By the Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman
In October, I had the honor of presenting a workshop based on my book Reconstructing Church: Tools for Turning Your Congregation Around at Super Saturday, a joint project of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Conferences. I’m grateful for this opportunity to engage these conversations, which are absolutely critical to the future of the congregations we love.
Mainline Protestant churches could be thought of as the back of America’s hands: so familiar as to be overlooked, yet on closer look increasingly foreign to the culture to which it gave birth. Churches were among the first institutions established by early settlers of North America, and they played a decisive role in shaping the history and values of civic life and culture in the United States. Though what are now known as mainline Protestant churches were not de jure the established religion of the land, they were de facto the moral arbiters of culture. This situation has been rapidly changing over the past fifty years, or in some cases even longer. The church built 250 years ago on the green at the center of town in many cases is no longer the center of town life.
Mainline Protestant churches are becoming disestablished relative to their standing with other institutions in American culture. For some congregations, this has meant a new lease on life. No longer burdened with the responsibilities of being chaplains to political and economic power, they have reinvented themselves in myriad ways that allow them to carry their gospel heritage into new mission fields. Having grown dependent on the tacit support of the wider culture, many other congregations now find themselves foundering as that support is slowly withdrawn. They suffer “dis-ease” at the loss of cultural privilege and all the institutional benefits that attend this elevated status. These congregations may or may not have the resources and willingness to engage in the work of church redevelopment, which I define as imagining and actualizing new life in dying churches.
The prophet Isaiah declares, "The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever" (40:8). As you consider your context, take heart. Whereas congregations can be frail and global trends hopelessly beyond our control, the gospel entrusted to us continues to prove its power to change lives, change communities, and even to change the world. So love the people. Build the network. Remember that with every yes there is a no. Claim your theology and go deep. Respect differences while opening your heart to unlikely alliances. Get out there, make friends, and invite them to church. Or, if they aren’t interested in church, invite them to some other partnership, alliance, or relationship. Open yourself to the possibility not only that your life will be changed, but also that you will have the opportunity to bear witness to the life-giving, life-changing power of God at work in the lives of others. Successful and faithful church redevelopment is going to demand every ounce of everything you’ve got…and then some more. When we give our lives to God without reserve, new life is possible.
I’d love to hear your comments, questions, and stories about new life in your congregation. Send me an email (email@example.com ) or “like” the Reconstructing Church Facebook page to begin a conversation there. Perhaps you could start a study group at your church to begin asking the question, “What would it take to do successful and faithful church redevelopment in our context?” And you might check out the book for some ideas and encouragement to move forward into God’s future.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman serves as senior co-pastor of Beneficent Church in Providence, with the Rev. Nicole Grant Yonkman. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School and recently received his DMin from Andover Newton Theological School.
Think about Reconstructing Church as a holiday gift. You pick up a copy on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Reconstructing-Church-Turning-Congregation-Around/dp/1566997216/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1415727764&sr=1-1&keywords=yonkman.
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