Last week, my colleague Adam Borneman described the faithful and imaginative questions that were engaged in a recent gathering we held on the economics of ministry. Out were “how-to” questions about yearly stewardship campaigns or capital fund drives. In were “know-why” questions about mission and meaning, purpose and place.
Another thing we did not hear at this gathering of two dozen church leaders: no one was talking about “the future of the church” in terms of “what God will do next.” Most notably, no one talked in terms of a restoration—something that we can recognize as a slightly adapted version of what we already know.
It is human nature to see the future in terms of the past. The followers of Jesus took a long time to recognize the Risen Christ after Easter, because the experience wasn’t like anything they already knew. Observers at Pentecost thought those gathered were drunk – not filled with the Holy Spirit – because that helped explain what they were seeing, framing it in ways they could recognize.
Note the names that Europeans gave to their first villages and towns when they came to the North American continent:
They wanted it new, but they also wanted it to call up what they already knew.
In World War II and subsequent armed conflicts, military leaders perfected the “collapsible, moveable camp,” best known today (thanks to Robert Altman’s movie and the long-running TV show) in the form of a Mobile Surgical Army Hospital, or MASH unit. A camp could be completely disassembled and then reassembled miles away, depending on the need and where the fighting was. The terrain might be slightly different, but the camp itself would be familiar and allow personnel to do the same work in the same way, just in a new setting.
But what if “reassembling” is not the call of 21st century ministry?
What if the question before us is not “how do we work to fit the ministry we already know into the next version of church?” and instead, “how do we go to the place where God is already working – in new and sometimes startling unfamiliar ways (to us) – and learn and grow with God in this new, unfamiliar terrain?”
We don’t need to haul off our familiar, of worn version of ministry into the next chapter, hoping a change of time or place will renew it. We do need to find where God is at work in the new chapter. When we come into the presence of God on God’s terms, we will be given the gift of working with God in that new place.
The work of reassembling most often feels dull and lifeless.
The work of running to catch up with our God who is always on the move to fruitful places is a challenge. It is also immensely life-giving, even on the hardest days.