Posts Tagged ‘missional church’

I have been re-reading two books recently written by Alan Roxburgh: Structured for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church and Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in our Time. Both books provide some very helpful insights into the process of the ways churches respond to the changed context in which they find themselves.

Structured for Mission is heavier reading than the very practical Joining God. It provides a more theoretical approach to the ways in which change happens in organizations. Organizations in crisis tend to respond by trying to make changes in their structures. However, says Roxburgh, what they should attend to are the underlying stories which are embodied in the structures. These are what are really driving and shaping the structures and the organization.

He calls these underlying stories ‘legitimating narratives’ — “an overarching story that provides a group . . . with a way to express its underlying values, beliefs and commitments about who they are and how life is to be lived. It’s a story that tells a group who they are, what is acceptable and what is a proper way to live” (p. 32) Organizations and groups lose the capacity to hold the attention and loyalty of people when increasing numbers of people no longer find that the legitimating narrative  helps them make sense of their lives.

The churches that are part of what used to be called mainline denominations are operating with a legitimating narrative that values the capacity to control and manage their life. “Strategic planning [is] one of its primary tools. In this way of planning, experts gathered data, studied the various elements of a situation, and identified the gap between where they were and where they wanted to be at a point in the future. On this basis a plan was developed to get from one point to the next.” (p. 43) This narrative assumes that we are the most critical agents acting in the situation. The choices we make are the actions that determine the future.

Part of the problem that churches encounter is that the situations in which they find themselves no longer are ones that can be managed and controlled. Too much around them is changing too quickly and too drastically. The legitimating narrative no longer works:  we find ourselves in “a place where [our] explanations no longer explain and [our] actions no longer fix.” (p. 116) Churches are having to find new ways to navigate into the future.

Roxburgh directs us to our original stories to find a legitimating narrative that will help us develop the capacity to continue in our journey. In those stories — the stories of the Bible — the most critical agent in any situation is not us but God. We are certainly involved but it is God who is at the centre of what is happening. It is God’s actions that are decisive.

The first work of the churches in this place and time is to learn again how to pay attention to God: to what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and in our neighbourhoods. We do that by learning to
1) engage the scriptures more deeply,
2) listen to each other more carefully especially our stories of where God is working in each other’s lives, and
3) re-engage the neighbourhoods and communities in which our church buildings are located.
One of the tools Roxburgh uses is “Dwelling in the Word”, a modified form of lectio divina that also involves careful listening to each other.

I find that it is hard to convince congregations to adopt Roxburgh’s approach. For one this, this is slow work. It will not give an immediate appearance that something is being done to fix the problems a congregation is facing. It is also soul work — something, ironically, many people in our churches are generally not too enthused about.

In a few months, I’ll be working with some congregations that are willing to try this out. We are embarking on a journey together where we do not know exactly where we are going but we are willing to trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us. It will be an adventure — something much more interesting and compelling to me than the attempt to restructure the ‘courts of the church’ on which my denomination is currently expending great time and energy.




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Something new is being created in various places across the United Church of Canada. A new congregational culture is taking shape, albeit often in tentative and fragile forms. Congregations and other faith communities are finding their way forward. Based on the conversations I have been having, some trends seem to be emerging.

There is a congregational culture emerging that is focused on the ministry of all the baptized, not primarily on the ministry of the ordered ministry personnel. Clergy-centred solo pastoral ministry is giving way to participatory leadership teams in all aspects of congregational life. Authority is being distributed among the people based on gifts, relational influence, and areas of mission; power is seen as something that is to be given away to others. Clergy are recognizing that it is not their role to ‘be the minister’ but to equip the ministers of the congregation and to cultivate a congregational culture where creativity and permission-giving and risk-taking are the norm. There is an expectation that people will be engaged in deepening discipleship throughout their whole lives since the work in which they are engaged cannot be done in one’s own strength and wisdom. What ‘deepening discipleship’ looks like is localized, depending on each different context and the gifts and passions of the people involved and driven by the missionary situation in which people find themselves.

A congregational culture is emerging that prioritizes the deepening of the ministry of all the people over the continuance of the institutional structure or the building. Organizations get the results for which they are structured. That which is given attention is what grows. Churches are changing what they are paying attention to. This includes changing the way the church measures what it is doing. Rather than measuring how many people are on the membership roll or how many dollars are being raised and spent, churches are beginning to measure the people’s depth of involvement in ministry and mission in the world. Rather than paying attention to who is serving on what committee, worship services and annual reports are providing opportunities for people to witness and testify to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is working in and through their lives in their neighbourhoods, places of work and leisure times. The conversation is about ‘sightings’ of the reign of God, not the needs of the institution.

The emerging congregational culture is finding ways to attend to the pastoral care and spiritual needs of its members (often through small groups) but the dominant conversations are not about getting one’s needs met but about discerning what God is doing and what God is calling the church to be in the world. The focus is not on programmes and membership privileges but on following Jesus as a way of life. People are learning ways of listening to others outside the church. They are learning not to approach situations as ‘fixers’, with their well-intentioned agendas; rather, they are recognizing that they are often on the receiving end of the hospitality and gifts of ‘the other’. There is a humility and openness in their relationships — and a recognition that it is about building relationships rather than fixing problems.

Not every renewing congregation or developing faith community exhibits all those characteristics. However, these trends keep emerging in the conversations I have been having. What is also apparent is that congregations often are finding their way forward in isolation from others. They need to be in networks with other faith communities that are finding their way. What another church does is probably not directly transferrable to another church. ‘Cookie cutter’ solutions will not work in the diverse situations in which congregations find themselves. We live out our faith incarnationally, which means its expression is shaped by the local context. However, what is working for one church may provide inspiration for a creative initiative in another congregation. Besides, we all need companions on the journey, especially on this journey where we have no maps but only Jesus who is himself the Way.

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The Triune God is already at work among us, making a new creation. We know from the scriptures that, if we are to see that work of God, we need to pay attention to what is happening at the margins, at the edges of what is ‘mainstream’. At the margins of the United Church of Canada, new patterns of being ‘church’, new patterns of leadership, and new patterns of ministry are taking shape. Many of them have been ‘flying under the radar’, quietly but courageously finding a way forward into God’s new creation. Sometimes they are at the margins because the realities of these faith communities do not fit the current structures and policies of the United Church. Sometimes not much attention is paid to them because they don’t look successful the way that we often measure success (numbers of people in the pews and dollars in the bank).

These faith communities at the margins are taking many forms: collaborative or regional ministries, house churches, lay-led congregations, base communities, fresh expressions, pub churches, congregations sharing technology and worship, intentional communities. In almost all of them, there is a turn toward reclaiming the ministry of all the baptized, although it may not always be expressed or experienced in such terms.

As new communities of faith emerge with a focus on being missional, there will be a need for other such experiments that are aimed at giving both individuals and local churches a new imagination and capacity to engage their neighbourhoods.

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The report of the United Church’s Comprehensive Review Task Group, “United in God’s Work” recommended that the United Church “make a commitment to supporting new ministries and new forms of ministry through an initiative that tentatively would be called Chasing the Spirit” . It frames the purpose of this initiative in terms that come from the Missional Church conversation: “The task group believes the challenge, risk, and hope for the church lie in joining what God is already bringing to life”(p. 13).

The language of the missional church conversation is being heard in many places in the United Church. There is lots of talk about engaging the neighbourhoods around church buildings. However, the term ‘missional’ is often applied to congregational mission projects rather than connoting a genuine shift in identity: mission is seen as something the church does rather than what the church is.

The Missional Church conversation recognizes that the the Church does not have a mission; rather, it participates in God’s mission in the world. That mission does not just happen in distant places; the Holy Spirit is at work everywhere, including the neighbourhoods in which congregations exist. God works through the everyday, ordinary lives of the people of the church and through the congregation as a local expression of the Body of Christ. Baptism is a person’s ordination into ministry and mission. The church is not a ‘place’ where spiritual consumers come to get their needs met. It is an outpost of the reign of God from which disciples of Jesus are sent into the world. It understands itself to be both gathered and sent for the sake of God’s mission of reconciliation and grace. The conversation is not about, “What can we do to get more people into our church”; it is about, “Where is God already at work and in what ways are we being called to participate in that work?” As congregations make this shift in identity, the role of the ordered ministry personnel shifts from being “the minister” to being a leader who equips disciples of Jesus for their ministries in the world and who cultivates a congregational environment that “nourishes this work of discernment, experimentation, learning and engagement with God at work in their neighbourhoods” (The Missional Network website).

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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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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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This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations that are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems, it is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.

The United Church of Canada values its tradition of having an educated clergy. Training for ordered ministry in the United Church of Canada most often involves the person leaving their home congregation to receive a post-graduate education (or its equivalent). It is expected that, after ordination or commissioning, he or she will serve a congregation other than his or her home congregation. There have been and currently are other models of ministerial leadership for the church but this is the one that our denomination has chosen. It is also a model that is under pressure because it is very expensive. Student loans are difficult to repay when the salaries paid to ordered ministry personnel are low. Seminaries and training centres are underfunded and struggle to find alternate sources of income. There are indications that this model may also not be the best way to train people for ministry, either ministry in local congregations for the ekklesia or ministry in the world for the diaspora.

The Report of the Working Group on Leadership Formation for Ministry, with its proposal for “A Competency-Approach to Ministerial Education and Formation”, acknowledged that the present model of training for ministerial leadership “causes undue hardship to people and excludes potential leaders.” It proposes that competency for ministry leadership can happen in many different ways: “e.g. individual courses taken at any number of schools; intensive supervised training like Clinical Pastoral Education; supervised ministry as a Candidate or Student Supply; mentored projects and/or community involvements; certificate or diploma programs; mentored reading and individual study; teaching from elders; time-intensive workshops; cohort learning, etc.”

It recognizes that people are already being trained for leadership in congregations outside the traditional academic pathways: “Studies taken at centres of transformational adult learning, like the United Church’s education and retreat centres, may also be recognized as effective means of achieving some competencies. Innovative programming offered by the EDGE Network and regionally-based initiatives, like B.C. Conference’s LeaderShift, will be similarly recognized and promoted.”

Significantly, it suggests that “such recognition should, in turn, till the ground for the planting and growth of further grassroots, context-responsive, leadership development initiatives.”

When the leadership for a congregation is ‘parachuted in’ from elsewhere and when they come as ‘professionals’, or experts, who have received training and skills that others don’t share, there is a danger that the natural leaders of the congregation are disempowered. The underlying message is that ministry is about having specialized knowledge and skills acquired through  taking courses.

In the New Testament, the criteria for leaders in congregational life is described mostly in terms of their character. In particular, the focus is on character that is shaped by the cross of Christ. Such ‘character’ includes humility, the courage to tell the truth, the willingness to lose one’s life in order to find it, the willingness to be forgiven, to forgive and to live by the grace of God. Admittedly, acquiring such qualifications is not easy but it can be done by all the baptized.

This is not to say that leaders don’t also need to be well-educated in such topics as theology, the scriptures, Christian history, pastoral care and ethics. It is to say that the ways in which people acquire the knowledge they need for ministry and mission in shifting. Even more determinative is the question of what leadership is for. What is needed now is leadership for congregations that are more mission outposts than fortresses of stability and respectability.

The structures and leadership development models that were suited for Christendom do not serve the church well in its new missionary situation. Some congregations are experimenting with new structures. What post-Christendom churches will look like is still taking shape. What is becoming clear, however, is that there will be no single model of ‘church’: local responses to particular contexts will lead to great diversity in models of church and, consequently, greater diversity in the kinds of leadership that is needed. Some congregations are already engaging in innovative experiments to develop the kind of structures and leadership they need.

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