Shepherd’s Care: Creativity

I believe the future of the Church turns on how creative we are willing to be. The pandemic has suspended “business as usual” for institutional Christianity. If we return to it as things open up, we will have failed to discern a moment of opportunity. Among its many problems and challenges, the pandemic has produced a “new wineskins” moment for the Body of Christ. The institutional Church has a window of opportunity to decide whether it will do patchwork on the old skins or do Spirit work in the new skins. We have a choice to be brittle or better.

The Church has been here many times before because it is ‘semper reformanda’ (always being reformed), moving from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). Church history provides a mixed report with respect to creativity. What becomes of the Church in the future will undoubtedly be another tale of success and failure. Institutional Christianity always battles the temptation to make the status quo a sacred cow, and the lure of bureaucratic preservation is strong. The future of the Church will be determined by whether we see it mainly as an organization or as a organism—whether we view it as a machine that needs fixing or a movement that needs advancing. [1] The future of the Church will be shaped by how creative we are willing to be.

I ministered and taught before, during, and after the Church Growth movement was on the ecclesial scene. With respect to Spiritual Formation, I had to assess its vision, values, and ventures through the lens of classic spirituality. And not surprisingly, the movement exhibited both sickness and health.

On the healthy side, the Church Growth movement understood the necessity of creativity. One of its hallmarks was “seeker sensitivity.” Using things like felt-need surveys, congregations developed worship services, recovery ministries, small group experiences, and mission efforts to attract and care for seekers.

I believe the future of the Church pivots on its willingness to remain “seeker sensitive,” but in a way that will demand courage and risk on our part. The tables have turned. Those whom we identify as seekers are increasingly looking for God outside the Church’s walls. Seekers are more likely to be “nones or dones” than they are to be visitors or newbies.

Seeker-sensitivity these days will be more about being missional than attractional. The oft-cited failures of institutional Christianity have turned many away, and it will take a long time to repair the damage and restore confidence in it. [2] While being involved in restorative efforts, the more immediate and pressing need is to follow the seekers as they exit our buildings, and “offer them Christ’ in new places and ways.

This kind of creativity is going to call some churches to rethink brick-and-mortar Christianity. Saddled with debt, insurance payments, maintenance costs, and utility bills, many congregations are financially exhausted before they get to square-one considerations of beyond-the-walls ministry. And even if they have some money for mission, they increasingly see that those funds would be much larger if they did not have to pay so much to “keep the lights on.”

In this respect, signs of creativity are emerging, some even before the pandemic began. Congregations are repurposing property and sometimes selling it as a way to be less burdened by the high costs for empty space. The future of the Church will (for more and more congregations) be determined by whether or not they can be healed of building envy.

Watching churches do this, I am encouraged by a recovery of vision for house-church Christianity—the kind that defined Christianity for its first several centuries. Dave Barnhart’s book, ‘Church Comes Home’ is a witness to this renewed vision, as well as a guide for implementing house-church ministry today. [3] The pandemic has added its own insights as to the viability of at-home Christianity. We have seen that we can work…and worship…from home. This realization can be a way forward for a new kind of Church. [4]

The crucial factor in developing creativity is to remain seeker-sensitive, but to do so in a new way that understands many are no longer coming to church, not to avoid God, but rather in order to find God. The Church of the future will survive and thrive if we have the will to leave with the seekers and tend the flock in our care where it goes.

[1] Of course, this is not an either/or choice because the Church is both invisible and visible. But I believe what we envision determines what we enact. An institutional emphasis will not generate the renewal the Church needs.

[2] Sadly, the Church is seen by many (and often justifiably so) as an institution that excludes and harms. Too many people have experienced this firsthand. Their exodus and disinterest is not a departure from faith, but rather a prophetic judgment upon faux expressions of the Gospel.

[3] Dave Barnhart, ‘Church Comes Home’ (Abingdon Press, 2020).

[4] Among the post-pandemic dynamics of designing the new wineskins are the lessons of a more laity expressed Christianity, a “people of God in the world” faith. These things have usually characterized Church renewal.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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