I’ve begun reading through the new book by Mark Lau Branson and Alan J. Roxburgh, Leadership, God’s Agency, and Disruptions: Confronting Modernity’s Wager, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021. Having read other books by both authors and having had Roxburgh as a Professor for a doctoral seminar, I value what both have to say. Their book comes at a critical time in history for many churches and so as I read, I have thoughts ruminating through my head about churches across North America.
By all accounts and metrics, churches are struggling across North America. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the struggles more apparent and more difficult. Furthermore, there isn’t any quick-fix solution that is going to reverse the course. So I neither want to play the game of heaping blame and shame on churches nor do I want to pretend I have the definitive way forward all figured out.
Let me point out that there are a number of factors that have helped create the current malaise and not all are within the control of churches. The age of secularization we are living among began taking shape long before most current churches even came into existence and so a renewed participation in the mission of God will require more than just a tweak here or there. Similarly, it is delusional to believe the idea that we can just wipe the slate clean and start over.
I say this in response to some of the sentiments I read on social media from time to time, that always seem hyper-critical of what churches are doing while suggesting a simplistic solution.
“If churches will just get rid of Sunday worship and get into the neighborhood…” “If churches would just recapture the simplicity of the early church…” “If churches would just be less building-centric…”Blah, blah, blah…
Yes, churches can focus on Sunday too much and forget the neighborhood, and sometimes churches make things more complex than necessary or get too wrapped up in their building. However, such suggestions are full of assumptions and sometimes such assumptions are so far removed from the contextual reality of most churches that they are useless. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m well aware of the problems that can hinder a church’s participation in the mission of God. However, it’s easy to see the problems but it’s very short-sighted to see only the problems. There are plenty of churches of all sizes and social locations still faithfully serving King Jesus. The ministry of these churches may not be sexy enough to make a big splash but their impact on people’s lives is still significant. If you doubt me, I’ll start by telling you about a man from Liberia who came to the US and, having been baptized two months ago, is already teaching an online Bible class to about 30 other Liberians living throughout North America. And I’ve got more stories.
That said, there are real challenges facing many churches that leave us wondering what can be done. Well, I’m not sure and I have yet to find in the scriptures any explicit instructions on how to plant innovative churches or how to lead a church towards missional renewal. However, when it comes to the scriptures, I call to mind the fact that the only instruction Jesus gave to his disciples after his resurrection was essentially to wait. The disciples wanted to know when Jesus would restore the kingdom of God and Jesus responded by telling them about receiving power from the promised Holy Spirit.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8
So after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples returned to Jerusalem to wait for the reception of the Holy Spirit. But as they did so, they were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14, NRSV).
If this passage offers us any answer to what can be done about the challenges we face in North America, it’s that we should look first to what God can do rather than what we can do. I can’t speak for Canadians but beginning with ourselves as a solution is very American and evidence of how much modernism has formed our thinking. The strength of the church for living as participants in the mission of God comes from the Spirit of God, the same power who raised Christ from the dead. That’s why prayer matters.
By praying, we acknowledge our dependence upon God with faith in what God can do. When praying, we become receptive to what God is doing and is calling us to do as his missional partners. As Alan Mark Lau Branson and Alan J. Roxburgh remind us, “God is the initiator, prayer is a practice that places us in a listening posture, and those who are faithful in prayer will begin to improvise based on what have heard” (Leadership, God’s Agency, and Disruptions, p. 25). So instead of asking what can we do regarding the challenges of our day, ask what God can do. Ask God, in prayer, what he can do and ask him to do it.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.