Where are we headed?

September 10, 2014 | Editorial | Number 18
Dick Benner, Editor/Publisher

It is almost a cliché to say that the church is in the middle of mind-numbing changes, nearing a revolutionary scale. Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer calls the situation a “giant rummage sale,” as we take a look at all our old stuff and sell what we don’t need.

Michael King, dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Va., told incoming students this fall that the church is going through something not seen since the Reformation. “One of the reasons our church structures are coming unglued is that we don’t know how to meet Jesus, much like those two men in the Emmaus Road story, who, until Jesus revealed himself, were in the dark and confused,” he said.

“We don’t know how to do this work, to reconcile opposing convictions of which stories Jesus meets us in,” he said. “Yet it may be that within these challenges is where we find him. The disciples and these two men finally recognized that Jesus was bigger than their preconceptions. Finally, after conversing on the road all day, and after Jesus reveals himself, do they honestly blurt out: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us?’ ”

King cited seven trends listed by L. Gregory and Nathan Jones of Duke University, Durham, N.C., that call for attention in our own faith community:

1. Love it or hate it, we are in the midst of a digital revolution that is fundamentally reshaping much of our daily lives. And too often we find ourselves caught between unreserved enthusiasts for the latest technological fads and Luddite fearmongers telling us that those fads threaten all that is good about life. We need to develop opposable minds that can wrestle with the diverse blessings and burdens that the digital revolution offers.

2. In our globalized age, traditional markers of identity and place are rapidly being renegotiated. With the proliferation of Internet technology, efficient travel options, and interconnected commerce and institutions, people from diverse cultures now interact with ever-greater frequency and fluidity.

3. No North American institution can ignore the rising influence of immigrants from Central and South America. From linguistic and cultural considerations to issues of minority representation in places of power, the influx of immigrants has created a new set of institutional challenges. At the same time, however, ethnic diversity also presents Christian institutions with a new set of gifts. Immigrant communities not only bring fresh perspectives and ideas, but they often keep the church’s ear attuned to the voice of the poor and those on the margins.

4. Members of the “emergent church” movement often see the institutional church as a barrier to reaching new places in society. A growing number of young Christians have become uncomfortable with the accommodated nature of the institutional church to various political causes. And many sceptical secularists worry that “institution” is simply another word for “lifeless bureaucracy.”

5. The most vibrant Christian institutions are revisiting their basic economic models, developing new partnerships and networks to broaden the scale and scope of their activities and impact, and exploring new sources of revenue. The potential for experimentation and innovation to create sustainable economic development is great, but the danger is more readily obvious. And when danger lurks, it is often more tempting to try to keep the ship from sinking than to develop strategies to ensure that we don’t miss the boat that offers long-term life.

6. Laypeople increasingly ask questions like, “What does it mean to be a Christian lawyer?” “Does it really change anything about medicine or physics if you practise it as a Christian?” and, “What kinds of risks to my career should I be willing to undertake for the sake of the gospel?” Many laypeople, too, will expect their pastors, Christian institutional leaders, and Christian books and digital resources to help them articulate thoughtful responses.

7. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, almost 70 percent of the world’s projected 9.3 billion people will be living in cities by the year 2050. Compared with the 30 percent of the 2.5 billion who lived in cities in 1950, it’s safe to say urbanization will likely lead to the explosive growth of congregations capable of attracting new urbanites, leaving many rural congregations bereft of members. This widening gap between bustling urban congregations and dwindling rural ones will force church leaders into difficult decisions.

--Posted Sept. 10, 2014

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