Exploring a Post-Establishment Church

One thing I’ve noticed about new churches and new mission starts in my denomination (the ELCA) is that they often seem to try to do the same thing in a new way. Many of them, anyway.

By “same thing,” I mean that these new mission starts seek to establish (or renew) a congregation with a building and a full time pastor and worship and Bible studies and social gatherings and service projects and the whole nine yards. Good stuff. Holy stuff. The stuff that churches on our continent have been made of for a hundred years and more. The kind of stuff that formed me as a Christian and contributed to the kind of pastor that I am today.

Of course, these new starts seek to inject a new type of DNA into this established model of church. A DNA that takes seriously the changing landscape of America – a landscape that is richly multi-religious. A landscape that includes a rapidly growing group of people who do not identify with any religion at all. A landscape that includes a new – and less secure – economic reality for young people. A landscape that includes a culture which doesn’t necessarily value joining organizations. And we can go on with the descriptors of the new realities, but we won’t. For sure, the landscape today is significantly different than the post-Word War II era which birthed or shaped so many of our established suburban congregations.

To be sure, some of these new mission start congregations are not seeking simply to inject a new DNA into the old, established model. Some of these congregations are departing from the established model in that they do not seek to have their own dedicated building, but instead seek to only ever rent space, or meet in public spaces. And some of these ministries don’t intend to ever have their own space, nor do they ever intend to be self sufficient financially. They build into their ministry structure an expectation to receive mission support dollars from the denomination, from partners in ministry, and from members of the broader community. And yet others are ministries that are starting out as arts or social service organizations, or even as small not-for-profit businesses, that are led in and with and by faith. Great stuff. Amazing stuff.

I’m at the very beginning of part way down a road of exploration of another model of ministry (even as I have yet to learn much more about these other models I’ve observed already). I’ve been walking down this road for the past few years.

For the past several years I’ve served in established congregations. Wonderful congregations. Faithful congregations. Congregations with good and holy people doing good and holy work. Yet each of these congregations has had struggles around maintaining the institution, challenges supporting the received model of ministry. From facility costs (mortgage and facility maintenance), to having the resources to pay for staff, to identifying and cultivating leaders for the various constitutionally-mandated committees and ministries, these congregations each struggled in some way to address the differing ministry needs called for by the established model of congregational ministry.

Many of the church leadership and administration books I’ve read over the years have been about doing the established model in a better, or in a new, way. I see this, too, in what some of our mission start congregations are doing. A modified, and perhaps fresh, way of doing congregational ministry. Surely we need this. The established model of ministry is not going away any time soon, and it needs to be done well, to be refreshed, to be renewed.

But … what models exist, or have yet to be explored, for doing church in a post-establishment, less centralized, more diffuse kind of way? Something more along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, Scouts, or Little League … something with some coordination, of course, but with fewer institutional trappings, and with a structure deeply imbedded in the community? Something vaguely like the house churches of the Book of Acts or of modern day China? Something that would perhaps challenge our established ecclesiology and understanding of ordination, while being nimble enough to scatter and gather in various small corners of our communities …

I’m exploring, because I love the church, its mission, and its message. While I have serious concerns about the viability of the current way we tend to “do” church, I have no doubt that God will continue to bless the church and make the Gospel known, to be faithful to God’s people and rebirth the church in a variety of ways for a new day. The church wasn’t always organized with congregations led by full-time clergy meeting in large facilities on multi-acre lots. Over the centuries the church has had other ways of carrying out its God-given mission, and in each era the church has flourished with multiple models of ministry at the same time.

I’m excited to explore – and to join in – some new ways of doing church in this new day.

“Joining God in the Neighborhood”

I was very excited to see Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan J. Roxburgh arrive from Amazon. Please know that I didn't order the book and wasn't anticipating its arrival. My wife, a seminary professor, ordered it. However, upon reading the second paragraph on the back of the book, I knew I had to read it:

Missional calls you to reenter your neighborhood and community to discover what the Spirit is doing there – to start with God's mission – and join in, shaping your local church around that mission. With inspiring true stories and a solid biblical base, this is a book that will change lives and communities as its message is lived out.

It was a few years ago, when I worked for Augsburg Fortress Publishers, that I first began to think of God having a mission in the world. Up until that point, I had always associated mission with the church – that the church is on a mission. I had never really thought of God having a mission. But Kelly Fryer wrote an excellent Bible study series called No Experience Necessary – which I, as an Augsburg Fortress sales representative, was charged with selling. One of the themes of No Experience Necessary was, "God is on a mission to love and save the world." I asked myself, "What does it mean for God to be on a mission in the world … and what does it mean for us to join in that mission?"

Then a few years later, while planning for a mission trip to El Salvador, a North American missionary with extensive work in Central America described the work that God was doing through the church in El Salvador. Our job as North American mission partners, he said, was to join in the mission that God was already accomplishing through the Salvadoran church. Too many North American church groups travel to Latin America to "do mission" in Latin America, assuming that there isn't any mission going on unless they bring it. But the truth is that God has been at work in Latin America, through the local churches, long before we even thought about traveling there for our "mission trip." Thus, our calling is to recognize and participate in what God is already doing, to accompany the Latin American church on its mission.

This idea that God is already at work in the world has been an ongoing theme in my preaching, too. I'm convinced that God is at work within the church walls, yes, but also beyond the church walls. God-things are happening at the altar and font, but also at the corner store, the barber shop, the shelter, the county government offices, the public schools, social service organizations, ten mile runs, and more. The church's mission is to carry out its God-given call to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to baptize and to teach, yes. But its mission must also include seeing where God is at work in the world and to joining in that blessed work.

If this book, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, examines and extends these themes, I'm sure it will be a worthy read.