Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Revelation 3:6
Years ago, I attended a conference hosted by Zondervan Publishing. Nearly three thousand pastors gathered to hear about new and upcoming movements within the Christian Church. During a breakout, I listened to late author Phyllis Tickle describe the Western Church as a budding flower. In Tickle’s interpretation, the church begins to fold into itself over time, becoming hard and encrusted. Every five hundred years or so, a new reformation takes place that breaks through this hard shell, revealing a new flower bud.
Although Tickle hitched her wagon to the wrong horse (mainly the emergent church movement), she may have been right about a need for a new reformation.
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century disrupted a complacent and ritualistic Church, bringing about a time of turmoil, uneasiness and uncertainty, only properly understood in hindsight. True reformation must be born out of the Holy Spirit. It is not a programmatic or engineered construct but instead, it springs out of deep discontent that leads to greater intimacy and dependence on God.
Reformations have introspective effects: requiring analysis, repentance, significant soul-searching and questioning. A God-initiated reformation also leads the Church back to its original form and function, changing the status quo. Reformations gain momentum when driven by the younger generation. As the Spirit moves “…Old men will dream dreams and the young men will carry out vision” (Paraphrased from Joel 2:28)
Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, we see signs of a church — as Tickle says — folded into itself and encrusted. Are we today witnessing a pandemic-caused reformation? Through conversations with pastors from across the country, I’m made aware of how deeply affected they are by COVID-19. Has the Church ever faced a challenge as great as the global Coronavirus pandemic? Everything we felt necessary to the present Church’s existence has been turned upsidedown – all programs and services are either closed or deployed online or at a distance. This season may be the perfect opportunity for us to look introspectively at what it means to be God’s church today. What is the Spirit saying to the Church of 2020? It is not business as usual. God is telling us something significant.
My gut feeling is that if we listen well, the Church will be very different in the years to come. Out of my conversations with church leaders, I observe several shifts occurring. The post-pandemic Church will be:
The work of the post-pandemic church will be done primarily by bi-vocational and lay leaders. This largely-volunteer base of leaders, when mobilized, will grow the Church’s presence in the world. It is vital that these emerging laypeople be mentored, equipped and supported by the current generation of church leaders.
A smaller/bigger church.
There will be fewer regular large gatherings with a strategic movement towards multiple small or home-style gatherings, less like peer support small groups, and more like fully functioning mini versions of the larger church.
Centred around mission.
The Church will need to be very clear as to why it exists. The focus will move from maintaining programs to achieving a specified mission.
Driven by active disciples.
Observers must become active participants in the life of the post-pandemic Church. As gifts, abilities, and talents emerge from the pews, equipping, and training will become priorities. Strong emerging leaders are a result of an intended discipleship path that leads people to experience God in fresh ways. These new leaders will need more than training; only a deep relationship with the living God will prepare them to lead.
Value the immeasurable.
Until now, churches have measured success by the number of people in our pews, the amount of money in the collection plate or the number of names on the volunteer list. What if instead, we measured the number of first-time conversations about Jesus? Or the number of volunteers engaged outside of the church in ways that demonstrate God’s kingdom on Earth? What if churches used stories of transformation as the basis of their effectiveness?
I say all of this not to cause controversy, but to motivate us to search deeply for what God is saying to the Church during this pandemic. What if this is the beginning of a new reformation, one that prepares the Church for effective ministry in the world today?
I remain committed to listening. What is the Spirit saying?
Elton DaSilva is the national director of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. He and Ana live in Winnipeg. They have three children.
In her book, “Emergence Christianity” Phyllis Tickle writes, “Every five hundred years, give or take a decade or two, Western culture along with those parts of the world that have been colonized or colonialized by it, goes through a time of enormous upheaval, a time in which essentially every part of it is reconfigured.” In my opinion, Tickle and other emergent church leaders correctly identified the reality that the Western Church was in need of another reform. However, given their social location, I’m not convinced they were able to clearly see the nature of the reform that is necessary. The pandemic has magnified issues and dysfunction that have long distorted the theology and practice of the Western Church and I wholeheartedly agree that the pandemic disruption of church as usual invites analysis, repentance, soul-searching, and questioning! I sense the Spirit (mostly speaking through BIPOC) calling the Western Church to a reformation of decolonization. This means untangling the church’s theology, spiritual formation, missiology, and ecclesiology from the insidious influences of materialism, paternalism, hyper-individualism, white supremacy, and western worldview superiority. Adding to the helpful list of shifts in the article I would include: BIPOC led, less hierarchical, emphasis on belief embodied in practice, valuing narrative wisdom, humble, place-based, and indigenized. It occurs to me that this decolonization reformation may have implications for the future of the Western Church, the health of our planet, and racial justice. May we have ears to hear the Spirit’s invitation during a time of so much uncertainty and suffering.
Thanks for joining the discussion. Those are certainly some very valuable thoughts and we appreciate being able to discern through them together. Thanks again!
Good evening Elton, in the past several days I was reminded of your article here, and read it again. Thankyou for offering some compelling and challenging observations – we need to process disruption well if we are to grow from it. The lay leader aspect, in my opinion, has been neglected (not everywhere, but in many places) for quite some time, and it certainly can create negative feedback cycles that undermine our collective vision of the kingdom and work in the Spirit’s unity. I don’t know our collaborative model to all the details but I hope it includes elements that demonstrate the importance of provincial conference leaders and local pastors effectively collaborating with laity who desire to direct their gifts/passion in meaningful ways.