I love the Church and am committed to serving the local church because I wholeheartedly believe that the Church is central to the mission of God, yet not the centre of it. The Church is meant to be a sign and foretaste of God’s reign. It should be a place that welcomes the imperfect, embraces the lost, heals the hurting and equips and deploys God’s people for the sake of the world. Where the church ceases to be the salt and light, we cannot blame the world for their darkness, depravity and disillusionment, we’re to blame. Ed Stetzer reminds us that we are not to be the cul-de-sac on the Great commission Highway– we haven’t yet arrived, were sent! Peter Drucker, management guru, helpfully observes: “people in any organization are always attached to the obsolete–– the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and are no longer” (2010:66). In similar vein, in his Foreword to Woodward and Whites’ publication of ‘The Church as Movement’, Allan Hirsch observes that many leaders seem to think that simply repeating and optimizing the inherited habits of church will eventually deliver paradigm-shifting results––this could not be further from the truth. Mike Erre adds a helpful contribution to our discussion on church and cultural postures:
Established churches are becoming increasingly ineffective because our past has not prepared us for ministry in the future. The discontinuity we have experienced because of these quantum leaps is comparable to the experience of the residents of East Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down. Nothing in their past prepared them for life without the Wall. Very little in our past has prepared us for ministry in today’s world.
Speaking from my Baptist context, I am grateful to the Lord for the faithful ministry of many established Baptist Churches who have served God’s cause faithfully over the course of their existence. However, what we’re increasingly finding is that older, traditional or established churches are in decline and some are facing imminent death. This is a fact we can no longer dispute! Established churches are increasingly feeling the tension of living in our cultural moment while remaining true to its history and ministry ethos. What does the future hold and how do we embrace it?
Please hear me out, although I love the Church and am especially committed to the cause of Christ in the local church, I am under no illusions that any local churches are perfect. I am also not particularly idealistic about the future of ministry for older established churches– in the trenches, things are neither simple, nor easy. I commence with the assertion that Baptist Churches are between danger and opportunity, and have written extensively on my research around what needs to change in my denomination here.
I feel that I have some authority to write on matters relating to the local church, seeing I have served in the local church since I was a teenager, and have been in pastoral ministry for 14 years now (which is still not vast). Within these last 14 years, I have been privileged to serve in a great variety of churches, that have each contributed to my understanding and concern for the local church in South Africa. I currently serve in a church that has recently been revitalized where there is lots of energy and talk of innovation and excitement about growth and progress. I realize that this is perhaps not all that common in South Africa, and certainly among Baptists. I know because I have spent years researching this and am in touch with the realities on the ground as I engage with various church leaders in many contexts. Below I present 10 thoughts on the future of ministry in the established church. I am sure there are another 20 points that can be added to this, yet I hope these would be helpful to those serving Christ there and I would welcome any additions.
10 Considerations Regarding the Future of Your Est. Church
- Your past has not adequately prepared you for your future. There is the recognition that culture has shifted, demographics have shifted– we’re not in Kansas anymore! We need to embrace this fresh start and trust God for the results.
- Change is inevitable and it must be navigated no matter how slow the process may be. All churches change, and for those who’ve resisted any change for a while, the decline will be increasingly evident. Those that understand that change is essential and embrace a positive missional posture toward their cultural context are more likely to succeed.
- A rut eventually becomes your grave. “This is the way we’ve always done it” is a statement I hear all to often and one that is increasingly indicative that traditional can become a trap and grave for those who are unwilling to be moved.
- Embracing your context and seeking the lost brings excitement and life to your church. We need to be reminded that if we truly believe in all of scripture, yet lack in evangelistic zeal and effort consistency, we are disobedient to the call and command of God. Established churches that are inward focused will soon close down.
- Everything rises and falls on leadership and volunteers. Leaders need to mobilize people in your church to fill the leadership vacuum and to serve regardless of membership status. It’s okay to have Christ-following believers serve in ministries in your church without being members. Members still occupy important and elect roles, yet those who call your church home need to know there’s a place for them to plug in a serve. Don’t be too legalistic about involvement, or you may land up doing everything.
- Your future will be dissimilar to your past and you need a (simple) strategy that you can deploy that will assist your leaders, staff and members to navigate the pain because of the Kingdom gain. People need a vision to make change easier.
- Embracing the next generation is critical to reaching and impacting families in South Africa. If your church does not incorporate children, youth and young adults fully into the life of the church, your church does not have a future.
- Your community probably doesn’t care much about your denominational affiliation and so be sure to introduce them to Jesus before you make them a disciple of your flavour. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not advocating that we disassociate with our denomination, what I am simply saying is that to most unchurched people today, that’s probably not the thing that will attract them to your church at first, or keep them there. It’s a reality that we need to acknowledge.
- You have to embrace and create a sending culture in your church in order for evangelism and outreach to function holistically. Your church is an important role player in God’s mission and you must ensure that you’re equipping and deploying Christ’s ambassadors, not simply feeding and shelving them.
- You must strive to be welcoming in your posture and embrace and ensure that guests soon become members and serve using their gifting. This is impossible without a process and intentionality.
Thank you for taking time to read this short post; I hope that it has been meaningful to you. Feel free to leave a comment or email me regarding any particular point for further clarity. I strongly encourage you to subscribe to EST. Church, a weekly discussion for pastors lead by a friend of mine, Micah Fries (Brainerd Baptist, Chattanooga TN) and two others great leaders, Sam Rainer (West Bradenton Baptist Church, Bradenton FL) and Josh King (Sachse’s Church, Sachse TX). Although these are from a Western/ American context, their content is helpful and engaging and will assist you in thinking through some important consideration for your ministry. Be sure to check them our here.
- Woodward, J.R. & White, Dan 2016. The Church As Movement”. Downers Grove: IVP.
- Erre, Mike 2009. Death by Church. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers.
- Henry, D. & Niemandt, C.J.P, 2015, ‘Baptist identity and mission in a rainbow nation: Distilling imperatives from mixed-methods research within the Baptist Union of Southern Africa (1994–2012)’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 71(2), Art. #2026, 10 pages.