The way that the world thinks and works is changing, but can the church be transformed to still exist within it?
Lately I have been reading the books of Dr Leonard Sweet, the professor who has written extensively on how the church must transform itself or become obsolete. Dr. Sweet characterizes the church today as being in a default mode that he summarizes as being APC, or Attractional, Propositional and Colonial.
The first of these descriptors, that of a church being Attractional is probably the most obvious and easiest concept to understand. An attractional church is one that has the idea that if people just know more about what is going on at our church that they will come. A congregation that advertises heavily and focuses its programs on bringing people into the church building, is working on attracting people to come to church. When we create posters about our benefit concerts or put something about our church programs in the Allegan County News, this is acting in an attractional way. Churches that pay attention to being attractional are seeking to have the prettiest landscaping, the best music and the friendliest greeters. While there is nothing wrong with trying to attract people and to get their attention by having nice flyers and posters, this is only the flag on the top of the building. There has to be something else real along with it or it is just as fragile as the paper it is printed on. Attracting people to come to church is a tool. It is not to be confused with our purpose.
The second descriptor that Dr. Sweet uses is that our current church is very Propositional. This is easiest to describe that we as a church are currently very focused on “Head knowledge.” In seminary, traditional mainline pastors are required to learn Greek and Hebrew and to pass exams in theology. In order to be pastors, we need to be able to parse verbs and translate the Bible from the original languages and to be able to write papers on how the Reformation Theologian John Calvin was both similar and different from the Catholic Theologian Thomas Aquinas. However none of this knowledge is very practical for the church. It won’t comfort a woman whose husband has left her or help us find a solution for a runaway teen. –While it may be a nice luxury for us to sit in our comfortable air conditioned pews and debate theological nuances, people are hurting and need God’s love and our care. A propositional church will tend to have lots of great discussions, but they don’t actually DO anything.
The last critical description is the most harsh. Dr. Sweet describes our tendency for our churches to be Colonial. This descriptor is not talking about church architecture. Colonial is an attitude that we, being the Christians are obviously right and are superior to all of you lousy sinners out there. It is a philosophy that in order for someone to know the love of Christ that they need to change who they are and become exactly like us. They need to dress like us, and eat like us, look like us and talk church talk like us. A colonial church is one that believes that they know and hold all of the truth in the world, and that no one else could have a valuable perspective or that there could possibly be alternative ways of knowing or believing things. A colonial church has so closely identified Christ with their own culture that they have forgotten that our particular version of Christianity was adapted from a first century Jewish carpenter who wandered around homeless.
The goal of churches today should be to transform themselves away from being Attractional, Propositional, Colonial institutions into places that are Missional, Relational and who work toward Incarnational discipleship.
Much has been written about how to be a Missional church. The fundamental difference is that while an Attractional church sits and waits for people to come into the building and to join their programs, a Missional church is out in the community partnering with others to do good for everyone in the name of Jesus Christ. They don’t wait for someone to come and ask for help, a missional church goes out into their community and works with the people who are already helping others. It is ministry on other peoples terms, where they are, with their rules and structures.
In order for the church to survive its transformation into Post Modern culture, the church has to relearn again how to be Relational. It has to learn how create real relationships and friendships among people. A few years ago, I officiated at the memorial for a man who had a long career as an engineer. His church friends who had known him for 40+ years were surprised when dozens of young minority teens and twenty somethings showed up for the service. When the mike was opened for eulogies many of these young people stood up and told stories and spoke of a man and his wife who had mentored and guided them out of the worst kinds of trouble. His church friends were shocked. They had no idea that this man that they had sat next to for forty years in church had decided, upon his retirement to work one on one with broken kids to help guide and teach them. They discovered that in comparison to these teens who had really gotten to know this man, that they had nothing real to say about their church friend at all.
The last thing that the church needs to do in order to transform itself is to put its focus on Incarnational Discipleship. This the process by which a person grows spiritually and works to change their own life and their own priorities, not to be just like everyone else in the church, but to be more like Jesus. Back in the 1990’s the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets were a cry out by the younger generation for this sort of incarnational life. While the bracelets and the acroymn are no longer a fad, the impulse behind them was a powerful sign that the church can no longer survive filled with hypocrites who only say that they love God, their neighbors and themselves; but who do not prove it with their actions and choices. Nothing less than real transformation and real sacrificial discipleship will do. With incarnational discipleship, Christ has to be visible in you and in me every day of the week and not just for an hour on Sunday mornings.
In conclusion, Dr. Leonard Sweet writes much more about how to go about doing this sort of church transformation. He talks about how the current generation is experiential, how they learn primarily by doing instead of hearing. He writes about how they want to participate in things and not to be passively lectured to. He speaks about how culture is changing from written word to video and how the church needs to become image rich if it wants to survive. And ultimately how the world and how the church needs to become more connectional rather than isolationist. The church needs to become a part of the culture and the community that we are in rather than living outside or above it.
May God lead and guide our congregation, and congregations everywhere to be open to this sort of transformation that will change us into practical, relevant, and real servants of the One who ultimately came in order to help us all transform us in the first place. And let the transformation begin with me.
–Pastor Karen Fitz La Barge