The church is undergoing a huge paradigm shift.
While methodologies and strategies have been changing since the followers of Jesus were first called Christians at Antioch, Phyllis Tickle and others have pointed out that approximately every 500 years, the church undergoes a paradigm shift, such as the monumental season of change we have been experiencing for the past 20-30 years. And now, to make things a bit more complicated, it seems that the global health pandemic has put that paradigm shift in overdrive.
While we are accustomed to constant changes in our culture, such as the switch from rotary vinyl records to CDs to digital, or the transformation from rotary phones to cordless phones to smartphones, we tend to struggle a little more with changes in the church.
In his book Lasting Impact, Carey Nieuwhof suggests: “If the change inside the church isn’t equal to or greater than the change outside our walls, greater irrelevance is inevitable.”
A few months ago, following a sermon where I mentioned positive ways to navigate these changes, a faithful worshipper asked, “What are the things that are not changing?”
Since much has been written about the things that are changing, including service times, worship order, architecture, staff assignments and space utilization, to help us navigate the numerous changes in church life, I think it is important to highlight a few things that are not subject to change:
1. The power of the gospel.
Although the methods of communicating the gospel must be continually upgraded, the heart of the good news will not change. Because the good news is life-shaping, it is imperative for the church to keep the good news good.
2. The centrality of Jesus.
A church is not an institution but a community of Jesus followers, and Jesus must continue to be our model and mentor for ministry.
3. The value of gathering for worship.
Whether meeting in-person or online, faith is nurtured and nourished when believers gather for corporate worship and collaborative learning. Times and locations for gatherings may be more flexible, but it is still important for Jesus followers not to “forsake the assembling of yourselves together.”
4. The benefit of the spiritual disciplines.
The regular practice of prayer, Bible study, worship, thanksgiving, and other disciplines will continue to be vital to spiritual growth.
5. The significance of our offering.
Giving generously of our time, talent, and treasure will continue to be the fuel that energizes ministry.
6. The importance of spiritual gifts.
Churches will continue to need members to exercise their spiritual gifts. Gifts of leadership/administration, preaching/teaching, service, and encouragement are needed more than ever.
7. The practice of hospitality.
Whether welcoming a guest to a worship service or rendering aid to a person in distress, hospitality will continue to be a primary expression of God’s love and grace.
8. Local and global missional initiatives.
Churches will continue to share God’s love in nearby and faraway places, inspired by the Acts 1:8 description of reaching into “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth.”
9. Loving your neighbor.
On multiple occasions, Jesus encouraged his followers to “love your neighbor.” Building positive relationships with our neighbors will continue to be a primary expression of our faith.
10. The leadership of the Spirit.
In John 16, Jesus told his disciples that the spirit would be their comforter, teacher, and helper. Years later, we can be confident that the spirit will teach us the ways to minister in a changing world and will help us discern the upgrades we need to make for our churches to be more healthy and more effective.
I am convinced that we are at the front end of a multitude of changes in the way we do church.
Like advanced weather forecasts, there are many predictions envisioning what church may look like five, 10 or 15 years from now. Yet, I don’t think anyone knows for sure what any specific community of faith will look like in the future.
The only thing of which I am fairly certain of is that the church of tomorrow will not look much like the church of yesterday.
And as Bill Wilson, founder of the Center for Healthy Churches, reminds us: “This is a pivotal moment for the church in America. It is a challenging time but also an exciting time. We are not just stewards of this space. We are stewards of this moment.”
(Barry Howard currently serves as the pastor at the Church at Wieuca in North Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist with the Center for Healthy Churches. He and his wife, Amanda, reside in Brookhaven, Georgia.)