Emerging Paths for Fresh Ministries
The religious and church landscape is definitely shifting today! We have the traditional members and churches, the missional communities of faith, the multi-site congregations, workplace ministries and a growing host of faith-based non-profits and para-church ministries. Now we are discovering a growing population of ‘nones’ (those who are not affiliated with any church), and the ‘dones’ (who once were church leaders and now are ‘done with church but not their faith). I see another group that likely intersects all of these venues…. the churchless believers. Churchless believers are those serious about practicing their faith, but not in traditional churches. I’m confident some will say ‘churchless believers’ are impossible scripturally speaking. I do think it’s a paradox, ironic, and maybe for some, an oxymoron, but it’s here. I believe this new landscape is birthing some emerging paths for fresh ministries that function AS church but not necessarily anchored or inhibited by being IN an institutional church. For many, the walls, traditions, leadership and financial models for ministry are binding rather than releasing. The structures that have served the institutional church well in the past, are now ‘ties that bind’ people, messages of faith and hope and often discourages and drains, rather than energizes, believers of motivation and spiritual maturity.
I can hear, in the back of my mind, those readers who violently disagree with this first paragraph and the very premise of ‘churchless believers’. I also hear the voices of many ‘churchless believers’ I have encountered over the last decade. Those who disagree with ‘churchless believer’ ask, ‘What about the assembling of ourselves together’ command?’ I get that! I also believe the ‘churchless believer’ does assemble and function as people of faith on mission but not assembling in traditional venues. Faith does indeed need community, and it grows through community. So many traditional churches and church leaders get defensive at this point and thus miss the opportunities of emerging paths of ministry. The church doesn’t need defending… the church needs believers on mission rather than just spectators at a ‘performance’ of religious ritual. The faith of some believers has been wounded, if not crushed, by experiences IN church. The faith of the believer is serious, but their experiences are colored drastically by years of experience IN church where mission was sacrificed for maintenance of an institution, where mission was more tied to membership than to those in the world seeking God, and where judgement and preferences preempts issues of justice, mercy, and helping the poorest of the poor, the outcasts and the disenfranchised as modeled in the ministry of Jesus.
Just recently, I had a seasoned churchman, say to me, “I’m through with the church”. His faith was eager for ‘the more’. His energy and mission was to ‘move beyond the norm and expected’. He was looking for a challenge AS church and when he gathered IN church the challenge was not found…only complacency, contentment and often complaints voiced by members who believe church is ‘all about them as opposed to all about the mission of God’. He was now a churchless believer on a mission to reclaim his faith, clarify and recommit to God’s mission for and through him.
If the church can get beyond judgement and defensiveness with ‘churchless believers’ I believe there may be an emerging path for fresh ministries and mission here! My sense is the ‘Spirit is doing a new thing’ yet again! The creative power of the move of God in and through the hearts of believers goes far beyond and goes far deeper than many churches are ready to pursue. The new journey is risky, messy, challenging, overwhelming and thus calls for deep faith; not necessarily more programs IN the building. The emerging journey calls us to discover and become obedient as ‘salt, light and leaven’ in the world. To learn to BE church ‘in the world’. We are not to ‘be of the world, but we are called to be IN the world’ and rarely do we let this ‘little light shine’. We (the church) have hidden our light under the bushel basket in a secure, controlled place. The world today and the deep calling of God today is calling us ‘to the more’, ‘beyond the walls and institutional traditions’ to a fresh place where we follow the Spirit to create new traditions, ways of assembling, funding and experiencing renewal of faith in THIS world.
The institutional church model is threatened by such a new move of the Spirit. We fear our church will not survive: ‘How will we pay the bills if the people don’t come to our church?’; ‘Where will the jobs be for clergy?’; ‘How will we teach the faith to the next generation?’ All are great and valuable questions. What if there are new answers to those valuable questions? I know the church of God will never die! God will use THE church to accomplish the mission of God in the world! The reality today, is that many, many churches are plateaued and are dying because our vision is bound by history rather than HIS STORY! We have become so accustomed and comfortable to our buildings, leadership models and structures that often we miss the move of God in the world because we are so consumed by the institutional church. What if God is building a new church? Doing a new thing? I don’t want to miss it, do you?
There are new communities of faith springing up in a wide variety of places and among a diverse and spiritually thirsty groups of people. ‘Assembling of ourselves together…’ continues to emerge and nurture faith, community and provides forums for worship and equipping. Just recently, in Huffington Post, (8/13/2015) Patrick Vaughn writes about “Are You Fed Up with Church? 30 Million Say ‘Yes!” There’s much to capture one’s excitement and concern about this phenomena. I, for one, believe it provides a forum for innovation, creativity and hope for the future of church. Not just as an institution but for spiritually thirsty, searching and diverse groups of people.
I am not anti-institutional church. However, I am more pro-incarnational church…. Acting on, living into our faith rather than continuing to just talk, preach, and pray about it. Today’s world is calling us to live AS church touching the world in which we live and work. We seem to be more concerned about the aligning with the lectionary and traditions than aligning with the current call of God and the move of the Spirit today. We learn prayers and hymns, and that is great. It would be greater when we live into them in intentional, accountable ways that are celebrated in the community of faith. Fresh faith, fresh wind, fresh fire is available and often operative but rarely valued enough to incorporate into worship and co-missioning practices with people of all ages and at all places in their faith walk. Learning to recognize, validate and equip people all along the journey is critical in today’s culture and demographic. We are still pretending we are living in a ‘church culture’. That is not true in most communities today and will not be true in most tomorrow.
I am keenly aware that many will disagree and be threatened at even the discussion of this because we value church as we know it. I sometimes find myself wondering if all of the downsizing driven by demographic, cultural and economic shifts might be God’s way of returning the church to God’s mission in the world? Seems to me that so many are so concerned about preserving positions, denominations and churches that we might be missing the fresh move of the Spirit. Churchless believers are really not churchless at all… simply experiencing and creating church in different ways and places than the typical institution. What will it take to be courageous, faithful, creative entrepreneurs in the faith today?
I’m going to continue this writing exploring practical themes, solutions, and opportunities that may just be emerging through ‘nones’; ‘dones’ and ‘churchless believers’. I hope you will provide feedback, ideas and experiences as I continue my journey. I’m taking risks here, I know. But I also know it’s time, and it is a risk someone, somewhere must take. I recently enjoyed a phone conversation with Josh Packard who is providing us the research on the ‘dones’ in his book Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are Done with church but not their faith, 2015. Community can happen, we just need to take initiative. After all, are we not people of faith? Josh and I agreed something is happening, and we want to be part of it. Do you?
Join me for a free conference call around this topic September 30, 2015 4pm ET. Email me for call information [email protected] or watch my facebook page.
Read further reflection on churchless believers in the BNG article Churches must be creative to meet coming ‘Boomer wave’.