The Future of Church
‘It’s like thinking outside the box, without the box!’
I heard this at an online clergy conference, a few months into the 2020 pandemic. The ‘box’ he meant was the church building itself. He was connecting to our grief and confusion about worshiping online.
But I don’t know.
Between you and me, I’ve had LOTS of clergy fantasize out loud about what it would be like if their buildings disappeared!
Truly, they love the church, and they love its sacred spaces. They love their congregations.
But for decades now, they have felt the burden of decline.
How much energy they use keeping everything like it always has been, rather than really connecting people with the love of God.
We don’t really want to lose our buildings, but lots of us would not mind losing the box of institutional expectations that keeps us from serving as we are truly called. Especially since fewer and fewer congregations can afford full-time clergy service.
And suddenly we find ourselves outside of ALL the boxes.
In some ways, this is exhilarating – and in some, terrifying.
Where do we go from here?
When I look at how the church has been struggling for decades, and the sudden radical change of not meeting in person, I see 4 areas of re-imagination…
1. Digital Ministry
This seems like a no-brainer! We have all become Digital Ministers in the past couple of years. But as we ease back into in-person ministry, we want to keep digital in the forefront.
But how? And why?
We are wiring our churches for excellent wifi and designating ‘Ministers of Technology’.
And … it seems like the time to consider how Digital IS Ministry.
How our virtual space is like our physical space, and how we are called to show up there, make it sacred and beautiful, and carry a message of hope through it.
It’s also how we understand producing content, using tech tools for organization, administration, and communication, and how we truly open the digital church doors to those who are not church members, but who are longing to know God.
It’s not just technology – it’s what we hope to build with it.
2. Clergy as Faith Practitioners
Many clergy already feel stifled being ‘CEOs of small non-profits’ – concerned more about the administrative aspects of running an organization (out of necessity), and having less energy for the spiritual leadership we are called to.
Now we are considering how to be doctors of faith in a spiritually suffering world. We serve congregations – AND we serve the wider church, and the wider world.
We can do this in ways that are spiritually and practically sustainable for ministry. Entrepreneurial ministry, clergy on contract (especially with small congregations), less organizational structure and fewer demands.
It’s time to focus on what is most important in ministry, and let go of administrative constraints that aren’t serving us.
3. Congregations as Entrepreneurial Evangelists
Have you noticed how many people are watching our online worship, prayer, and study? Even if it’s just for 30 seconds, that’s 30 seconds they wouldn’t spend coming through the doors of your building.
Online church means we are not just a community gathered for worship, prayer, and service; we are the core group of disciples reaching out to those who are searching for God’s love in the midst of chaos.
What do they find when they meet us?
We are already seeing a ‘post-denominational’ culture, and now we’re seeing a ‘post-congregational’ culture. We can think about new ways of gathering community, new ideas around membership (like belonging to more than one congregation at a time being the norm), and increasing relationships both online and in-person.
4. Bringing Good News to those who long to hear it
We belong to a faith that was born out of sudden tragedy – and insists that love will not be contained, even by death. We know what to do when everything falls apart.
Now is the time to believe. And share!
What we have to say about love, peace, forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and resurrection in a broken, hurting, world is priceless.
And it cannot wait.
It’s time to re-imagine church. We are already doing it out of necessity. We can keep doing it out of audacity.
The box we are thinking outside of isn’t the buildings. It’s the institutional mindset.
It’s the thinking that says that we have to be IN the building in order for it to be ministry. It’s the box that says only salaried ministry, paid by communities, is legitimate clergy work. It’s the closed doors of congregations who can’t make it in the traditional model, and clergy who fear being permanently out of work.
We can think outside the boxes that limit our imagination and contribute to our decline.
And we can do it together.
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