Last year the theme for the New England Synod Assembly was “Holy Experiment in Progress” and we launched into an open laboratory where congregations were encouraged to ask good questions, test hypotheses and try something new. We were given permission to take risks and even given permission to fail, trusting that God is with us through it all. Why all the fuss about experiments, innovation and change? Because for many of our congregations here in New England “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t working anymore. Church membership is declining, energy is waning, finances are dwindling, and buildings are crumbling. We’ve tried everything in our collective toolboxes, but nothing seems to be working anymore.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.From “The Real Work” by Wendell Berry
What happened? We could blame cultural shifts, technology, economics, politics, or a combination of them all, but maybe there is also another reason why we’re seeing decline. Maybe we just became too comfortable. Instead of reaching out and keeping up to date with our neighbors, we got a little too cozy in our pews and a little too set in our ways. We fell out of touch. Families, lifestyles, and the way people thought about affiliation, faith, and spirituality changed, and in many ways our congregations were left behind. Here in New England this hits home even more than in the rest of country; five of our New England states have the honor of being the ranked least religious in the United States by the 2015 Pew Religious Landscape Study.
Yet…what a great time to be the church! New England is veritable mission field; filled with opportunity to meet our neighbors, develop new relationships, and share the joy and peace and hope that is Christ Jesus with people who may have never even encountered God’s message of unconditional love, mercy, and grace. We are in a position to re-discover the church’s roots as we re-connect with the life of our communities. The early church grew through relationships, people meeting people, having conversations, gathering for fellowship, as well as for worship and prayer. It was about connecting God’s work with the lives of all God’s people. Listening, having intentional conversations, and building relationships is also the first step for any 21st century mission developer. Mission developers are driven by the promise that God invites everyone to be a participants in an amazing new world order through Jesus Christ: where love triumphs death, hope overcomes fear, and where eternal life is not only possible but freely given. They specialize in being present, showing up, and meeting people where they are.
Moses said to God, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.”
God said, “My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end." Exodus 33:12-14, The Message
It is truly a gift to have so many new starts and congregations participating in Forward Leadership who are intentionally moving toward redevelopment and renewal. I think of them as incubators for future faith community as they experiment with new ways of being church together in the 21st century.
In a way, we are all called to be mission developers setting out in the mission field; we are all called to be present, to show up, and to meet people where they are in Jesus name… with no assumptions, no reservations, and only one expectation: that God will be there with us and will see this journey to the end.