Having posted two previous articles about the decline among the Churches of Christ and the need for planting new churches and campus ministries, I would like to share some more thoughts about church renewal.* As the title suggests, church renewal begins with us.
By us, I mean the people who are the church. That should be rather obvious but I’m not sure if it is. Having served in ministry as a minister for the last twenty-two years, I’ve heard and engaged in many conversations about church renewal. Numerous books, articles, blogs, and podcasts have been published, with many of them addressing the issue of church renewal as it relates to the challenges of leadership and conflict, spiritual formation and the mission of God, as well as even evangelism and reaching the next generation. Such conversations are necessary and generally helpful. However, all the methods, strategies, and theories won’t make a difference unless the people who constitute the church are being transformed by God through the Spirit in the way of Christ.
This is why it’s so important to remember that church renewal is Christian renewal. Our local churches are us. We are the church. Yes, we organize ourselves in a manner so that we may function as a church community. And yes, sometimes the way we organize becomes a hindrance to our participation in the mission of God. However, before we can tackle the organizational and theological challenges present in church renewal, we have to ask if we are being renewed by the Spirit in our faith as followers of Jesus.
Some years ago I went through a series of seminars with Mission Alive that focused on church renewal. Very appropriately, the first seminar dealt with our own personal faith. That’s because, as Mission Alive states, “The first ministry of any spiritual leader is to his or her own soul. Your leadership board, group, team or committee cannot lead others into a deeper, more vibrant relationship with God if they are running on empty” (Mission Alive, Renew).
To speak of church renewal as Christian renewal, we must talk about the practices or disciplines that open us to the Spirit’s work of cultivating an ever-deepening faith among us. Just as the proper disciplines of diet and exercise correlate to good physical health, so does proper discipline correlate to a fit faith as followers of Jesus. We are not talking about earning our salvation in any sense. We are simply talking about participating in the activities that will allow us to live as healthy followers of Jesus, exhibiting a courageous and convicting faith that is fueled by the Spirit of God at work in and among us. There are plenty of books written on spiritual disciplines such as reading and meditating on scripture, prayer, fasting, solitude, self-examination, etc… Two recommendations include the now classic book by Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms.
I’ll confess that I am neither naturally inclined to physical fitness nor to faith fitness. I’m always a few pounds overweight and I’m still struggling to live as a faithful follower of Jesus. So I have to be intentional about watching my diet and getting exercise, which typically involves walking (having a 125-pound Saint Bernard dog helps). Walking also opens space for me to reflect and become aware of both the ways I see God working and the ways I am struggling in my faith. That open space is where I become intentional about praying, which can still be a struggle. I also have downloaded on my iPhone several apps for reading the Bible as a discipline, not for sermon and Bible class preparation but simply so that I might hear God speak through his word in anticipation of seeing as God sees and joining in his work as a follower of Jesus.
I’m neither an expert on physical health nor an expert on church renewal and maintaining a fit faith. However, one key reason church renewal doesn’t come without Christian renewal is we now live in a time where churches are increasingly made up of Christian consumers. Such Christian consumerism means participating in a local church depends on whether that church provides desired goods. The consumer mindset is not one of how can a Christian serve with their church to participate in the mission of God but instead seeks to be served by the church. Such consumerism, which is antithetical to following Jesus and a hindrance to church renewal, seems especially prevalent among younger adults and students (Kinnaman and Matlock, Faith For Exiles, 27-28).
While consumerism is certainly bred and reinforced by American culture, it is also learned from inauthentic Christianity encountered in church. We must resist the consumer impulses ourselves by attending to our own faith, engaging in the exercises that allow us to maintain a fit faith — a faith that follows Jesus rather than consuming religious goods. Ultimately, the goal of church renewal is participation in the mission of God but that goal begins by attending to our own faith as people committed to following Jesus. Such faith is the authentic Christianity that breaks through consumerism, embodying the gospel and igniting church renewal.
* This article is a revision of a previous article titled “Church Renewal is Christian Renewal” that I wrote for Wineskins 23 (March 2020).
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex 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.