Re-imagine is about to become the new buzz-word.
Although a popular theme on the business and coaching circuit, re-imagine is about to get a boost in other spheres of life. In light of COVID-19, changes to our daily routines will require a deep and painful season of re-imagination for many sectors of public life.
There is just one problem.
The modern world has not taught us the skills for re-imagining.
For years we have idolized a skill-set that prizes imagination and endless possibilities instead of re-imagination. This has been so pervasive that it is natural to use words like re-imagine, re-invent and revitalize and actually mean create something totally new. This is sheer imagination and is not the same as re-imagining. The difference between theses two concepts carries huge ramifications for those who lead through turbulent times of change.
My particular experience with this is in the area of spirituality and church leadership. In this context, themes like vision, leadership and the future all converge. In fact, for many years, concepts like ‘ dream big’ and ‘endless possibilities’ have even been a type of holy grail of book writing and public speaking for a segment of Christianity. Many shaped by this mantra were also gripped by the adrenaline rush associated with being the first to predict a new shift, the’ next’ wave of church, the newest worship song all in hopes of helping you discovery a fresh new you.
Put simply, those who drank at the well of imagination and creativity may not be suited to do the hard work of re-imagining the future of the church.
FOUR PATTERNS WE CAN’T AFFORD TO IGNORE
All of us who care about the future of Christian community and its unique expression as the church have been thrust into a vortex of change. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it takes disruption to help us revisit what is most essential. Having said that, this assumes that people have been trained to know what is essential.
In the area of ecclesiology, the study of the church, we unfortunately have years of messy pragmatic theological assumptions to sort out. If that wasn’t already a problem, we are now trying to both grieve what we loved while re-imagining a new way forward.
As we make our way toward a foggy future, I believe we are at risk, more than ever, of losing something essential about being the church unless we slow down to think about why the church even matters in the first place.
While my reflections are limited, they come from years of being a practitioner, pastor and theological student living in the trenches of church leadership. As you consider your own context, here are four guideposts to light our way lest we make the terrible mistake of letting the wrong voices re-imagine church and its place in the future.
I. THOSE WHO CHAMPION IMAGINATION ALONE ARE THE WRONG VOICES TO LEAD THE CHARGE
Although I love creativity, what is troubling is that the skills that fuel imagination are not the same that foster re-imagination. Re-imagining requires first understanding the original intent of the ‘image’. For the church, this means having a deep apprecation of the complex historical roots of the faith and its development within a lived community of people. Preserving this reality is essential for true re-imagining to take place.
Any commitment to re-imagine something requires a serious affirmation of what is deemed too precious to let go of. The Bible points to this as we consider the themes like worship, confession, repentance, submission, sacrifice and service. All the communal aspects of the church’s initial DNA presupposed the importance of spiritual leadership, corporate gathering and communal accountability. Ephesians 4 helps provides an anchor worth remembering.
In other words, if the church we re-imagine does not require the the unique gifts of apostles, teachers, pastors, evangelists and prophets then we are no longer dealing with the orginal shape of the church Jesus is building.
II. THE WRONG VOICES PRIORITIZE SELF-SERVING SPIRITUALITY
Unfortunately, when unhinged imagination is not properly corrected, Jesus soon becomes a private ‘discover my destiny’ guru. What often follows is a church re-imagined as a self serve shopping mall. The nature of Christian community has never been about quenching ones private spiritual urges. This image of church, will make it impossiblet to understand the promise associated with ‘picking up your cross to follow Jesus’. Consquently, churches who care about taking this commandment of Jesus seriously soon seem irrelvant.
The biblical story frames new life in Jesus within a particular context called the Kingdom of God. The Church, as it took shape in the early Christian documents, modeled being filled by God the Holy Spirit, for the purposes of God’s unfolding Kingdom. The church has never been about fostering a personal spirituality fix. This was gnostic territory with its inner knowledge games.
Saying yes to Jesus always meant learning to pray for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Hence, the voices we trust to re-imagine church must help us cultivate a prayer life that defines spirituality within a visible community, locally celebrating God’s unfolding restoration plan for the world.
III. THE WRONG VOICES CONFUSE MERE CHANGE FOR PROGRESS
The church, from it’s inception, took shape within a larger story. The earliest followers of Jesus, martyrs of the faith, understood that change had a context. For weeks many have been pounding the drums of change for the church. While I am in favor of a new way forward, I am noticing how many continue to ignore the hard work of understanding the essential pillars of being church shaped by a rooted historical past that embraces progress, not just change.
C.S. Lewis wisely reminds, “Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better.”
May we be wise about how we define better. It might be obvious , but ‘better’ cannot just mean ‘reaching more people’ or ‘having more online views’. Those who seem to suggest that may be unreliable voices in this sea of change. Sure, digital measurement can be helpful, but they cannot be the primary way we think of re-imagining church.
Confusing change for real progress is to miss that the church has alway emphasized transformation shaped by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the original image of the invisible God. I believe that any future model of church must re-affirm that. Further, this type of life transformation is formed in community and guided by accountable spiritual leaders who, with God’s grace, also model being transformed.
Progress, in this context, entails the formation of committed disciples. This requires, accountability, confession, spiritual authority, and the joy of seeing diverse gifts of leadership weaved together as part of regular communal worship.
In Christianity, it takes a church to make disciples worth sending into the world.
For that reason, we are wise to patiently resist many who are quick to claim a new change on the horizon. Patience would show that no one who is wise builds a new boat in a storm. We need progress not just change.
IV. THOSE WHO IDOLIZE THE PAST ARE THE WRONG VOICES
The good news of Jesus required a new paradigm about the past. Jesus had a way of celebrating the past as he called people to envision a new future. This is a skill few people developed at the fountain of mere imagination.
For that reason, we must be more careful to embrace a re-imagining of the church that honors and learns from the past but is committed to not live in it. A desire to relive the good old days is always rooted in a certain type of idolatry of control. As a corrective, followers of Jesus were taught that the good news takes root when we are ready to surrender our definitions of normal, safe and comfortable.
While those who idolize the past are likely to present new road blocks on an difficult path leaders will have trust in the power of the Spirit who alone can help us re-imagine the church now.
For those familiar with the Bible, you might know that it was a grace filled mystery that the Holy Spirit called forth and blew into existence the church.
I always saw it as God’s way of saying, ‘Hey, don’t think you can control this to fit your own paradigms of safety and comfort. This is bigger than you. ’ For years I missed that as I tried to get God on my terms. While I am not sure what the future of the church entails, I know that those who long for the good old days may be sincere, but that won’t be encough to navigate the storm we find ourselves in.
I hope you agree, it is not too late to correct this.
Let’s begin with a unified commitment that discussions about re-imagining church require we embrace that as we re-imagine church we never get to create something imagined, out of nothing.
The human desire to have things on our terms only reveals our broken and selfish attempts to be ‘god like’, to create from scratch that suits me. God’s corrective for this is the church. A broken, but healing, community hopeful about an unknown future never forgeting that the wrong voices will never help us discern the right way forward.