The church I pastor, Alliance Bible Church, is in a place of uncertainty, or as Len Hjalmarson writes “a place of liminality… of a space in-between, a transition point, where old and new collide.” “Limina” is old Latin for threshold.[i] In some ways we wear our “liminality” as a badge – we’re a home of graying baby boomers and older Gen-X types like myself, and we’re a home for a group of young millennials. Conversations can be awkward; where one generation speaks with doctrinal clarity, the other speaks with ambiguity, and certainty is rare.
I appreciate the elders who have joined me on this journey. A less courageous group would likely deny the need to change. The reality of the shift to a “post-Christian and post-congregational culture” [ii] gives us no illusion about the necessity of change, but that in itself doesn’t provide signposts for the path. Our leadership team has taken a few baby steps forward, forays into the future, but Hjalmarson’s writing on Adaptive challenge and the Church in transition has gotten me thinking that we’re bringing baggage with us. For example, whenever I attempt to step forward into the future of our church, my mind goes back to what’s been successful in the past. Could my pastoral experience actually be sidetracking us from the future God intends? For example, one of my most spiritually formative experiences has been a home group where lives were authentically shared and genuine spiritual growth happened. But attempts at reproducing such authenticity, intimacy and spiritual growth have rarely succeeded.
Thinking about ABC’s almost 40-year history through the lens of the adaptive process is informative:
Phase one (rapid growth): we have a history of growing a K-12 school, establishing an AWANA program, and sending our youth on mission trips.
Phase two (conservation): membership grew and stabilized around these core ministries, which established the church’s identity and norms.
Phase three (release): Changes to the demographics of the congregation, and challenges like the divestiture of the school resulted in decline in attendance, broken relationships, smaller children’s and youth ministries.
Phase four (renewal): We have an opportunity to redefine the church’s identity and reshape its mission. In other words, the lifecycle we’ve experienced—growth, peak, plateau, diminish—creates opportunity to start over.
While our position is full of promise, it also reminds me of the concern I expressed earlier: We need to be careful not to bring our baggage with us. Just because we wore it yesterday doesn’t mean it fits today.
With no intention to disparage the church I love, I need the space to question the past and learn from it. What was the point of the K-12 Christian school, the Awana program, and the multiple mission trips? Those ministries did two things: they provided organizational success and biotic growth. By “biotic growth” I mean that young people came to know Jesus and grow in faith. By “organizational success” I mean the church had plenty of people attending its services and programs. My criticism is that every time I hear reflection on the past it’s always couched in organizational success. It’s the common assumption that the more people who attend our services, our ministries, mission trips, or school, the greater the production of disciples. However, Willow Creek’s REVEAL study has exposed that participation in services and programs doesn’t automatically make maturing disciples that reproduce disciples. [iii] Willow Creek awoke to something that far smaller churches need to wrestle with–growing ministries doesn’t necessarily create disciples. In fact, it might be reinforcing a consumer mentality. Likewise, if ABC remains focused on attracting people to services and ministries we’ll miss our mission to make disciples who make disciples.
Today ABC is on a threshold of an opportunity. We can shed the structure of the past that became rigid, with over management designed for a previous generation of ministry. But then what? Organizations abhor a vacuum, and we don’t yet have a map for the future. Ministry maps have all been designed for roads that are now outdated. Hjalmarson suggests that we don’t need maps and map-readers, but navigators.
“The points on a map are fixed, and when one wants to travel …it’s step by step to the next point. If you have a compass and a bit of logic, this is really easy. …Navigation on the other hand, is a skill that is learned in the wilderness or on the ocean. It requires courage and the ability to withstand harsh conditions. When we can’t reference earthly artifacts we need something outside the world – the North Star.”[iv]
Let me sharpen this point. Our problem is that we are not making disciples who make disciples. My question is “How might we have a generative disciple-making practice contextualized for post-Christian millennials in Baytown, Texas?” I do not yet have an answer, but I know we need to be navigators into a future. “Leaders in particular feel enormous pressure to develop a plan that will effectively move the community forward to a new experience of stability, if not growth.” [v]
So will we trust God? Will we put away the old maps and navigate with the Spirit’s prompting into an unknown future? Will we prepare for the unknown by growing our love and trust in God and one another – making the uncertainty of the process more bearable? I’m not suggesting we go blindly into the future; navigators have points of light to navigate by, and so do we. In Acts we see three things create the paradigm of church: gospel-centered theology, disciple-making practices, all lived out in missional communities. Three points of reference in the sky should be enough to navigate into the future.
[i] Leonard Hjalmarson, Broken Futures: Adaptive Challenge and the Church in Transition, Unpublished, Chapter One.
[ii] Coined by Reggie McNeal, among others. See Missional Communities: The Rise of the Post-Congregational Church (Jossey-Bass, 2011).