Posts Tagged ‘Christendom’

This is the third post about assumptions about the church that shape the kinds of leaders congregations need. Assumptions that held true in Christendom no longer reflect the realities with which churches are dealing. This changes the leadership they need. Christendom churches often wanted clergy who were trained to give “leadership to an organization that was stable and responsible and successful”. We do not live in Christendom any longer. This is changing the shape of congregations in significant ways.

if successis defined as being a self-sustaining congregation that has a building and is able to support a professionally trained person in the Order of Ministry, few congregations will be successful. Increasingly, congregations have fewer financially-contributing participants than are needed for ‘church’ as commonly conceived; buildings are becoming optional as house churches emerge and communities of faith meet in places such as pubs and cafés; people who are not officially sanctioned and recognized Order of Ministry personnel are providing ongoing leadership in all of areas of church life: in worship, pastoral care, faith formation, outreach and witness. New expressions of leadership are emerging in contexts where the old assumptions do not hold any more. In such places, ‘success’ is being re-defined. If it is being measured at all, it is measured in terms of faithfulness to mission.  It is not about getting church pews filled and budgets balanced.

The nature of the church is changing radically. Training for leadership in churches needs to reflect these new realities. Such training can no longer presume that leaders are being prepared to serve well-formed, potentially powerful organizations. Many congregations are fragile and anxious, hanging on by their fingertips, wondering how to be faithful at the margins of power. Many of their members are poorly formed in faith, unfamiliar with the basic stories which give the Church its identity, and uncertain and unpracticed in articulating the message of the gospel. Many of those people who will be providing leadership in the congregations that make it into the future will not in full-time paid positions.

Churches find themselves functioning more as mission outposts of the reign of God than as stable, responsible, successful organizations. In mission outposts, authority and power is distributed among the whole community, not just to one or two experts. “The way forward in our time is to declare, ‘We are together God’s people, missionary pastors and the mission team. . . there is no gap, there is no chasm, there is no gulf. We are no longer professional ministers and laity. We are together God’s missionaries on one of the richest mission fields on the planet.’”  (Kennon CallahanEffective Church Leadership, p. 33)


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Today’s post is the second of three that look at some of the changing assumptions about what ‘church’ is — assumptions that have influenced the kinds of leaders congregations need. Yesterday’s post looked at the assumption that churches provide stability.

Christendom churches were also seen as being responsible: responsible to the culture in providing moral leadership and its social conscience. Membership in a church was considered part of being a good, responsible citizen. Parents brought their children to Sunday School so that they could learn good moral values. Communities looked to church leaders to provide guidance on social issues. That close alliance between church and society no longer exists. The assumptions upon which the alliance was based no longer hold.

The culture is not looking to the churches to form the morals of its citizens or to underwrite its social and political agendas. The churches can no longer count on the culture to help them form Christians. They now need to be intentional about doing that. There is a renewed interest in ‘discipleship’, but what is entailed in being a disciple of Jesus has also shifted.

Increasingly, the surrounding culture is not just indifferent to what the church is; in many places, it is actually hostile. Christians are rediscovering the counter-cultural nature of the gospel. The risen Christ is active in the world confronting and challenging the forces that diminish people’s dignity and wound their souls, the systems that degrade the social and natural environment and keep communities from flourishing, and the structures that perpetuate violence and injustice. The God of suffering love sends followers of Jesus into the suffering world to participate in God’s transformation and healing of God’s beloved creation. The community of the baptized is a counter-cultural community, living and acting in the world as a sign, witness and foretaste of the reign of God.

If you take following Jesus seriously, you will have trouble with the world. Disciples need resources for speaking truth to power, for challenging evil, and for courageously resisting what the New Testament calls the ‘powers and principalities’. Although some segments of the church already understood that to be their mission, the new dimension to the work is that Christians are no longer the dominant voice in the conversation.

Leaders are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory. They are guiding disciples who are trying to be faithful as they live on the fringes of the culture: as a minority in a culture that does not share many of their convictions about life. God’s people have often been in the minority. Many of the stories of God’s people come from similar marginal situations. Ancient metaphors that speak of the Church as being a cultural minority are being reclaimed: “resident aliens”, “a colony of heaven”, “exilic community”. They point to the hopes that formed the community of faith into a genuine alternative to the surrounding culture.

Jesus described the community of the baptized, his ‘little flock’, as salt and yeast and light — small things that change their surroundings in large ways. His disciples learn what it means to live faithfully as they journey with him ‘on the way’. They hear the stories he tells. They watch him encountering ‘the other’. They share meals with strangers. They both receive and give in mutual hospitality. In the world, in their ordinary, every-day living, they encounter God who is present in unexpected places and among unexpected people. In all of that, they are being formed to participate in God’s mission. Leaders for such communities do not function as experts. They themselves are followers on the Way, helping the community of the baptized hear questions God is asking and discerning with them ways to answer faithfully.

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This is the eleventh in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous four posts and this one, I examine the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining.

Congregations in a post-Christendom world are asking questions for which there are no easy answers. They wonder what it will take to turn things around, to fix what’s wrong, to get back to the way things were when their sanctuaries and Sunday School rooms were full. There are lots of programmes that promise to reverse the trends and fill the churches. Those programmes work for some congregations. Many, though, are left wondering what they are doing wrong. It may be that the unanswered questions are pushing congregations to ‘change the conversation’. Faced with problems they cannot solve, they may be ready to hear the questions God is asking them.

In Living FaithJacques Ellul has points out that the scriptures do not provide the answers to our questions. The aim of the scriptures is to get us to hear the questions that God is asking us because those are the decisive ones. Three questions keep recurring.

The first question comes in two parts: a) from the story of the human beings in the garden after they have eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree. They are hiding from God and God comes seeking for them. God asks, “Adam (Human), where are you?”, and b) in the story after Cain has killed Abel. God hears Abel’s blood crying from the earth; God searches out Abel and asks, “What have you done with your brother [sister]?” (what has happened in our relationships with God and with each other).

The second question is the one Jesus poses to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  (do we know ourselves met by God where we are at).

The third question is posed by Jesus to Mary after the resurrection, “Whom do you seek?” and to Peter, “If it is my will, what is that to you?” (what is really important to us). “Faith consists in heeding God’s questions and risking ourselves in the answers that we have to give.”(Living Faith, 101)

Those questions focus Christian communities on God who is actively at work in the midst of their everyday lives. As congregations seek to give answer to them in concrete ways, they are led out of their church buildings and into the world around those buildings. The primary stance becomes one of listening — for and to God, to their neighbours, to their deepest selves in relationship with God.

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The stained glass windows in many churches portray the Holy Spirit as a gentle dove but the ancient Celtic Christians named the Holy Spirit an Geadh-Glas: ‘the wild goose’. The name conveys the sense of unpredictability that Jesus talked about in his conversation with Nicodemus: “You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” (John 3: 7-8, The Message)

Alan Roxburgh, in an article entitled “Join the Wild Goose Chase” (no longer available online) wrote, “The wild goose is unpredictable (like the wind). Taking seriously this sense of God, Celtic missionaries went on wild goose chases, entering the spaces, towns, hamlets, and villages of the 7th century England in the conviction that the wild goose was out there ahead of them. They were open to being surprised by the wild goose, prayerfully asking what God was doing and joining there by naming the name of Jesus, dwelling among people and opening the story of God’s love and grace”.

The adventure on which the Spirit is leading us is taking the church past some familiar landmarks. Congregations are forming regional clusters where ordered ministry personnel function in ways similar to Methodist circuit riders. People are being formed as disciples in small groups, a format John Wesley used. Ancient Christian practices and disciplines are being adopted and adapted for new contexts. The sacraments of baptism and communion are being re-visited and taking on new significance. Congregations are recovering their identity as baptized and baptizing, Spirit-gifted communities.

From its beginnings, the Church understood that, when someone is baptized, that person is ordained into ministry by the call of God. Hands are laid upon the person being baptized to signify the gift of the Holy Spirit and empowerment for God’s mission. Baptism makes every Christian one of Christ’s representatives and witnesses in the world. It gives all Christians the gift and responsibility of functioning as priests to one another and as evangelists in the world.

Baptism is the entrance into a way of life that is all-embracing and life-changing. However, the significance of baptism as commissioning into a high and holy calling was largely lost in Christendom. When the majority of the people already considered themselves to be Christians, evangelism was reduced to a concern about ‘accepting Christ as your personal Saviour so you can be sure you are going to heaven when you die’; mission became something done by specialized agencies and persons in distant places, financially supported by churches in North America; ministry, both pastoral and priestly, was something done by the paid professional minister to meet the needs of consumers of religious goods and services. Baptism became merely a cultural rite of passage, a one-time action that did not have a significant impact on the rest of one’s life.

Christendom churches may have been able to function with a majority of their members treating baptism as merely a cultural rite of passage. That is no longer adequate. In the dying days of Christendom, the church faces an indifferent and increasingly hostile culture. The mission field is no longer in distant places. It has moved into the neighbourhoods and workplaces and of every member. In the face of despair and brokenness, hurt and loneliness, people need evangelism to be something more than eternal life insurance. They need good news of authentic hope. Churches that are engaging the mission field around them need the active participation of every minister that the Holy Spirit has given them.

The way forward for congregations includes a recovery of baptism as a significant event that has ongoing effects on each Christian’s identity and practice of their faith.

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This is the second in a series of post in which I will be sharing some of the research I have been doing on lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. That work was made possible by a McGeachy scholarship grant from the United Church of Canada Foundation.

The impetus for the research stemmed from an awareness of a growing number of congregations that were relying on lay people to provide leadership on an ongoing basis. I was also becoming aware that there were a number of forces that were making our current model of church and ministry less and less viable. The models of church and ministry with which most congregations operate were created to serve Christendom churches. Christendom began in 313 CE when the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan pronouncing Christianity as the favoured religion of the empire. That was the beginning of an alliance between Christianity and the political and social powers in the culture that continued in the West for over fifteen or sixteen centuries.

In Christendom, the majority of the people considered themselves Christian. They supported the church either through voluntary offerings or, in some times and places, through taxation. There was a coherence between the values and mores of the dominant classes in the culture and what were generally understood to be Christian values. In the Canadian version of Christendom, stores were closed on Sundays; the Lord’s Prayer was said in schools on a daily basis; churches were at the centre of social life (literally and figuratively); politicians consulted with church leaders before making major policy announcements; parents sent or took their children to Sunday School so that the children would learn good moral values and grow up to be good citizens.

In such a context, the normative model for a “successful” mainline church in Canada was a congregation that could afford to support a seminary-trained professional minister and the costs of maintaining a building. Centralized denominational structures had been developed to connect such congregations and provide accountability for them. Para-church organizations emerged that focused on mission outreach, evangelism, and youth ministry. Candidates for ministry had often been nurtured throughout their lives by extensive youth programming, e.g. Sunday Schools, CGIT, TUXIS, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, church camps.

Within our lifetimes, that alliance between Christianity and the culture has been disappearing. Christianity has been disestablished as the official and dominant religion in our culture. (Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall has written extensively about the disestablishment of the churches and what this means for the way they function).  It has been pushed to the margins in power and influence and popular support. As Christianity settles more and more deeply into its minority status in North America, many congregations can no longer afford to pay for full-time, seminary-trained ministry personnel. People contemplating ordered ministry often cannot afford the cost of the formal seminary education that is required by many denominations. Personal circumstances may also make it difficult to leave their families for extended periods of time to get that education.

The current models of church and ministry are becoming less and less viable. At the same time, new forms of church and new ways of leadership are emerging across the country. Faith communities are finding new ways of being led. More accurately, the Holy Spirit is raising up new leaders for new forms of church. These leaders have often not been through the officially sanctioned pathways of education and credentialing. They do not plan to do so. That does not mean that these people are uninterested in being trained and equipped for their leadership. It signals that the institutional requirements no longer fit the realities of the post-Christendom context.

As has often been the case in the history of the Church, the Holy Spirit is on the move and the structures and systems are struggling to catch up. Sometime the system tries to manage the disconnect between the structures and the new realities by attempting to fix the existing structures. What is needed instead is to discern what new life the Spirit is creating and, therefore, what kinds of structures will most faithfully nurture and nourish that new life.

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Twice last week I was asked the question, “Why do we need the church?” The first time, the question came from someone who was trying to find something to say to her children who no longer participated in the life and mission of the church.

The second time, the question was phrased more starkly: “Do we need the church anymore?” It was asked as a few people struggled with the reasons for declining attendance at a study group about social issues for which they had leadership responsibilities. They had tried a number of things to attract new participants but had not been successful. Part of the discussion had revolved around the reality that people don’t need the church to educate themselves about social issues or to take action on them.

Now that Christendom is over, the answer to the question “Do we need the church anymore?” is often, “No.”

We don’t need the church to provide us with a commitment to social justice. Many people develop commitments about social issues without any recourse to the church’s opinion (which inevitably spans the breadth of stances on any particular issue). They don’t need the church to give expressions to those commitments. There are plenty of interest or focus groups where they can give their time and energy and money.

We don’t need the church to provide us with moral values. For the most part, people no longer look to the church to inculcate moral values in their children. Even those who send (or bring) their young children to Sunday School for that purpose, decide  that the church hasn’t much to offer their children past the age of 8 or 9. When their children are bored to death with the simple crafts and moralizing stories, they decide that organized sports provides better training in moral values and character building. Even simply staying home with the family on a Sunday morning seems a more useful alternative.

On top of that, the endless parade of news stories about the sexual scandals involving clergy and priests leaves a lot of people with a pretty jaded view of what moral values the church can instil. Even if they can overlook those embarrassments, they make note of the bad behaviour of people who are active in the church and decide that the church really doesn’t have much to offer in the way of moral guidance.

Most people don’t need the church as a social group either. This was an important function of the church in Christendom. This is where young people went to meet their future spouses. Many older members of the church will tell you how the people they have met in church are the people who have been with them through weddings, births, illnesses and deaths (and golf and vacations –sometimes both at the same time). Most people don’t need the church to provide them with a social club any more. We have a number of young families that have been finding their way back into the church community. I have been asking them what they’re looking for from the church. A social group is not among their replies. They have relationships already. They have people to have fun with. They have busy lives and are not looking to add another social event to that busyness.

Many people don’t need the church for spirituality either. They talk about feeling spiritual when watching a beautiful sunset or when hiking a mountain path. They look to get their ‘spiritual needs’ met in yoga, meditation, journalling, etc. Any number of options are available to them without the inconvenience of being part of a church community.

So, do we need the church anymore? My short answer is that, the life to which Jesus Christ calls me is so demanding that I cannot do it on my own. I need others who are also being discipled by this surprising, challenging Lord to help me along the way. If ‘spirituality’ is defined as something you feel or experience, then you may not need others. However, I cannot learn to love others the way that Christ commands without being in community with other people — some of whom are very difficult to love.  I need others to challenge my natural tendencies towards self-pity or narcissism or selfishness. I need the community of the Church, which includes the faithful throughout the ages, to pull me into a bigger, more holy purpose for my life. The church is the community which the Spirit gives us in order to grow into our baptism — into Christ-likeness.

I have begun think, however, that “Why do we need the church?” is not the most important question. The more important question is, “Why does God need the church?” “Does God need the church anymore?” The church, for all its flaws and faults and failings, seems to be the form which God chooses in order to “reconcile the world to Himself”. At the most basic level, I am not involved in the church because I  have decided to be in the church. Indeed, if it were up to me, I would have given up on the church long ago. I am in the church because God has met me in the risen Jesus and I live in response to that relationship with him which God offers through the Holy Spirit. That relationship is lived out with other people who have also been met by God in the risen Jesus. Together, we are the church. Its form is changing rapidly and profoundly as Christendom recedes further and further into the past. Nevertheless, God’s Spirit is ‘doing a new thing’ and that new thing still involves some form of the church. The challenge is to respond faithfully to those new initiatives of the Spirit and to be the church God needs us to be.


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