When I began full time ministry in 1992, my call was to help churches facing difficulty to become again a vital and transforming presence in people’s lives. My frame of reference was the church as the indispensable container for experiencing, nurturing and sharing God’s love. We just needed healthy churches and everything would be fine. People would come, receive an extravagant welcome, and grow in Christian love. Worship attendance would grow; sustainability would be assured. Even as we reached out in Christian service, the church doors would be wide open for the expected new members coming in. No rush: ministers just needed to settle in and get to know the congregation for three years or so before suggesting any consequential changes.
In keeping with that frame of reference for ministry, lay leaders and pastors could team up to lead small incremental changes. These changes would carefully leverage the church system to a better place; then take a rest, build in the change, celebrate and see where the next leverage point might be to continue moving toward church vitality. This approach seemed deeply respectful of people who had given so much to the church and didn’t want to lose that which they had worked so hard to support. A major concept to be addressed was “homeostasis.” In a nut shell, we appreciate internal church stability; destabilization is a threat to be resisted in positive and negative ways for the good of the order; and change is challenging.
Fast forward to the spring of 2014. I’m in Berkeley, California, researching material for a paper on what the church faces “today” and meeting with the President of The Graduate Theological Union who helped sponsor my work. I’m sitting in his office espousing my grand theory of slow, deliberate, incremental systemic change anchored in the culture of the church. He looks at me kindly, holds up his hand and stops me. He says, in effect, that the world has changed and is changing at an even higher rate of speed. Quoting others, he observes that we live in a “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world”: and this world is the context for ministry.
The real work of ministry is helping congregations live and thrive in the midst of an accelerating world of change. There are no small increments and there is no time to sit back as we are faced with one change after another. The new homeostasis is learning to feel stable and capable in the midst of change, because there is no rest. Rather than looking for the institution to ensure stability, it becomes a spiritual practice to grow our intimate relationship with Christ in the core of our being in the midst of this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. It’s a form of core strengthening analogous to a physical exercise program.
But, whoa!! My church leadership model suddenly had gone to hell. The world, our community contexts for ministry, were changing at such a rapid rate and creating such cultural instability that our safe, stable, time tested version of church was less—or no longer—relevant. The very environment in which we thought we would be doing ministry and from which the church pews would once again be filled no longer existed.
At the time of my discussion in Berkeley, it occurred to me to ask, “Given that the institution needs dramatic, unimaginable changes in order to carry out its mission, where could we turn for help?” That question took me back to Portland, Oregon in 2008. I was executive director of a Methodist mission effort to create a collaborative community center, urban school, after school program, and low-income child care: all of it provided in high-rise transitional housing. As part of that work, I attended a futuring workshop sponsored by Portland Public Schools. One presenter represented a consulting firm that specialized in the application of Strategic Foresight methodology to learning: identifying key drivers of change, assessing implications for learning in the coming years in light of the drivers of change and locating those who were responding to the drivers of change now to shape learning. In a conversation afterwards, the presenter informed me that her husband was an Episcopal Priest who was trying to apply the consulting firm’s methodology to churches in the changing world and spiritual ecosystem.
When my leadership model crashed in 2014, I tracked down that consulting firm. We entered into a collaborative effort to see how their methodology for assessing drivers of change might apply to church. This led to a joint publication on the Recombinant Church Consulting web page entitled, “Transforming Church for North America’s Evolving Spiritual Ecosystem.” We found that, like schools and school districts, churches and denominations need to be open to a recombinant process to negotiate, minister in and shape the unfolding spiritual landscape. Four pathways were identified for creating the recombinant church: cultivate spiritual cultures that support individuals in pursing authenticity and spiritual awakening; support the development of diverse spiritual structures and professional roles; recast church offerings to extend beyond institutional boundaries and support individuals in pursing customized spiritual journeys; and lead toward the creation of a flexible and radically personalized spiritual ecosystem. The anticipated personalized spiritual ecosystem includes deep and meaningful community – just not church as we understand it. I continue to find this work and methodology invaluable as a way to see both the opportunities and the challenges the church faces in our evolving spiritual ecosystem.
Spin on ahead to 2018. The pace of life is getting faster, more complex and ambiguous. The Age of Acceleration and the Age of Manufactured Identity, among others, were proclaimed. Algorithms, biotechnology, block chains, entanglement, emergence, non-duality, the “Universal Christ” and other concepts swirl around our lives opening questions as to what it even means to be human. The materialists laugh at our antiquated metaphors for God and snicker at our attempts to find transcendent meaning. The spiritual hungry put their playlists together without the help of the church; they find companions on the journey outside the church and write books on how to be a Christian without going to church. Love and justice are practiced, and often no word of God is spoken.
Confronted with what’s going on, I am reminded of Margaret Wheatley’s insight: “Facing reality is an empowering act – it can liberate our mind and heart to discern how best to use our power and influence in service of this time.” It’s an act of love for the Gospel and the church to face reality. It’s an act of courage to experiment on the knife edge of uncertainty in our changing world and spiritual ecosystem. Welcome to the new world of Spirit-led possibility – the opportunities are everywhere. They just aren’t usually in the church container. The opportunities abound as we move church out among our communities, and let the traditional notions of Koinonia, Diakonia and Kerygma explode like a pod of seeds to root and rise in new and unexpected ways and places. Our work in part is to assist in the explosion, to listen for seeds taking root, and when asked, to help with the watering, pruning and tending.
We have the power to notice, to listen and start anew, to fashion a joyous response to the world as it is. It’s a form of death and resurrection. It is also the work of salvation, when salvation is understood as the core Christ-centered value of supporting and enabling creation and each human being to become fully alive. There may or may not be death in the church organization. But the resurrection will arise in the midst of our communities as we dance with our neighbor on the knife edge of uncertainty with courage and joy. It is here we will find the beloved community.
 Meier, George. Rationale for a United Church of Canada Microfinance Fund Program. New Denver, 2015 pp. 15-18. http://www.heartsrest.c/uprisings/post-christendom-stewdship-and-micro-finance; Butler Bass, Diana. Grounded. New York: HarperCollins, 2015 pp. 21-23, 236-266.