If western societies have become post-Christian mission fields, how can traditional churches become then missionary churches? Lesslie Newbigin
An older pastor looked at me with a sigh. He is nearing retirement. And he remembers well how, not that long ago, life was really different. “You know, when I began my ministry in a church in the south, I never worried about ‘church growth’ or ‘worship attendance’ or ‘evangelism’. Back then if a man didn’t come to church on Sunday, his boss asked him about it on Monday.”
It was different “back then”. Some of us have heard about it. Others can remember it. For some of us, those were the “good old days”. For others, those days were anything but good. (Did you see the reference to “man” in the old pastor’s statement?) But it was different. Really different.
Sociologists and theologians refer to this recently passed period as Christendom, the 1700-year- long experiment with Christianity at the privileged center of western cultural life. Christendom gave us “blue laws” and the Ten Commandments in school. It gave us “under God” in the pledge of allegiance and exhortations to Bible reading in the national newspapers. (I have a copy of the Los Angeles Times from December 1963 that has a stories on the Warren Commission, the 9000 member Hollywood Presbyterian Church and a list of Daily Bible Readings for the upcoming week.) It was the day when every “City Father” laid out the town square with the Courthouse, the Library and a First Church all within the very center of the city.
And for most of us, these days are gone. Long, long gone. When cities are now using eminent domain laws to replace churches with tax-revenue generating ‘big box’ stores; when Sundays are more about soccer and Starbucks then they are about Sabbath; when the fastest growing “religious affiliation” amongst young adult is “none”; when there is no real moral consensus built on Christian tradition (even amongst Christians), then Christendom as a marker of society, has clearly passed.
And most of us were not trained for this.
Most pastors were trained in the skills that were necessary for Christendom. When churches functioned primarily as "vendors of religious services" for a “Christian culture” then the primary leadership tool box was teaching (for providing Christian education), liturgics (for leading Christian services) and pastoral care (for offering Christian counsel and support). Pastors weren’t “missionaries” and churches weren’t “missions” (Indeed, my seminary had a whole separate school for that!). We were teachers, worship leaders and counselors. We were “chaplains” for a congregation within a Christendom culture. And for many of us in mid-career, it’s like we woke up one morning and found ourselves ministering in a cross-cultural setting where we don’t understand the customs, the language or the values. We are now in uncharted territory and needing to “adapt or die.”
One of my life “BHAGS” (ala Jim Collins, “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals”) is to change the way pastors are trained. I don’t have any illusions that this will be easy. Seminaries are well aware of the urgency and all that is at stake, even if by and large they have been slow to adapt. (See this Commentary from the Chronicle of Higher Education) If traditional churches are going to become missionary churches, then pastors must become truly missional leaders. And while teaching, liturgics and care will always be needed, the leadership skills for taking a missionary church into uncharted territory (let alone transforming a traditional church into a missionary church) are for most of us as unfamiliar as the very setting we now find ourselves in.