Some years ago, I spent a few days at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, one of my denomination’s most vibrant congregations. The church’s campus, prominently located on the “Miracle Mile” in the heart of downtown, makes a bold architectural statement that – at least to me – speaks volumes about the changing context in which they currently find themselves.
Most of Fourth’s buildings are done in classic Gothic style: vertical lines, soaring arches, stone columns that speak of permanence and tradition. As soon as you exit the side doors of the sanctuary, however, you walk immediately into a very different kind of space in the Gertz Center, the church’s newest building.
The five-story center is built in a very post-modern style of architecture. While its green exterior does echo the patina on the copper elements of its Gothic neighbors, the center’s trapezoidal form and angular projections make a very different visual statement than do the older buildings. These radically different architectural styles are set right next to each other, with no apology for how dissonant they might appear to people walking by.
I walked on the streets surrounding the church, looking for vantage points from which I could see both the old and the new structures at the same time. The experience was something like icon gazing. Seeing these very different buildings set next to each other became a physical representation of a much deeper spiritual reality.
More and more of us who lead churches are realizing that we live in an in-between time when we are have one foot in each of two worlds: the world of tradition – where the way of being church that worked during the past several generations still makes a lot of sense – and the rapidly emerging postmodern, post-Christendom world – in which those older ways of being church don’t seem to work very well at all.
We also sense that living in just one or the other of those worlds isn’t an option.
While still rooted in the great Tradition of the church, we also need to be creating something new. And, at least for a few more generations, both the old and the new are going to have to be set right next to each other.
The reason I was at Fourth was to participate in the NEXT Church conference. Almost 700 people filled the church’s sanctuary for three days, mostly Presbyterian but with a healthy smattering of people from other traditions. We came together to learn, and to be inspired … but mostly to be stretched. Collectively, we were trying to crane our necks around the corner to catch a glimpse of those new forms of church and mission toward which the Spirit is surely luring us.
The schedule gave us an astounding range of opportunities to glimpse that future. We took part in workshops that encouraged us to “fail often, fail rapidly, fail forward” as a methodology for figuring out new forms of ministry. We explored how to collaborate with business, government, and other non-profits to address the “common good” needs of our changing neighborhoods. We had the opportunity to go to sites around Chicago to see concrete experiments congregations are undertaking to test out how to be the church in the particular context of 21st century Chicago.
However, these experiences, in and of themselves, weren’t what was important about the conference. Much more significant was the fact that 700 church leaders were in conversation with one another about what we are starting to see. The conversation itself was more important than any particular idea we took back home.
We live in a liminal time when none of us is has a full picture of the future into which God is leading us. But all of us are beginning to figure out one or two small pieces of that future. We’ve stumbled upon it as we risked trying new forms of mission ourselves. We’ve become aware of it as we talked to a young adult about their heart-felt yearnings and how our current way of being church doesn’t address them. We’ve caught a glimpse of it in our dreams as we sleep.
What we all need are conversation partners – whether at a conference, during the meetings of a regional church body, or among colleagues over a cup of coffee – in which we can share with one another those bits and pieces of the future we are beginning to see. These conversations can become a form of prayerful discernment in which we create a space in which the Spirit can show us the way forward more clearly. By being in conversation with other people yearning for God’s future, we can begin to see more of that God already sees fully.
Who are the conversation partners near you – either geographically or on social media? Who are the neighbors you sense are also craning their necks to see around the corner into God’s future? Invite them into conversation. Open yourselves to the Spirit. See what you begin to notice.