries for which they feel called and excited.

Among other things, this means that participatory, collaborative styles of leadership need to be cultivated. Top-down leadership deprives the baptized of their true authority. However, leading in collaborative and non-hierarchical ways is not easy. Training for leadership will require attention to the ways in which relationships are best nurtured.

It will also require attention to the ways people use power in Christian communities. Power is “one of the gifts God gives for the formation of good communities and good people” (Stanley Hauerwas, “What only the whole church can do).

Churches tend to avoid addressing issues of power. Individuals are often reluctant to take on positions of power. More and more frequently it seems, they can be persuaded to do so only if the positions of power are shared. Part of this may stem from a reluctance to take on another commitment of time and energy in very busy lives; however, it may be that some of this is rooted in people being uneasy about exercising power in a community that is ambivalent about it. Leaders will need training in exercising creative authority, in persuasion and in encouraging new initiatives from the bottom up. (Andy Crouch‘s book, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power provides helpful insights into the faithful use of power.)

One of the great gifts of our culture is the diversity of cultures that are now part of our landscape. Indeed, there are many examples of mainline churches who were declining until a group of immigrants became part of the community and brought new life and joyfulness in the faith with them. As churches become less dominated by people who are white and middle-class, congregations are giving fresh attention to the radical hospitality that Jesus offers and what that means in their life together. Leaders are discovering new ways of helping the community of faith reach across cultural barriers.

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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the worship life of congregations as they find their way into God’s mission.

1) Liturgia (Worship)

The nature of worship is changing. The Protestant Reformation gave us a liturgy whose main focus was the preaching of the Word. The sacraments were celebrated only occasionally. The Reformers stressed the need for an educated clergy as a response to the intellectual laxity of many medieval priests. “Protestant clergy were expected to be well schooled in the scriptures, in order to be servants of the Word(William WillimonPastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, chapter 1). Now many churches are recovering a balance between the preaching/hearing of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. Some Protestant churches are celebrating communion weekly and discovering a deepening and strengthening of faith in doing so. Christ gave the sacraments to the church as the way the Body of Christ is fed and nurtured in the grace and presence of God. Strengthening communities of faith will need to include finding faithful ways in which the sacraments can be received on a regular basis. In the United Church, sacraments elders are becoming more numerous, especially in situations where congregations are without Order of Ministry personnel for extended periods of time.

There is also, in many places, a turn away from liturgies that are heavily weighted toward the verbal. Leonard Sweet’s description of EPIC worship: experiential, participatory, image rich, and connected, is shaping worship services that engage the imagination through story-telling, drama, and the arts. Some churches are recovering the notion of the liturgy as “the work of the people”, not just of the performers at the front (choir and clergy). They are creating worship services that engage the whole person and the whole community. Crafting EPIC worship services requires different skills than our typical highly verbal worship. It is not done best as a solo effort. Leaders in worship will need to be trained for collaborative efforts that elicit the gifts of all the people of God.

Another emerging trend is the recognition that it is not enough that worship be entertaining and relevant. There is a “turn toward the formative”, challenging the worshiping community to grow in grace and to mature spiritually. Marva Dawn has named three fundamental criteria for what happens in worship:
*praising God and immersing worshipers “in the fullness of God’s splendour”,
*forming disciples who follow Jesus and “are committed to God’s purposes of peace, justice, and salvation in the world”, and
*building the community as the Body of Christ, “linked to all God’s people throughout time and space” (A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and being Church for the World , p. 343).

Shaping such worship services will challenge the consumer mentality that shapes much of North American congregational life and worship. Worship leaders need to be deeply immersed in the biblical story in order to acquire the countercultural lenses that reveal how our communities are caught by consumerism and narcissism.

Modernity privileged the rational over other ways of knowing and being. Post-modernity has recognized that there is a transcendental dimension that brings depth and richness to life. There is a turn toward worship services that help people attend to the holy in their midst.

There is also a recognition that the church gathered for worship is also the church sent out into the world. Congregations are looking for ways to make the link between the two phases of the community’s life stronger. People are being asked to speak in worship about their ministries in their lives the rest of the week. New attention is being given to the ‘sending’ portion of the liturgy.

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