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May  2015 07
Nurturing Leaders: The 500 Year Re-Birth


Scripture: Acts 15:12-21

Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence) opined that every 500 years the church undergoes a major metamorphosis. Its inner values, morals, dispositions, and the like change. The outer forms—what counts as “church,” the forms of worship, the institutions the church creates, relationships with the rest of society—also change. Prior to the present age, the last metamorphosis was the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Today, writes Tickle, we are in the midst of the next metamorphosis. I agree.

One sign of the times is death. By the early 1980s, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and some theologians became deeply interested in congregational cultures in the U.S. Why then? Because they noticed what we were losing, which was many established congregations.

I was deeply grieved when the congregation that raised me, that sent a dozen of us into ministry, that my parents supported with prayers, presence, gifts, and service over more than five decades closed and was torn down a few years ago. That story could be repeated thousands of times, and will be repeated thousands more over the next decade. Ways of worship are waning, sacred places where births were celebrated and the dead mourned are transmuted into restaurants and condos, and being sold off “for parts.”

Surely, there are real losses. There is something creepy about an abandoned church building (frankly, I also don’t like to see mostly boarded-up main streets as I drive through smaller towns in Oklahoma, or parts of Tulsa; but closed churches are the worst). But not everything that is happening is lamentable!

New forms of church are being birthed. Bar church. Street church. Worship and service, or worship as service.

Ministry leaders, whether in existing congregations or start up communities, are reaching out into neighborhoods, making connections with local businesses, drawing in artists, hosting markets, initiating gardening collectives, organizing persons and groups for social change, passing out ashes in city centers on Ash Wednesday and walking the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday while praying for victims of violence in their cities.

Rather than seeing the low rate of church attendance among millennials as deadly for church, notice that the majority of millennials are reachable with the Good News—the questions are which version of the Good News and through what means are they best reached. Rather than clicking our tongues and shaking our heads at the stories of ignorance (woman talking to a jeweler, looking at a necklace, “Who is that little guy on the cross?”) and the likelihood that the number of persons who are ignorant will grow, we might see ignorance of the gospel as a great opportunity to tell the Jesus story anew, maybe even with a narrative not dominated by substitutionary atonement!

If you consider ministry opportunities such as these, in a time of profound change, then who should we be looking for to lead?

We should be looking for leaders for a movement, in addition to leaders for institutions. Not all institutional expressions of church are dying; there are and will be thriving institutional forms of church. But Christianity in North America is taking on the shape of a movement: vital, effervescent, volatile, widely divergent points of view as to what it is, forms breaking open and breaking apart and breaking forth.

The spectrum of liberal to fundamentalist that dominated the 20th century won’t hold through the 21st. Emergent church types, the astounding change in attitudes toward LBGTQ persons in younger generations, Christians from Third World nations taking up residence in North America, and Pentecostalism (and, as our friend and colleague Ray Owens reminds us, Bapticostals) are complicating the liberal-fundamentalist demarcations.

Ambiguity and conflict are to be expected. Movement leaders should know, feel, develop, exercise, and reflect on their agency. Movement leaders will include people of vision, people of courage, people willing to make mistakes and try again (resilient), people who know how to attend and what to attend to.

Do you know such people? Encourage them. Pray for them—meaning both pray for the leaders you know and pray for more of that type of leader.

What do you think? What are your opinions about the kind of leaders we need “for such a time as this?”

Prayer: Mother God, who brooded over the waters of chaos and brought forth your wondrous creation, create in us a disposition to make the transitions necessary to adapt to your changing world.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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