What does it really mean that the church exists for mission?
THE NEW FUTURE OF THE CHURCH
In a sense, all cultural change is forced upon us. It comes whether we like it or not. And in time we have to adapt. On a local level, locked in the context of one time and place, the church does not appear to be particularly good at change. Few people would see churches as especially fluid, responsive or adaptive. But when you pan out, even just a bit, you see something quite different.
Actually, the church is one of the most (if not the most) adaptive systems the world has ever seen. From a systems theory perspective, the church presents more like a superorganism than an institution. Our propensity to split/divide/fragment over doctrinal, stylistic and relational reasons is strangely a feature of our adaptive, contextual and empowering nature. Despite all our attempts to build the church as an empire, it just keeps finding a way to splinter into smaller, contextual, passionate expressions of the kingdom of God (imperfect though they all are).
As much as we would like to build an ecclesial Tower of Babel, it seems we continue to be dispersed and confounded by our many church languages. On a personal and practical leadership level, this can be excruciatingly frustrating. We are trying to build something big and beautiful for God, and it just keeps getting crushed and broken into pieces. I know that pain and frustration very well. But he may yet be the one behind it.
Still, it is the broken pieces that reveal something unexpected. It is in the pieces that we find the DNA of the church preserved, even renewed. It is in the pieces we find the priesthood of all believers asserting itself, the Spirit of God being poured out again on all flesh (even sinners who disagree with us). And perhaps most importantly of all, we find the church being reshaped to fit the mission of God in new places, new people and new contexts.
In her delightful book The Up Side of Down, Megan McArdle shares the surprising results of her survey on “the best thing that ever happened to me.” While expected answers like “the birth of my first child,” “meeting my spouse,” “getting my dream job” did occur, these positive experiences only made up about one quarter of the responses. Instead, most people said things like “divorce,” “my husband’s affair,” “cancer,” “getting fired,” “prison” and “dyslexia.” There is something about tragedy and loss that does not just destabilize us but also potentially frees us. It is in the broken pieces of our lives that we find something even better.
Psychologists call this post-traumatic growth (PTG).
To find a way of being the church without our buildings and without our large gatherings was coming anyway. That writing has been on the wall for some time. Still, no one would have predicted that it would happen in an instant. And I did not expect it would come on the back of tragedy.
This forced change is not happening in a vacuum. It is accompanied by waves of collective anxiety, spiritual confusion, financial hardship and even death. For that reason, it is hard and possibly even inappropriate to celebrate. But for every hardship I see, there are other stories of creativity, courage, concern and love from Jesus’ people. There are more than a few reasons to be both hopeful and thankful for what could come from it all. So, while we keep one eye on the pain people are suffering and respond as compassionately and thoroughly as we possibly can, we keep another eye on the possibilities that a reboot like this affords us.
It is right to believe that some version of ecclesial post-traumatic growth is not only possible but also promised to us. Nassim Taleb coined the term “antifragile” which is the shape my prayers have taken these days. He argues that there are systems that are fragile. When under threat, crisis or trial, they simply break. Easy enough to imagine. Also, there are systems that are robust. When under threat or trial, they hold on, they survive. Also conceivable, but not I think, our highest hope. There are also systems that are antifragile. These systems come alive and thrive in crisis, becoming the best version of themselves.
This is a profoundly apt picture of what the church can and should be.
I have written elsewhere about the future of the church. It has been both my prediction and my hope that the basic unit of the church would become something smaller and networked. This vision for the church is not born from crisis but from theological commitment, contextual analysis and apostolic hope. Yet it is very much accelerated by the dynamics of this current crisis. So, to all my brothers and sisters who feel nervous about what may be coming next, maybe you could take some comfort from those of us who see the church not just surviving but shining, not just reluctantly adjusting but prophetically re-forming in the days to come.
Here are a few reasons to be hopeful (even rejoice?), a few ways in which the changes being forced upon us may actually be changes that could magnify the work God is doing in our age.
WE ARE BEING FORCED TO RETHINK WHAT THE CHURCH REALLY IS.
Most church leaders believe their churches are more than buildings and gatherings. But our philosophical commitment to the church as something that cannot be contained by Sunday alone is being seriously tested. For many of us this time is deeply troubling as we find ourselves fighting for our existential lives. When we take away this one core thing, what is left?
As painful as the question may be, I can barely think of a more important question for church leaders to ask. We have seen a slow awakening in recent years to the limitations of Sunday-centered church. Yet, still so many cling to it because it still sort of works. Until now. Again, this is only an acceleration of a change that was already coming.
Recently I heard Alan Hirsch use the metaphor of learning to play chess without your queen. If you learn to play without the most important piece, you will likely lose games for a while. But you will also really learn what the other pieces can do. Of course, the queen is a proxy for Sunday morning services and the buildings that contain them. We have lost the queen and barely know we have these other pieces, let alone know what they can do. Learning how to use the other pieces on the board is another great gift this time affords.
His point, I think, was that once you learn to play without the queen you can reintroduce her, using her in a completely different way. When gatherings become an option again, I am sure there will be some who breathe a sigh of relief and move back into dependence on that old model. But others will be liberated by the experience. Now seeing the whole board, they will be able to play without the same dependence on big gatherings, letting a fuller picture of the church guide our missional and ecclesial imagination.
WE ARE BEING FORCED TO REMEMBER THAT WE ARE CREATIVE.
Once upon a time I was a decent tennis player. The problem is, I have not played for years, and as the memory of that skill fades, so does my confidence. Not long ago, I played a match. At first, I was terrible. Truly bad. My footwork was all wrong, my swing felt awkward. On one return of serve, I hit the ball off the frame of my racquet, sending it over the fence and me on the walk of shame to retrieve it. I was so tense about the whole thing. I was really overthinking it. I probably apologized to my opponent three times in the first five games.
But something happened midway through that first set: I started to remember not just how to play but how to think about playing. I shed some of the anxiety of being out of practice, or playing the last point poorly, and just started to play. I didn’t lose another game. It turns out I am still pretty good at tennis. I had just forgotten.
The church is a bastion of creativity. This strength lies latent in every congregation, every expression, in every place. We have just forgotten. Trusting in proven ministry algorithms and “best practices” has not just inhibited our creative powers—it has given us amnesia. Hospitals were our idea. Universities were our idea. Equal human rights was our idea. The best that Western civilization has to offer finds its roots in the creativity of the church. That is, it finds its roots in the dual contemplation of the face of Christ Jesus and the needs of the world.
This crisis is forcing us to play again. And we may lose the first few games only to find our swing, remember our confidence and revel again in ministry as art. If we seize the chance we are being given, we will not just solve the unprecedented problems we are facing, we will learn that we are actually very good at solving problems.
WE ARE BEING FORCED TO DECLUTTER OUR CHURCH SYSTEMS.
The cultlike fascination with minimalism in the last few years may be uncovering a longing in the modern psyche for simplicity. We sense that our lives are more difficult, even overwhelming at times because of the volume and complexity of the demands we feel are placed on us. This also rings true for the church. In a time when the absence of a program, initiative or allocated resources toward really any issue someone out there cares about can bring ridicule and criticism, we keep trying to do more. Mission inspired by anxiety leaves us not with a growing portfolio of kingdom work, but missional clutter.
By asking us to contain this virus, we have also been asked to consider the life-changing magic of tidying up our church systems. There is now a sudden reprieve from feeling we must do everything. Yet, we know we must do something. These dual urges are a consultant’s dream. The gift of uncertainty is the gift of time and space to ask, What really matters? What is actually good news to the people around us? What can we do well? What are we actually hearing God’s call to do?
These are missionary questions, bringing us ultimately back to the beating heart of Jesus. Perhaps the most exhilarating possibility of all is that this kind of sifting, this kind of fire, purifies us. It leaves us with a version of the church that is wholehearted in worship and sincere in community because it has been renewed in mission. It is precisely the wounds a time like this inflicts that serve to reset and resend us into a wounded world. We find ourselves again as we remember Emil Brunner’s timeless admonition, “The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.”