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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 V – A Church of Engagement versus Attendance
The vast majority of Australians simply won’t wake up and decide to attend a church. The reformation of the church is essential if we are to capture the minds and hearts of a cynical and disinterested Australian community. Without critical change, the Western church runs the risk of being irrelevant (at best) and extinct (at worst). I write this with trepidation, as I fear we run the risk of being flippant; somewhat impervious to the urgency of the hour and the critical nature of the challenges before us. I also write with profound hope, that we already have the resources to change our orientation to enable the Australian church to prevail as it transforms lives with great hope and passion.
Perhaps most importantly, the key question for church leaders becomes – how do we engage people in God’s kingdom in ways that are culturally relevant, biblically sound, theologically rigorous, spiritually engaging and prophetically vital?
Here I offer some ‘headlines’ to churches, that might assist faith communities self-audit their functionality, operations and values. These headlines are more qualitative than quantitative. They require leaders of churches to slow down enough to make time for discussion, collaboration, debate and clarity. The challenge for already ‘time poor’ leaders is to carve quality retreat space into the yearly calendar to ensure sufficient collaborative engagement.
Start with ethos before you cast vision
The Greek word ‘ethos’ means an ‘accustomed place’ or the character/spirit of a particular community. The essence of this conversation revolves around the core idea – ‘who’ are you. Ethos can also mean culture or DNA. This is much more than borrowed language, pragmatic practice or trite wordsmithing. It is about your core team genuinely engaged and subsequently articulate in understanding who you are. Just as vision leaks, ethos gets corrupted. In a church constituency of high denominational switching, leaders who fail to articulate the ‘who are we as a church’ piece will find themselves navigating future conflict with competing mind-sets.
The extent to which faith communities know ‘who’ they are, directly impacts their capacity to become fruitful without distraction or deviation of course. As ethos is defined, it becomes a driving foundation to enable the community to engage in the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of mission.
Architect community not just a congregation
There is a subtle yet critical difference between a community and a congregation. In community, I am known, valued, affirmed and empowered for life. In a congregation, I can (if I so choose) simply be an attender, sometimes not noticed or overlooked. Congregations are vital for church but communities are vital for life. Communities are built on the bedrock of genuine relationships and these are time intensive. To be known, I need to slow down and make time for relationships to be forged. In community, I cannot possibly have close relationships with everyone, so therefore I need opportunity to connect into smaller groups where I can grow and share. Community is built by leaders who model healthy relationships in vulnerability, courage, transparency and strength.
Cultivate spirituality concurrently with missionary endeavour
Our spirituality is not self-indulgent. We grow spiritually with Christ so that we can join His cause in serving others and being useful and helpful. There are times when the thrill of spiritual growth and its subsequent emotional highs can distort a healthy spirituality that has both God and other focus. Churches who cultivate spiritual growth in the context of missionary endeavour will reap growth in maturity and character, as disciples are cultivated spiritually while serving others as missionaries for Jesus. The practice of evangelism, service, witness and proclamation help people grow spiritually and holistically as they offer life to others beyond church walls.
Genuine spirituality encompasses spiritual mentoring, retreat and reflection times and engaged action. Each are necessary for action/reflection holistic growth necessary to pursue God and discern His will. Spirituality and mission together create healthy discipleship.
Apprentice leaders in transformative environments
Not every leader has the gifts necessary to apprentice or empower new leaders. Churches who intentionally design and craft ‘leadership pipelines’ where younger leaders are apprenticed by seasoned leaders will continually over-supply their ministries, thereby breaking the trend of scrambling to find willing souls. Leaders are servants who are more than volunteers. Leadership is both caught and taught, most importantly in environments that are deeply transformative.
A good starting point for this conversation begins with: how do we identify, recruit, empower and apprentice young men and women who show leadership potential or who have a leadership gift. This orientation has a primary goal to enable these younger leaders to discover their destiny or purpose for life in the Kingdom of God. They are therefore trained and equipped for life, not merely for church activity.
Learn the sacred art of spiritual care
With so much emphasis on ‘mindfulness’ or ‘resilience’ in contemporary culture, it is critical for churches to reclaim the sacred art of spiritual care. The church is the one community on earth where people can be cared and nurtured spiritually.
One of the unique aspects of pastoring in church life (care of the flock) is that we genuinely care. Sadly, our consumer driven expectations have diminished our capability to share this expression of Christ through gifts in the body to all who would seek to follow Jesus. We have inadvertently or intentionally delegated this responsibility to our pastors, who find it difficult to manage competing responsibilities and expectations. Surely, we need to reclaim a biblical priesthood of believers where all are encouraged, motivated and trained to spiritually care for the fellow sojourner, disciple, friend, leader or outcast in a mutuality of ministry and purpose.
See innovation and change as necessary ‘restoration’ practice
Sometimes as churches, we find it really difficult to change. This is not surprising, given the church can be a refuge or safe-haven in an ever-changing, diverse, complex world. The impacts of societal and cultural change are already being felt in all of our churches.
This conversation needs a ‘reset’. What if you ‘reset’ your leadership agendas with permission to change and innovate? What if innovation and change became normative practice, necessary for the restoration of the New Testament church here on earth? A small step in this journey is simply to give one-another permission to explore change and innovation in the life of God’s community as regularly as possible.
Research and engage contextually to be irresistible
There is an old question that goes – ‘if this church failed to exist, would the broader community notice or care?’ Sometimes this is expressed as ‘what is this church’s redemptive purpose now?’
It’s always heart-breaking when a church community closes and is no longer viable. In order to avoid a demise or the spiral of growth, leaders need to explore avenues to engage and enable their faith community to serve (even if only a couple of times per year) the broader community. This is a wonderful conversation; namely what can our church uniquely offer to this community. The goal here is to help make the church irresistible and valuable to its city or location. This is about giving rather than taking, offering service with no strings attached and being affirmed as an essential service in culture and society.
I am convinced that if some of these ‘headlines’ became adopted as normative practice, then churches would thrive and prevail in a highly sceptical world.
Dr. Andrew Ball
Executive Ministry Director
What is one thing your church community might offer your town/city as a gift each year?