A Time For Change
The Christian faith has an amazing history. It has not only survived theological, philosophical and geopolitical upheavals through the millennia, but through Holy Spirit–inspired strength and resourcefulness it has demonstrated an astounding rate of growth, and has had a profound influence on the world around it. From the cross to the present day, it continues to change and shape the hearts of both people and nations. That being said, across the globe today the Christian faith is coming under immense pressure from both internal and external influences.
These forces are demanding that we re-examine the way in which we as Christians live and minister in this age. The forces at work are many and varied – postmodern thinking, globalisation, the rise of militant Islam, New Age spirituality, environmental decline, to name but a few. What it amounts to is this: the eras into which both Catholic and Protestant Christianity were born are no longer. The worlds from which they derived their identity and got their bearings are on their way out. Some would say that these ‘Christian worlds’ are already gone. A new world is here, one that is unfamiliar, even foreign to us.
We need a radical shift at the core of what we call church today.
As we will see in the pages ahead, the same issues and challenges that are found in a local church setting will, over time, need to be addressed in every form and expression of church – including questions about leadership, structure, authority, resource allocation and more. One cannot simply declare that they are radical and reformed because they don’t meet on Sunday in a building. The challenge we are facing in responding to our world, and in answering what Paul describes as the cry of creation (Rom. 8:19, 22), calls for much, much more than just changing the ways in which we meet.
At this time and into the future, the new expressions or forms of the gathered church will, no doubt, be many and varied. They will have diverse models of leadership and practice, and be found operating in many settings. Some will be more organized or structured, and others will be more diverse and organic. There are certain things, however, that I believe will distinguish these different expressions of church from much of what we have known and experienced to date.
The people that make up these communities and networks will know that they and not any institution, are the church; the body of Christ. They will know that the whole of creation, which includes the areas of family, business, health, education, the arts and more, has been given to them as the context for their life, work, worship and fellowship.
We are currently in a season of great change and with that there naturally comes a good (and to my mind healthy) degree of confusion. Today there are those who struggle with the institution of church, so much so that they feel they need to leave it altogether. Certain ones of these can become critical or destructive in their influence on others, always pointing the finger at the ‘organized’ church. They know what they do not like about the institutional church but still they find it difficult to articulate any clear alternative.
There are also many Christians who are finding a purposeful relationship with God, and other believers, outside the institutional church system. Many others, of course, remain committed to their local church. They know that no shape or community will ever be perfect, but they are aware that the gathering of the household of God is an important part of their faith–life journey. Among this number are the many leaders of local churches and denominations. They are committed to their congregations; listening for the voice of God, trying to discern and enact His wisdom for this time in history.
The situation is complex and still unfolding. We may differ in our emphasis, but it is essential that we continue to extend grace to each other at this time. No matter what our differences there is still only ‘one body’ of Christ.
As we do this, we will find, as has been the case down throughout the history of the church, that it is pioneers, those often pesky ‘radicals’, who have been used by God to goad the existing church culture into a new season. Martin Luther, for example, was a complex, brave and innovative shaker of the institution of church. The result of all of these character traits (and more) was significant ‘reformation’ throughout history.
Time and time again, a small group of agitators can be seen drawing the body of Christ into a new era. Breaking it free from excessive control by man-made structures, or constructs and allowing it to become more of what God intended. Again, those who are saying ‘yes’ to Jesus but ‘no’ to organized church are not the main issue or the main problem in the current climate. Their ranks are made up of people who love the body of Christ and want to see it become all that it is meant to be for this fallen world.
We need their agitation, their challenge, to move us all into a new creational landscape.
We need to see these ‘agitators’ as a sign of what has to come, rather than as an enemy of what exists at present.