Everyone in the Christian Church seems to agree that the way we in the church have been doing business for the past fifty years is working less well than it once did.
The numbers are clear. The church is in decline. Congregations are aging. Young people are slipping away. Finances are challenging. Energy is diminishing. The church in the western world appears to be an organization on life support. We are told that, if present trends continue, the picture is clear. Fifty years from now there will be no church in the developed, technologically advanced part of the world.
We are encouraged to respond to the crisis by finding new ways of being church. We are challenged to change our way of doing corporate religion. It is time to discover new relevant creative ways to meet a world that increasingly finds church deeply irrelevant. To continue putting our energies into simply preserving the status quo and keeping the tired old machinery of the institution ticking over is a certain recipe for institutional death.
Yet, alongside the clarion call for change, creativity and innovation, we who function in leadership in the church are pressured to continue servicing the traditional demands of ministry that have prevailed in the church for the past century.
Clergy are pressed to provide the customary hours of worship, satisfying the traditional demands of the dwindling number of parishioners who have remained faithful to our corporate expression of devotion over the years. Clergy are expected to visit shut-ins, hold services in local care facilities, keep regular hospital visiting hours, offer spiritual council and direction to people in need, observe regular office hours, and be instantly available to people in crisis. Many clergy must oversee bazaars, rummage sales, Christmas teas, spring teas, fall suppers, and a variety of pot-luck parties and seasonal social celebrations. They must find time to chair church committees and ensure that church buildings are kept in good repair. They have to attend to the annual budget and make sure that they operate as team players by taking an active role in the wider church, while at the same time producing a scintillating sermon every week, leading stimulating Bible studies, and attending to parishioners’ spiritual education. Clergy are frequently expected to be the public face of the church, visible at community events and responsible for reaching out to the world beyond the church.
It is hard to know how to keep the machinery of tradition running smoothly while at the same time moving forward with bright, bold, creative, exciting new initiatives in church life.
We are a generation of church leaders who find ourselves operating in-between what we have been and what we must become. We live in the awkward space between that which we know we need to let go of, and that which has yet to emerge. We know what is not working but serve in a church that is not yet ready to surrender old patterns and embrace something that is truly new.
How are we to operate as leaders in this uneasy middle space?
Part of the difficulty in answering this question lies in the fact that we have lost sight of the purpose for which the church exists. Our vision has become blurred. For the past three decades we have wandered in the midst of a confusing array of expectations and visions of what church ought to be.
We have been told church exists to be a centre of excellence in worship, to be an instrument for the pastoral care of people in pain, to be an agent of social change in the world, to be the focus of community life and activity for the lonely, to be an agent of healing in peoples’ lives, and to be an evangelistic army reaching out to the lost of the world with the saving news of Christ.
It will only be possible for church leader to find a way forward in the bewildering clamour of these conflicting demands and expectations as we remain focused on the main thing. The main thing is to insure that our lives are deeply rooted in God. If church leaders are not grounded in a living relationship with the invisible reality of God’s Spirit at work in their lives and communities and throughout the world, it is unlikely they will be able to lead those who attend their churches into a dynamic encounter with God.
The first question for the church that desires to find its way forward is are we making it possible for our leaders to nurture their own spiritual lives. Do our church leaders have the time and the space to be people of prayer? Are they going on retreat as a regular part of their spiritual practice? Do they have time to read the classics of Christian spirituality and to reflect deeply upon the sacred text of Scripture? Are they entering into the silence of God’s presence on a regular basis?
As church leaders who must function in this uneasy in-between time, we must know our true identity. We must experience the reality that we are defined not by what we do or by the success of our ministry, but by the reality of God’s love in our lives. Everything we do must start from and be immersed in the compassionate grace of the God whose presence we desire to make known to all people. Only then will we begin to find our way forward in these uncertain times.