Although I am slowly becoming less cynical about the issue, I still wrestle with the fact that the church today in the West is driven mostly by religion, tradition and consumerism. Also, our church systems aren't so much designed for making new disciples as they are about keeping church people in the church. My first instinct to addressing the issue was to simply begin new churches. I still believe that this is an important and crucial piece of the solution. New churches more easily adopt a new DNA which focuses on reaching the lost, blessing the community and multiplying disciples. While beginning a new church doesn't guarantee that any of these things will happen, the statistics show that more new disciples are made in new churches than in existing ones. Even so, if the leaders of a new church aren't careful, the group may quickly adopt the religious norms of America and sinks into consumerism as the driving factor for growth and maintenance of numbers.
For the congregations who have never multiplied themselves or discipled a new believer in years (maybe the majority of our churches), I really don't hold out much hope for a quick renewal. The leadership cannot envision a different reality nor will they typically allow it to happen. Are there exceptions to this? Of course there are, but they are not the norm. Many discipleship and renewal movements have happened within mainline denominations, but still those denominations decline in numbers and Kingdom impact.
Just Keeping the Lights On
Surviving seems to be the primary concern for more than half of our North American congregations as well as our Synod. The goal of self preservation is a strong emotional reaction to decline based on the fear of losing something or everything. Churches of no more than a few families sometimes hold on for dear life to maintain the property, hold church services and provide governance to the "congregation." Instead of praying that God would do something radically different, they keep going through the motions of church because they don't want to lose their investment (church property) or they simply don't know what else to do. It is sad to see this happen, but most in this situation don't have the ability to accept any other option. While many churches begin to rent their property to outside groups in order to pay the bills, this doesn't do anything for their congregation's renewal. It simply delays the inevitable. In order to truly be renewed, there has to be an inflow of new life into the system.
Our religious institutions are mostly just keeping the lights on as well. They purvey religious services to the faithful and keep trying to find ways to maintain allegiance to the system. They have traded the mission of Jesus for other less important missions. Keeping our doctrine pure, preserving our heritage and maintaining our cultural distinctions are among the surrogate missions that we have adopted. Because of these changing missions, a growing love affair with the Roman church among our more conservative leaders is also apparent. There is a high distrust of the laity among some of our clergy and a disdain for the Biblical definition of the Priesthood of All Believers. Our system often teaches people to more excited about our history, liturgy, traditions and European heritage than it does about following Jesus and fulfilling His mission in the world. We are desperately trying to keep the lights of tradition on while extinguishing the lights of mission and Gospel entrepreneurship.
How do we change a sick system?
Maybe we don't. Maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe the right question to ask is "How do we fulfill the mission of Jesus while still being attached to a dying system?" In order for this to be possible, there have to be pockets of life and freedom within the system that new life can grow in with minimal negative contact with it's more cancerous parts. People continue to say "We need you guys that are doing mission to come to our meetings so that you can help renew our excitement about the Great Commission." Or, "You are part of the body and the body needs you." I fully understand this argument and will keep telling our story to those who will listen, regardless of their ecclesiastical bent. We are part of the Body of Christ and the little toe can't tell the torso "I'm done with you." I don't believe, however, that my church body is really going to change and that a deeper involvement with the system is healthy for our new churches. Without adopting a prideful attitude of missional superiority, I hope that the movement within our little petri dish continues to grow uninhibited by the norms and religion that would kill it. Jesus didn't try to change Judaism, He fulfilled it. We too can work to fulfill the Reformation movement that was begun, and has been kept in suspension within our religious time capsule. How do we do this? Help me find out.