This month, I’ve been doing a lot of research on church planting. Many of you know that I am being trained as a church planter. This is someone who is in charge of “planting” new churches—of starting them up and getting them running. It is a very challenging job for many reasons. However, it also holds one of the keys to the success of the church.
See, as we’ve talked about before, our society is undergoing massive cultural changes. From the beginning, the U.S. has baked into its very fabric Christianity. It was the norm and we structured our whole society around it. However, we are currently undergoing a paradigm shift—not just rearranging our house’s furniture, but stripping the frame to the studs. As we well know, Christianity is losing a lot of our former social power. We’ve heard this lamented in all quarters of Christianity. The “creeping secularism” is taking over our country and destroying our values and religion, they say. I couldn’t disagree more.
Rather, the death of Christianity is the salvation of Christianity. Christianity has never done well when it had tons of social power. As soon as Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, people jumped on board because Christianity was the norm, and was how you got social status. We are just now starting to see that unravel. People are freaking out because they think that we’re taking on water. They think that without the Church as we have come to know it, the world will become a decrepit, Godless society.
Really, God doesn’t need the Church. God will do God’s work in the world whether or not groups meet on Sunday mornings. And moreover, there will always be faithful people around willing to work with God. What we are witnessing in our lifetimes is the crumbling of a giant structure that we have built up. It served us well for quite a while, but it no longer serves its purpose.
We have one of the most exciting opportunities happening right in front of our eyes. We get to figure out what the future will look like. We get to exercise our creativity, imagination, ingenuity, and talents to sculpt something from scratch. Just because the Church is dying does not mean that God will not be at work in the world. What we get to do is figure out how we are going to join in. There is so much potential that we’ve been unable to tap into it in previous generations, when we thought the Church was doing just fine.
This is why church planters have some of the keys to this new thing. It is really hard to turn the Titanic when it’s going full speed ahead. Our inertia and momentum will make it very hard to change the course of our institutions. For example, I am not particularly confident that, at the end of my career, the Methodist church will exist to be my employer. There’s too much momentum to make the drastic changes that need to happen. Church planters, however, get to start completely from scratch. They don’t have to change institutions. They get a nimble speedboat that can easily swerve out of the way of the looming iceberg.
As I’ve said before, I have a ton of hope for Seabold UMC. I really think that it is one of the maybe 10% of churches that could actually weather these massive cultural shifts. Granted, we can never thrive in our current form. Without adapting, we will certainly close within 10-20 years, if not sooner. However, I deeply believe that this church is one of the few that could make it! We have the potential to be nimble and flexible enough to make those tight turns in our speedboat.
However, what it would require is discomfort. Nobody likes change, especially when you’ve had a whole life getting used to doing things a certain way. Change is uncomfortable. It requires giving up what we know and love for something uncertain. It involves risk—what if it never materializes like we hoped? And nobody knows what the end product looks like, precisely because it has never existed before. We in the Pacific Northwest are literally pioneers, trailblazers. Our exploratory work will set the groundwork for the rest of the country, as they start feeling the changes that we already are undergoing.
It is precisely the liminality—the discomfort, the transition, the turning point—that holds so much latent power and potential. I would love to go on this journey with you. If Seabold UMC has been meaningful in your life, I hope that you will help us to be meaningful in people’s lives in 50 or 100 years.
If we decide as a church to embark on this journey, we will begin exploring over the coming months just what this might look like. We will work as a community to discern who God is calling us to be.