The modern church has dedicated itself to finding and offering answers when at times I think the question as a whole needs to be revised, or added to. To overly compartmentalize: Baptists are asking “how is a person saved” [or at times, simply “how do I keep from going to hell”]. Mega churches are asking “How do we reach the most people” [or at times, simply “how can we get more people in our doors”]. Traditional liberals are asking “How can we be agents of social change” [or at times, “how can we make everyone feel good about themselves”].
***obviously I am being a bit simplistic and perhaps a tad cynical, but you get the point***
The problem is that Methodists (and mainline churches in general) aren’t really sure what question to ask. All of the above questions have merit, but none of them seem to ring entirely true. So then, what question(s) should we be asking? I tend to think a good way to determine that is to look at Jesus. Throughout his life he gave a few examples of “mission statements” which really point to the questions he was asking. For example: “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly” -or- “I have come to seek and save the lost” -or- “to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” If you put all that together, I think Jesus was asking “How do I bring about the Kingdom of God?”
So what happens when our churches start asking this as the primary question? I think all of the above get answered! We begin to understand the gospel as something holistic that keeps in tension salvation for the here and now as well as salvation for eternity. I think it inseparably links discipleship with the ministry of reconciliation. I think it moves us from an individual understanding of Christianity and salvation into a communal understanding of it. It also forces us to be an centrifugal church: the dominate force is out from the center. The only time Jesus asked people to come to him was to a.) minister to them or b.) help him minister to others.
The look and feel and atmosphere of our churches is a direct reflection of the questions they are primarily asking. There has been tons of research into systems theory and the bulk of it tells us that systems always produce what they were designed to produce. The problem is they are not always designed like we think they are.
The future of your church and my church, and honestly most of Methodism, is going to be determined by how we understand the role of the church. I love the question that Rob Bell poses: If your church were removed from your neighborhood, would anyone besides members notice? Wow, how is that for convicting. What is also illustrates is that besides the need to revise our questions, we must also revise our metrics – those things by which we measure the success of the church.
At many churches the numbers we look at are Sunday worship, offering, conversions, and attendance at various other programs. Don’t get me wrong, those are important because it does show the breadth of our reach, but tell me, does it really measure how well we are bringing about the Kingdom? The shift to postmodern thinking focuses more on qualitative data than quantitative data. That is frustrating to those of us entrenched in modernity; however, I can’t help but believe it leads to a better understanding of the impact of a church. Brian McLaren talks about the need to count conversations rather than conversions. I think that too is a bit simplistic, but it really forces us to look at things differently.
I believe the church will thrive when it is released from confines of Sunday-centrism. My wife and I are investigating some intentional community options with other couples (similar to Simple Way in Philly and Communality in Lexington). Where we stand now, I feel called to go here because I believe it is where I can best minister to the community. Obviously not everyone can take the step of selling their home to live in a neighborhood with the expressed desire to change “the forgotten places of the Empire” (12 Marks of new monasticism language). However, I hope that our churches can allow this to be a part of their ministry. That is what I am struggling with now. I am ready to sell everything I have to be with the poor and marginalized, I just hope that I can do that because I am Christian connected to the Methodist church rather than in spite of the fact.
We all have lots of questions to ask and I am afraid it is going to lead us to some uncomfortable places. I however have come to the place where I can no longer go about church as usual.
Let me know your thoughts.