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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 VI – Alive in our Distractions
Sometimes we are challenged by the reality of Jesus’ discipleship as he encounters people walking along the road. There is an obvious urgency and focus that underpins His ministry and responses; perhaps even a beckoning to see reality through the lens of kingdom importance.
“A man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’
Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’
He replied to another man, ‘Follow me.’
But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’
Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:57-62)
The relativity of Jesus’ harshness should not distract us from the heart of the matter. He was simply responding to those who asserted their follower-ship by checking their genuineness and motivation. I’m sure you can relate – how often do we say something and not follow our words with our actions.
In this last piece of this series, I have come to the conclusion that much of what we purport to be and do in ministry can possibly be seen as distraction or diversion. I firmly believe that we need to re-visit the ‘why’ questions implicit in our theological underpinnings; the foundations and strategic imperatives informing ‘why’ the church exists and ‘why’ it deserves to function in a secular, overtly post-Christian Australian culture. This is the important discipline of healthy critique; the theological underpinnings of our ecclesiology; the science of ministry practice; the art of relationship building; the discipline of strategic planning and execution, and the places where we are most likely to become conflicted and jammed up.
So that this doesn’t merely become a theoretical analysis, I hope to gently raise some practical issues, thereby beckoning you to explore change in an ‘already changing’ sector. I would also like to put on record no intention or desire to offend or disregard the critical and important ministry work you are currently doing. I also take as given a historical and evangelical construct – values and beliefs centred strongly on biblical foundations. My plea is for the future of the church, its aliveness found only in Jesus, and its capacity to be and become a community asset which is valued and needed by the broader community.
I am convinced that we never intend to become distracted. However, the cycle of church life predicates us to an end-point where staff, resources and energy tend to focus (about 80-90%) on servicing and meeting the needs of us Christians. An audit of a church budget will often show we rarely spend more than 10% of our budget on outreach or mission, the remainder largely focussed on programs, activities, buildings and resources for God’s people. While this is in itself not wrong, it creates distractions from the main thing – the most urgent priority to introduce people to Jesus. We need to come alive despite our distractions.
Here are just some of the practical challenges that might help this journey. The headlines highlight a practical issue, and then give one idea for conversation.
The critical priority of innovation, thought leadership and strategic vision
In order for the church to come alive, its leaders need to intentionally carve out time and commit resources to innovation, new ideas and strategic vision. This conversation is not exclusively the domain of staff, or the board, or the team leader but those who possess these capabilities and gifts. Not every staff member or board member is intuitively gifted or trained to lead this way. We need to create a gifted competency team rather than a representative group.
Idea – shape a budget for innovation (maybe 2% of income initially) and one weekend per year with targeted gifted people to explore strategic vision and innovation for your church community. This should be a collaborative environment designed to stimulate innovative thinking. Key outcomes should be identified, affirmed and resourced for execution. Report each year on your innovation strategies and their fruitfulness.
Our language and nomenclature
The language we utilise in church has a lot of ‘Christian-ese’ sprinkled throughout the conversations. So much so, we don’t necessarily release that ‘our’ language may well alienate, confuse or repel those who don’t yet know God. How we ascribe titles to staff, name our ministries and promote our programs either captivates or confuses those who may seek Jesus.
Idea – audit all language, staff titles, names of Christian ministries and programs through the lens of a non-Christian. Be open to change your brand architecture, names for programs and language without compromising your values and beliefs. Choose to prioritise and serve those not yet in the kingdom by subverting your own internal preferences.
Community expectations and perceptions
Typically, the majority of church attendees either live in relative close proximity to church facilities or choose to commute because they value your faith community. It is possible for the church to function in a bubble; without checking we often continue to pursue the things we do almost oblivious to the expectations and perceptions of the community we seek to serve. A church can presume they have a ‘right’ to exist without the broader community valuing their existence.
Idea – design or commission a community feedback survey (for those not connected to your church). Explore together those areas you might like to survey that explicitly ask non-Christians questions about your church, its impact and value for the broader community. Perhaps you might unashamedly ask what ‘kind’ of church they might join if they could, and what they think of your church. The goal here is to make the faith community a community asset that is valued and appreciated by the city you serve.
The emotional field of change and conflict
There is now a constant with respect to church ministry and society – change. In recent years the church has been described as a spiritual sanctuary; the place where one can retreat from the anxiety and stress of the world. Without deconstructing our heritage and biblical principles, the church must change or run the risk of being irrelevant. Just as a magnet influences a collection of iron particles in a magnetic field, so our sense of direction and purpose aligns God’s people in an emotional field. When we misalign our community, we precipitate low trust, different agendas and ultimately conflict.
Idea – Initiate a conversation at a leadership level around ‘change leadership’. How do leaders learn to facilitate healthy change and what resources might you access for this to become a core capability in your team? How do you keep relationships, spirituality and emotionality in check with healthy engagement and space for differing views? What metrics or indicators might help you monitor the overall level of alignment in your faith community?
Responding to brokenness and societal deconstruction
The mental health data emerging from across our nation suggests unequivocally that brokenness is ubiquitous. To live and breathe in close community challenges functional living. It is also apparent that as society engages in some form of deconstruction (another topic for conversation?), that the baseline level of anxiety subsequently increases. Our faith communities are called to be salt and light by Jesus – therefore it is essential to understand how we differentiate rather than compromise our message in a secular world.
Idea – What might it look like for your faith community to spiritually parent (in the best sense of the word), those you serve and those you reach? Ask your small groups to enter into a feedback journey where you seek to define ‘ecclesiology’. Provide resources and insights around ‘why’ the church exists and what are the essentials for church functionality. Listen for God’s prompting as you gather data from across your key people.
Following Jesus into the hard places
The most intriguing aspect of Jesus’ discipleship training journey challenges our ‘facility-centric’ orientations. While Jesus visited and taught in the synagogue, the overwhelming majority of his training happened live (and outside the synagogue) as they walked throughout the towns of the regions. The early disciples were more missionaries than ministers. Their training happened as they were apprenticed by Jesus. They found themselves often in hard places where dependence on God and Jesus was paramount.
Idea – Benchmarking. There are multiple forms of church, and expressions of ministry that we can access to inform our success or fruitfulness in ministry. As a leadership community, spend some time to determine what you would like to measure. The traditional measurements of attendance and giving, while helpful only tell a part of the story. What other resources might help you benchmark fruitfulness from a biblical base? Is your leadership community clear and concise around that which takes precedence and is important? How do you measure maturity in discipleship?
At the end of this short series, there remains an important question when we contemplate ‘who we are becoming’ as a network of Churches of Christ. It looks something like this: When a band of followers of Jesus are engaged in your church community in 2050, what will they thank God for, that you were willing to do now, in order to courageously frame and shape the church for their generation?
At the end of the age, the things we value and affirm might well not be the things that Jesus values and affirms. May you have wisdom, discernment and faith to help shape a church that those who follow will delight in, and celebrate the courage of this season.
Dr. Andrew Ball
Executive Ministry Director