Sometimes I have a fantasy that March 2019 will come, the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church designed to heal our rifts will have passed with a grand reaffirmation of our union, and we’ll all go back to normal. That’s the funny thing about normal in the church, though—there’s no going back there.
Being the Church in the 21st century is going to involve some of the basics that have made us the Church through the previous centuries, but one of those basics is that the Church does not exist for itself but for God and for the new people God is welcoming in to the body of Christ. And new people will need new spaces.
At least that’s the argument of Jacob Armstrong, the founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee. In this continuing series where I dialogue with Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015], I have tried to think about the implications of the ideas here for rural communities like the Eastern Shore. And much as I love the church as it was, which raised me, it’s hard to look at the changing world around us and argue with Armstrong’s thesis:
“A major adaptation is needed to reach people who have stopped feeling the need to come. Almost everything will have to change. When worship, children’s ministry, youth ministry, and adult discipleship are all built around knowing what to do with the people when they get in the building, we can’t make incremental change here. An adaptive change is required.” (28)
Easy to say for a guy who is starting a church without a building, (which is what Providence Church did), but that congregation eventually did move into its own space and now they faced a challenge—fighting the temptation to turn inward. Armstrong proposes a question to counter that temptation: “There are many ways to leverage the land and the buildings you have to serve the community, but for a couple of events a year I suggest pretending like you don’t have those things. How would you reach out and encounter new people if you did not have a building or land?” (30)
For Providence Church this meant holding a free cookout at the local trailer park, recognizing Armed Forces Day with a community event for military families, and showing up at public places and festivals. Several churches on the Eastern Shore have tried similar things. Franktown UMC has done that cookout in a local trailer park under a tent. St. John’s took over the Pocomoke coffee house for a young adult night. Grace Church went out on the Parksley square for a Halloween Trunk or Treat. Drummondtown and Metropolitan churches marched together in Accomac on the Fourth of July and Trinity UMC has taken a decorated golf cart and a kazoo band into the Cape Charles parade.
Efforts like these not only help the community know about the churches, they also help the church see and get to know its mission field. We break the pattern established by that unusual period that reached its peak in the 1950s and 60s when it was possible to build something and they would come. What happens in our buildings is still vitally important to who we are, but the new people God desires to know about the good news of Jesus are now going to be “out there” for the most part.
I do recognize that the fantasy I have about “getting back to normal” is just that and that the future will have some discomforts as we do the work of adjusting, whatever the shape of our denominational home. But I also get excited when I recognize that God’s Church does have a future and that the mission it has always had will not be changing. In fact, I do believe that I am meeting that future in the faces of those who are searching for a home in God’s love.
Sure, there’s no going back. But there are a lot of places yet to go!