Where is the church going?

Five things the church needs to do to make a difference in today's world.

James R. Newby, D.Min., is the executive director of the Trueblood Yokefellow Academy, and the minister for faith and learning at the Wayzata Community United Church of Christ in Wayzata, Minnesota.

Einstein was on a train out of New York City. As the conductor came through the passenger coaches, Dr. Einstein began to look frantically through his coat pockets for his ticket. By the time the conductor arrived at where the renowned scientist was seated, he had turned out all the pockets in both his trousers and coat, and was proceeding to search through his briefcase.

The conductor, recognizing Einstein, said "Don't worry Dr. Einstein, I trust you," and proceeded to collect the tickets from the rest of the passengers.

After about 30 minutes, the conductor came back through the car. By this time the Princeton professor was blocking the aisle, down on his hands and knees, looking and feeling for his ticket under seats and baggage.

Seeing him, the conductor repeated, "Dr. Einstein, please don't worry about finding your ticket. I told you that I trust you." Einstein answered, "Young man, this is not an issue of trust. It is an issue of direction. I have no idea where I am going!"

Today as a church, we are faced with the issue of direction. It's a time of changing paradigms and disturbing trends. Magazines like Newsweek run articles such as, "Dead End for Mainline Religion: The Mightiest Protestants are Running out of Money, Members, and Meaning."1 We all struggle to understand why? Where are we going?

In the midst of all die change, we have an opportunity to create a new paradigm for the church. Out of the chaos of the present, Christians can begin the process of renewal. As the old traditions, structures, and ways of doing things begin to crumble, a new ideal of what it means to be a part of the fellowship of Jesus Christ can be formed.

This new ideal can be thought of in terms of the following five movements toward a new paradigm. They by no means represent all that is in the process of change, but they can provide a basis of hope as we move into the future.

Five factors

1. If the church is to make a difference in the new emerging world, it must move from being a pseudo-community to becoming a real community. For too long, many churches have claimed to be communities of faith when in reality they were merely ecclesiastical social clubs.

Acts 4:32 describes what it means to be in real community: "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had every thing in common" (RSV).

To be "of one heart and soul," means that each cares for the other because we are all spiritually interconnected. It means to give freely of what we possess for the good of the whole community of faith.

Followers of Christ are not lone individuals filling the pew. Christians are organically connected, each helping the other to build the kingdom of Christ. In a world built upon the premise of "everybody for him or herself," the Christian has the opportunity to model the better way of "one another." And people today are hungry for this kind of love and caring.

2. If the church is to be a healthy institution, involved in the task of real ministry, it must move from pain repression to pain expression. Like some families, some churches are dysfunctional. Many churches have repressed years of corporate pain. John Savage says: "Strong emotions not worked through build over time."2 If these emotions are not expressed, then they can sap the energy that should be used for creative mission and ministry.

In his book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen says, "The minister is called to recognize the sufferings of his time in his own heart . .. his service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks."3 To raise the issue of corporate pain within the life of the church, pastors need to be willing to share their own pain, and acknowledge that they are, indeed, wounded healers.

3. The leaders of the church of the future must move from a position of the stoic authoritarian leader, to the servant leader. Jesus spoke the most revolutionary sentence of all time when He said, "The Son of man came not to be served but to serve'" (Matt. 20:28, RSV). This pronouncement of His purpose turned the world's under standing of leadership completely upside down.

Jesus was, indeed, a leader. His fol lowers called him "Master." He was, however, a "servant leader," and a "servant master." I have sometimes wondered whether Jesus would have wanted to be called "Reverend" Jesus or "Dr." Jesus. Somehow that just doesn't sound right. The servant master rejected the world's understanding of pride, power, and prestige. Are we not called to do likewise?

4. The emerging new church paradigm should move from a focus on worship, to a focus on ministry. In an interview I conducted with Elton Trueblood for my book, Between Peril and Promise, he said, "It gives me hope that in some places people see that ministry is actually more significant than worship, . . . Worship we have always had, and I suppose always ought to have. . . . But ministry is Christian."4

The idea that we gather chiefly to prepare for ministry in the world is a powerful idea. Page after page of the New Testament focuses on ministry. In our day, however, the worship service has become a substitute for ministry, leaving the "church attender" with the feeling that his or her Christian duty is accomplished for the week. The new paradigm which is emerging should focus on ministry.

5. The church of the future should move from the ministry of a few, to the ministry of all. Although an under standing of "the priesthood of all believers" has been a part of the church since Martin Luther and, with few exceptions, every successive Christian generation since then has sought to make this understanding a part of its practice, we are still struggling to make it work.

At the present, ministry is not something that is understood as involving the whole people of God. And most clergy seem unable to help laity to identify in specific ways how they can link their faith with their work-a-day world.

An old Quaker story tells about a visitor coming into the silence of a Friends' Meeting for worship and ask ing the person sitting next to him, "What time does the service begin?" The Quaker's response: "When the worship is over." This is an important story in the genre of understanding the ministry of all Christians. Service, i.e. ministry, is everyone's task. If we do not connect our personal life experience to our biblical faith we can be highly religious personally without being the Christian minister's God is calling each of us to be.

Where are we going?

So where are we going? I would like to think that we are moving . . .

  • From pseudo-community to real community,
  • From pain repression to pain expression,
  • From stoic authoritarian leader ship to servant leadership,
  • From a focus on worship to a focus on ministry, and
  • From the ministry of the few to the ministry of all.

These moves can help to create a renewed spiritual vitality, and a new paradigm for the church. It is a positive response to a new generation of Christian seekers.

1 See Newsweek, August 9, 1993.

2 John Savage, "Corporate Pain: What Can We Do About It?" in Quaker Life Magazine, September 1991.

3 Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Doubleday, 1972), xvi.

4 James R. and Elizabeth Newby, Between Peril and Promise (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 13, 14.

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James R. Newby, D.Min., is the executive director of the Trueblood Yokefellow Academy, and the minister for faith and learning at the Wayzata Community United Church of Christ in Wayzata, Minnesota.

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