In 1997, the Board of General Superintendents declared the United States and Canada “mission fields.” They understood that the cultural role and social value of the church was changing in the face of increasing secularization, and that along with immigration and the growth of multicultural groups, these transitions would dramatically affect how ministry would be understood and accomplished in the future.
Noted church growth strategist Kennon L. Callahan observed during that time, “The day of the professional minister is over. The day of the missionary pastor has come.” For some Nazarene churches, this transition has been gradual, but several years later, we are seeing a sea change, which will only accelerate in the face of our efforts to be a global denomination.
For the last five years, Nazarene clergy across the United States and Canada have shared through surveys, focus groups, and informal conversations their challenge in responding to changing trends in ministry. Social, cultural, economic, and technological restructuring has shifted the religious landscape, changing the rules of engagement for many churches. Rex Miller, in a groundbreaking book, The Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church, summed up the feeling of many when he said, “Most people sense that something is different or even wrong, and everyone seems to have a theory as to why. Few of these theories, however, offer a real framework for navigating change.” Such change has prompted many church leaders to use phrases like “new normal” or “new reality” to describe their experiences, which largely focus on irregular church attendance, a decline in giving, and a shortage of volunteers. Difficulties in reaching postmoderns, young families, and singles, who fail to be motivated by the same kinds of interests and loyalties as the older laity, are especially baffling to many clergy. Church models once considered successful are being re-evaluated as many congregations opt to become more missional and innovative, looking for ways to penetrate their communities and neighborhoods.
In a post-Christendom environment, pastors now realize their need to be missiologists: persons with the skills needed to contextualize faith in a particular environment for those outside the church structure. Such pastors have the capacity to bring Jesus and the Church’s story into conversation with the life stories and life situations of those in their parishes. As Craig Van Gelder and George R. Hunsberger have reminded us, “The new situation is requiring churches to approach their context as a missionary encounter.”
The transitions taking place within and outside the church are foreboding to many. As Jason Vickers notes in Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal, during an age of anxiety, when “clergy, theologians, and other church leaders are clearly troubled about the current state and future of the church,” two opposite responses appear: 1) a movement toward diagnosing what is wrong and offering deep innovation to fix the problem, and 2) a strong tendency to hang on to time-honored ideas and structures. Vickers warns that neither tendency may be viable. He says the church must attain a balance (a conversation, if you will) between both, with an eye toward theological moorings, while seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance to know when and where to make adjustments.
Fortunately for Nazarenes, our Wesleyan-Holiness heritage can help. John Wesley’s ministry in England took place during a time of great social upheaval and the rise of the Industrial Revolution, which brought scores of rural poor to the cities. Wesley coupled a clear proclamation of the Gospel message with an emphasis on missional Christianity, while developing innovative structures to reach and grow people through field preaching, class meetings, and bands. He sought a remarkable balance between form and content, Spirit and structure.
Bryon K. McLaughlin
Grace and Peace Magazine