We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, January 24, 2014

No Easy Answer

Just fifteen years ago, Fuller Seminary professor Wilbert R. Shenk, published an article entitled, "The Priority of Mission for Renewal of the Church," in which he states in a highlighted sentence that, "Authentic renewal will only come with a return to the theological roots of the church in Scripture along with missionary engagement of its culture."  He then proposes a strategy for church renewal, which is to recapture the missio Dei, that is the mission of God, for our time and context.  "Mission" he concludes is the most appropriate symbol for the church and is its reason for being. He states, "At the heart of mission is the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21) and witness to the reign of God. The church is that community earnestly seeking, albeit imperfectly, to embody the justice/righteousness of God’s new order."  He then comes full circle and argues that recapturing God's mission for our time and place means that churches will respond compassionately to the hurt of the world and read the Bible in light of the world's suffering so that it will be better able to respond to that suffering.

It sounds good.  In recent years, there has been a ton of talk about "the missional church."  There has been another ton about how churches need to base themselves in scripture, which often is taken to mean reading it "the right way," whichever way that might be.

The past fifteen years, however, have only served to prove that church renewal is not something that can be neatly packaged in this way.  Where it happens, personalities are involved, circumstances shape events, and an uncontrollable element of serendipity that we associate with the Holy Spirit is usually at work.  There are no magic bullets apart from commitment, wisdom, and openness to the Spirit by the faithful.  In one church, the renovation of a narthex surprisingly takes it down the path of renewal.  In another church, a concerted effort to generate a revival leads only to division, discouragement, and accelerated decline.  In still another church, the unlooked for emergence of a small-group movement reorients the future of the congregation.  In a fourth small, rural church, an elder prays week after month after year for his church to grow without answer—until, one day, a family begins to attend who prove to be a catalyst for renewal.  Sometimes conflict leads to renewal because it breaks a logjam of dysfunctional relationships; sometimes (more often, actually) conflict leads churches in the opposite direction.  You just can never tell, not for sure.

What seems to be constant in the stories of renewal is that courage, vision, prayer, and humility are usually involved.  Renewal means change, which means courage.  Somewhere in the church there has to be a vision, a hunger even for renewal.  Humility is crucial, meaning a compassionate, self-aware, disinclination to force or push, demand or judge.  Prayer is key as well.  These things can be channels for the Spirit.