Our recent CHC column on the future of denominational entities engendered a wide range of responses. This one is from Bob Dale, noted church/denominational strategist and thought-leader.
It’s no secret. America’s denominational structures are steadily losing momentum: Downsizing missionary staffs, shrinking giving levels, selling properties, and disappearing financial reserves are common. These challenges aren’t new, and they’re consistent across America’s faith families.
Religious leaders are anxiously looking for practical solutions; but, our structural silos are empty. May I offer a modest “Stop/Look/Listen” approach for finding fresh futures?
For starters, our theological anchors hold. The Gospel is powerful, God’s kingdom continues to unfold, and ministry is still needed. Albert Einstein wisely observed that we can’t solve today’s problems with the same thinking that first created those problems. Our future demands that we adopt new ways of thinking and ask new questions.
LOOK: Focus “Living” Eyes
Discovery is often a matter of having our eyes see what’s already before us. Remember the encounter on the Emmaus Road? Over the journey, the disciples finally developed insight and saw the Living Lord (Luke 24:31).
Traditionally, our Baptist structure has mirrored the Industrial Age that invented it a century ago. Our structure is centralized, compartmentalized, and specialized–essentially a mechanical assembly line. As a friend once observed, “They put a gumball in the pipeline in Nashville, and it rolls all the way across the country to my church.” Baptists built a machine that produced organizations, programs, and church rhythms. Now, the machines are rusting out.
Actually, this pervasive mechanical way of thinking began to wane late last century, and it’s too late for superficial overhauls. Currently, industrialism is being replaced by a more organic approach, a living mode of thinking. But, Baptists haven’t heeded this deep change yet. When God is a life-giving, growth-oriented gardener, inventing a new machine is not apt to redeem our world. We need more greenhouses, not mere garages.
What does a living, organic mind set look like? What if we lived out Jesus’ stories of seeds, soils, sowers, seasons, vines, wine skins, and harvests? What if we really believed that Christ’s Church is alive and ripe for future seasons?
LISTEN: Sharpen “Seasonal” Ears
We also need faith-full ears. Jesus pointed to the wisdom of attentive listening (Luke 8:8, 14:35) for the harvest. New, seasonal questions–not more data–will show us God’s direction.
Living communities naturally move through seasons. God’s Creation is always on the move, and we are healthiest on the edges where partners join hands during new growing seasons. Each season has its own unique opportunities. What can seasonal ears hear about the future from living churches?
- When growth stops: using winter’s fallow seasons
- During dormant periods, what can we discover about our strengths and blind spots?
- What is healthy and needs to be stewarded?
- Since fruit only grows on new wood, what is ready for pruning?
- How are we preparing for new growth seasons?
- What new seeds and new seedbeds need to be considered next?
- When seeds germinate: marveling at spring’s beginnings
- How faithful have we been in planting good seeds in good soils?
- Like the Sower in the parable, when have we generously risked many seeds in faith?
- How do we appreciate timing and patiently wait for God to awaken new life?
- How does our evangelism appeal to non-believers? Across people groups?
- When growth needs cultivating: nurturing summer’s potential
- Accused of “dipping and then dropping them,” how are we cultivating disciples and leaders?
- How are we nurturing faith formation across entire lifespans? Across generations and in family clusters?
- How are we linking in-reach and outreach? Belief and behavior? Discipleship and missions?
- When harvest ripens: treasuring fall’s yields
- How have we carefully gathered God’s harvests? Called for more harvesters?
- How have we preserved the best of the harvest to seed new seasons?
- How do we guard against eating our future potential?
Our ears can tune into the cadences of living churches’ ministries. We can hear opportunity in Creation’s turning of seasons. Change happens naturally when seasons overlap and boundaries open. The book of Acts demonstrates how the Spirit’s seasons unfold.
Congregations in the Lead
Thinking theologically, congregational life and ministry were central in the New Testament. Across history, faith families elevated structures until churches faced denominations. That organizational model is now correcting. In an organic world, living churches anchor faith, and churches invite denominations to look and listen with them. Together, new and creative partnerships are emerging.
Healthy living congregations–small and large, young and old, rural and urban, poor and affluent–remain our best faith labs. Churches and denominations can focus on organic growth; they can work seasonally for God’s Kingdom. The future of living congregations–if we Stop, Look, and Listen–is limited only by our faith and imaginations. Living, organic churches and their denominational partners with living eyes and seasonal ears can serve well.