Wednesday, June 02, 2010

What is the Spirit Saying to the Churches?

American Christianity is in the midst of a transition that began sometime in the latter part of the 20th century. One of the most articulate (and entertaining) analysts of this transition is Bill J. Leonard, former Dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School. Leonard was asked to share some remarks with a gathering of moderate Baptists at Callaway Gardens, Georgia, in late April. His topic was, “What Have We Learned in the Past 20 Years?” You can access a video of his presentation here.

I was particularly interested in Dr. Leonard’s comments about the various ways that Christians are finding to work together in the 21st century. He commented, “Denominations now join mega-church, emerging church and local church identities as one of multiple options for shaping American religious organizations.” Denominations were once the major players in joining individual congregations in cooperative efforts, but they are only one a number of alternatives available. Many formal and informal networks have developed of like-minded churches and leaders. These efforts are quite diverse. Some mega-churches are mini-denominations while some emerging faith communities glory in their lack of baggage (read “property” and “budget”).

Leonard goes on to say, “New coalitions of Baptists offer multiple options for interchurch cooperation and ministry relationships. ‘Partnerships’ between congregations and Baptist/non-Baptist groups for fellowship and shared ministry are beginning to take shape and are essential for the future.” I think that is interesting that Leonard points out that these partnerships cross the lines of denominational identity. Increasingly, missional churches are finding like-minded partners who carry a different denominational banner or no banner at all. The mission of the kingdom of God is paramount and often makes for unusual stable mates.

The real challenge Leonard notes is that “While regional, economic and racial divisions remain, a new generation of Baptist clergy and laity finds themselves without old systems for passing on ministry, mentoring, and identity, but is compelled to worship and work together in changing neighborhoods, interracial coalitions, community organizations, and ecumenical networks.” This is good news. Although still overcoming the loss of traditional support systems, clergy and congregations are seeking out and creating new ways to do ministry. There is an urgency to respond to need and to put together systems to do so “on the fly.”

These are times of great stress but also of great opportunity for the local church and its leaders. New forms are emerging.  Some will prosper and some will fail, but change will continue.  The wise among us will remember and respond to these words from Revelation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Rev. 2:7a, NIV)

Thank you, Dr. Leonard, for prompting us to listen for the Spirit in our midst.

(My appreciation to Dr. Leonard for sharing a copy of his notes with me.)

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