We all have personal voids and disappointments in our lives, but I believe that ministry itself is fraught with a depth and breadth of longing beyond our own places of emptiness.
It is time for some truth. Here’s the tough reality: neither our churches nor our world is currently set up to family. That’s the hard position from which we at Vibrant Faith are sending out this urgent call to re-focus on this central task of Christian life. We are not pretending that anything less than an act of God lived out through God’s people will change American Christianity’s ability to family the current and next generation.
Why does being structured to family matter? Because familying is the relational process that the Spirit uses to form faith.
We know that as you continue re-claim this powerful focus for forming faith, there are significant challenges that might get in the way:
People no longer connect faith in Jesus with a “know and be known” community. It’s American individualism; it’s our mobile society; it’s a failure of the church to be church; it’s the results of a “me and Jesus” Christianity. It’s all those things. The number of people living in extended families has dissipated until it is no longer the norm and often physically just very hard to do. At the same time our churches have more and more lost the ability to BE defining community for people.
But have you ever stopped to wonder about what drives the popularity of several television hits of the last 15 years? Friends, Modern Family, Parenthood, Downton Abbey… These are all examples of extended families in action, and we love watching them. People connect with these families at a deep level because these shows reflect our heart’s desire. Maybe familying is simply built into us. That wouldn’t be surprising, since familying reflects what it means to be made in the image of this triune God of ours.
As you face the challenges of structuring to family, you will need to re-connect people’s faith in Jesus to their deeply buried desire to know and be known, and help them find that in and through extended family-like Christian community.
People believe that the nuclear family is the key family unit. Those people who have nuclear families, that is. The nuclear family (one set of parents and their children) is currently the default American picture of family. When the church talks about strengthening and encouraging families, we too focus on the nuclear family. But living in an intact nuclear family is a life situation that people in our country are as likely NOT to have as they may have. In 2013, almost half the children born in the United States were born outside of marriages. The divorce rate still hovers between 40 and 50 percent.
As you face the challenges of structuring to family, the moving target that is the nuclear family will be a challenge for the intentional creation of families of faith. However, structuring churches to develop and nurture families of faith will become a welcome gift — for both a vibrant faith in Jesus and for human thriving.
This is where we get to most profoundly re-connect to who we are as followers of Jesus. Have you noticed that the story of Jesus shows him familying from birth? Much of the biblical narrative tells of his drawing together, sharing his days with and profoundly changing the lives very disparate people–including but moving beyond his blood family. Even in death, in his last words, Jesus was familying from the cross:
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
John 19: 26-27
Familying is inherently challenging. Structuring to family will be too. But creating and tending families of faith will change everything.
I love bridges. But I didn’t used to.
A couple of days ago, I drove over the causeway bridge that leads into St. Petersburg, FL. It’s a long bridge with a super high point. It was a beautiful drive. As I began the ascent a memory came to mind:
When I was a child we went on a family vacation to Galveston and I experienced my first tall causeway bridge. I’ll never forget looking up and seeing that bridge that seemed to go straight up into the clouds and not come down. I remember the lump in my throat and the butterflies in my stomach. And I remember the climb that seemed to go on forever and there was no end in sight until we got all the way to the peak of the bridge. And then it happened – my dad said, “Whoa! Here we go!” And the descent ensued with laughter from me and my siblings and a huge, “Wow!” as we headed down to the other side.
Are you looking at a bridge with fear and trepidation in your ministry? Are you hoping for change but not sure how to get there?
Maybe you need a bridge.
Many congregations are in need of a bridge, a bridge that leads to the place that you know you need to go but seems a bit scary. Where do you want to be? One of our consultants Jim LaDoux has great insight on the image of being a bridge to 21st Century Faith Formation. Check it out.
At Vibrant Faith, we see ourselves as people who accompany leaders and congregations as we pass over the scary bridges, knowing that God is with us all the way. There is no question that as we lead the church in the 21st Century, we need to look at innovative ways to equip the church to be God’s love.
And that’s faith. It’s like looking up to the top of the bridge trusting that there is hope on the other side. And boy, when we make that descent we can enjoy the rush of God’s life-giving Spirit as we are led into the future of the church. And we can joyfully say, “Here we go!”
Don’t be afraid of the bridge.
There they were — reportedly there were millions of them, camped on the edge of the promised land. Moses knew he wasn’t going with them. Moses also knew that there was so much that they likely didn’t understand about the land and the very different shape their lives would take in that new land.
The shape of worship and the traditions that had become their way of life as the children of Israel in the wilderness were about to change dramatically. They couldn’t fully fathom it yet, but the customs that they had grown into for survival over generations of necessity just weren’t going to work as lasting patterns for following the Lord their God as they settled and became immersed in this land. They were about to leave the world of the wilderness and move into the land that God had promised, filled with “cities you did not build, wells you did not dig, vineyards you did not plant.” (Deuteronomy 6:11)
Have you ever thought about what it was like to be THOSE parents, headed with the children they loved into that new land? Yes, it was a land filled with milk and honey. But it was also a whole new world, filled with people who didn’t share their God or their way of living. There would be consequences as their children became natives of this new culture. Did they sense how hard it would be to make sure their children continued to worship the Lord their God?
So here are the five things Moses told them to do: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
Moses knew that the ways of here would not be enough for there. He knew it was going to be about remembering what God had done, and literally attaching that story to their children and doing it in multiple ways in the midst of everyday life. He didn’t tell them to take the Ark and immediately build a temple. He told them that only FAMILYING the faith would have an impact in this new world.
So here we are. We too are looking at a new land. We are heading into a boundary-less, technology-driven new world where 4000 churches close their doors each year. Whew. Not surprisingly, the customs and church cultures that we have known for the last several generations don’t appear to be working in the same ways in THIS new land either. But this is the only world our children and grandchildren will know.
But it’s okay, children of God. We’ve been here before. God is still using that reluctant servant Moses and has already given us the tools to handle this:
See you there.
Every congregation must reflect on two key questions:
- How can our community of faith be a tangible witness and authentic expression of Christ’s love?
- How can we actively participate in what God is doing in the place we live?
The insights of Paul Sparks, Tim Sorrens, and Dwight Friesen in their book The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community(IVP Books, 2014) can be a big help.
These authors/pastors contend that there are four dominant conceptions of church in the west, and that knowing which is the prevailing mode can make it easier to highlight your congregation’s strengths, and call forth what’s missing. How do you see your congregation in the following four characteristics?
The Seeker Church
Organized around felt needs, this church takes seriously how the gospel connects with the culture of the people in their region. This church thrives on gatherings where everything relates to people who are exploring and searching what they believe about Jesus. Only secondary energies are used to connect with what God might be doing in the area. Can become somewhat consumeristic. This church puts great stock on its worship area. It’s where everyone gathers.
The Heritage Church
This church puts primary energy into passing on beliefs, rites, rituals, and core distinctives of following Christ from within their particular tradition. This church is likely deeply committed to the process of formation through programs of catechesis and discipleship. Without a dynamic living tradition shaped by the Spirit, this church can find itself organized around static rituals, and calcified into a set of denominational beliefs and liturgical practices disconnected from everyday life. This church likely has extensive educational facilities that are (or were) heavily used by all ages.
The Community Church
Central to this church is deep authentic relationships with God and with one another. This church seeks to retrieve a sense of familial relationships, where each person can, and is even called to, contribute as a meaningful participant. This church seeks covenantal relationships and deep mutual commitment. Requires a heavy investment of time and energy. Mission often becomes an awkward add-on, because the meaning of church has not included life with people outside the community. This church is not too attached to physical structures. Where two or three are gathered . . .
The Mission Church
This church simply seeks to join with God in God’s mission in the world. Every aspect of this church should be engaged in God’s redemptive plan. Mission is not a project, program, or even a priority, rather, it is the very existence of this church. This church runs the risk of becoming colonial—having “the answer” for “those people”—if it has few or no mechanisms to recognize and receive God’s formative work for the church itself. This church may likely run a soup kitchen or any number of social services.
If you had to put your congregation into one of these four categories, which would it be and why?
As you have certainly concluded by now, each of these churches emphasizes one essential aspect of church life:
- Seeker church = Sunday service
- Heritage church = identity formation and preserve tradition
- Community church = interpersonal relationships (i.e. familying)
- Mission church = participating in God’s renewal of creation
What is also clear is that all four expressions must be present in a faith community in order to effectively respond to the two key questions above.