Who are we Becoming? Part IV – A Faithful Presence – Boutique and/or Multi-dimensional Christian Faith Communities

08 Sep 2017

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One of the common questions I get asked is who are ‘Churches of Christ?’ It’s an important question that requires careful attention. For this reason, I have decided to write several articles that address this question from a different perspective, namely – who are we becoming? While our history and heritage are essential for grounding us together, our future and who we intend to be in that future space requires theological rigour and informed conversation.

It is my hope that these pieces become important conversation starters for leadership communities across our movement. The fresh hope family of churches is facing what I believe to be unprecedented changes going forward, and I hope to flag some of those challenges with the view of encouraging you to engage proactively in these themes.

Theme IV – A Faithful Presence – Boutique and/or Multi-dimensional Christian Faith Communities

Recently I have been referencing the challenges facing the Christian church in Australia by using metaphors of ‘software’ and ‘hardware’. It’s been an interesting conversation starter; to engage in dialogue around ministry software versions, application and design. Surprisingly, re-framing the conversation around these metaphors enables churches to engage passionately together around a starting question: “Is your ministry software the latest version?” I like the analogy, because software needs currency to remain relevant. Software also needs improving to ensure protection from viruses and competitive market forces. Without software upgrades, the Christian church cannot pretend to offer life and hope in world full of ambiguity and brokenness.

Traditionally our constituency has biased our ministry practice towards a pragmatic approach of church growth or church health. How we define success has consumed or perplexed many of us in a world of significant expectation where church attenders switch in from many different tribes and nations, each with their own view on how church should function. A cursory conversation in any Church of Christ on a Sunday will highlight approximately 70% of those in attendance have ‘switched in’ from other Christian denominations, ignorant of our practice or historical journey.

For the church to be effective or fruitful, perhaps we need to ensure our ministry software (however we choose to design it, procure it or borrow it) serves the deeper theological conversations of strategic mission (the whole Church of Christ in motion) and roles of church in culture and society. This conversation is more about practice and function than program or activity. This is a new language for a new era.

Dallas Willard, Professor of Philosophy at University of Southern California, and Spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary used to refer to the ABC gospel – Attendance, Buildings and Cash as a ‘counterfeit’ gospel. While these metrics can be useful indicators they don’t deepen the conversation around what’s really important! The good thing about software is that it is designed as a digital enabling solution to improve or enhance a goal or mitigate a risk. Ministry software should enable functionality and practice around deeper values and goals contingent with Kingdom outcomes.

The hardware conversation is also critical for church leadership teams. The overwhelming majority of our facilities (hardware) were built in an era of minimal local regulation when issues of parking, egress and access, fire regulations, neighbourhood noise, public spaces and workplace safety were minimal.  Not so today. Across the cities and suburbs of Australia, churches are now confronting obstructionist regulators and defensive communities thereby potentially losing their rights to simply exist in location because they had previously done so.

How churches position themselves in community requires insightful, proactive community research. The predominant paradigm (build a worship facility first) seems to denigrate the seven-day per week (in situ) capacity of the church to engage in contextual community engagement. These are tough conversations in the midst of an already functioning faith community. Tough but necessary. They require change leadership.

Hardware conversations are difficult because we commonly become emotionally or spiritually attached to our premises. Quite sentimentally we quickly refer back to our spiritual sanctuaries as the place where we were baptised or married, and yet fail to recognise the need to allow facilities to change as ‘normative’ practice. How easily we posture and compete around furniture, style, colours, layouts and carpets as critical rather than secondary to relationship and community. In Kingdom community, my personal rights are subjugated to God’s faithful mission and theological imperatives.

The future facilities for church (who we are becoming) may well be a beautiful constellation of different premises for different contexts. I doubt we help the conversation through simple franchising of one size, one style fits all. Our architecture must jump substantially to differentiate us as necessary and valued community facilities. Moreover, I hope we see some churches emerge as boutique facilities meeting unique community needs for gospel purposes, and other as multidimensional outposts of faith, hope and love. I see these sites including social enterprises, entrepreneurial start-ups and different expressions of mission, while not jettisoning the importance of meeting together as faithful followers of Jesus.

Towards a Faithful Presence…

The distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia, James Davison Hunter, in his book ‘To Change the World’[1] provides a helpful typology for determining Christian presence in our secular world.

The four expressions of church functionality include:

  1. Defend Against – the world is dangerous, one must content with secular forces that oppose the faith.
  2. Purity From –  the world is evil, darkness and debauchery shadows everything, we must live unstained or corrupted from the world.
  3. Relevance To – we must address people’s felt needs, conform to the world if necessary to make contact and connection.
  4. Faithful Presence Within – ‘Let your Life Speak’ – be a ‘living epistle’, engage the world by your faithfulness expressed in love.

As our culture and society catapults towards increasing anxiety, brokenness and aggression there has never been a more opportune time for the church universally to make a difference. Hunter’s typology reminds us that it is easy for the church to err, to define itself by what it is against as opposed to what it is for. The best thing about faith communities, is that these become places where we spur one-another on in maturity and good deeds. We need each other for this quest.

These are indeed challenging, even perilous days. There is profound hope when the spirit of God stirs within the community of God. Our leaders will require courage, conviction and a willingness to change. Make sure you do whatever is possible to support them and pray for them regularly, for this is not an easy season.

Dr Andrew Ball
Executive Ministry Director

For Conversation:

  • Software: How would you describe your ministry software? What is it designed to do? How current is your ministry practice or functionality? How do you determine what ministry priorities are important? (Remember – software is a metaphor; compared to software you might purchase to run your church database).
  • Hardware: How do your facilities enable community engagement? How do your members/attenders view your premises? How does your community view your premises? Are your facilities beyond their ‘use by date’? If so, who might assist you in redeveloping them?
  • Does a church need facilities or can they lease them? What is the stewardship responsibility of a congregation that owns significant assets?
  • Faithful Presence: What do you make of Hunter’s typology? How do you convert these types into strategic action? Do you need to?
  • What is the spirit saying to your leadership community/small group?
  • How would you rate your own maturity and integrity to be present in community and reflect the lifestyle of a disciple? How much time do you spend in church as opposed to connected in community?
  • Locally, trans-locally and globally – how do you think you’re doing?

[1]  Hunter. J.D., To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.  Ó 2010 Oxford University Press