Recently my wife Robyn brought home a book from her Worldconnex board meeting entitled The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier. Loren B. Mead, one of the founders of the Alban Institute, wrote the book back in 1991. He wrote of the slow and sure demise of mainline denominations and congregations across the land, but as I read his analysis I saw too many parallels to the challenges currently being faced by the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Note how Mead describes the slow decline of mainline denominations:
“In one denomination after another, the consensus disappeared. Voices became discordant. Mission, which had once been both central rallying cry and basic assumption, became instead a subject of debate and disagreement. What had been clear simply was not clear any more. Instead of having a shared sense of one crusade in which all were engaged and to which all were committed, we began to be aware of different agendas, conflicting demands, and needs for ministry.”
Mead points out in the complex realities of a changing environment, western denominations were not prepared for the changes in Christendom. As the vision became clouded by competing voices and issues, and as the society no longer supported and at time propped up the churches the church began to decline and panic set in. In our time of confusion and competing voices today, Mead challenges us to come to grips with what really may be happening around us and among us.
Mead points out:
“First, our present confusion about mission hides the fact that we are facing a fundamental change in how we understand the mission of the church. Beneath the confusion we are being stretched between a great vision of the past and a new vision that is not yet fully formed. Second, local congregations are now being challenged to move from a passive, responding role in support of mission to a front-line, active role…Third, institutional structures and forms developed to support one vision of our mission are rapidly collapsing.”
In response to the collapse of the norm in Western Christianity Mead points out that:
“I argue that we are being called to invent or reinvent structures and forms that will serve the new mission as well as the old structures served the old vision. I believe that we are midwives for a new church, working to help our present forms and structures give birth to forms appropriate for the new mission of the church”.
As I read Mead’s observations and insights I was deeply moved, enlightened, saddened and challenged. I find myself caught between two worlds. I was raised, educated, and taught to love the faith (and structures) of our Baptist church fathers. I bleed the Cooperative program, and tear up to the tight harmony of the Gaither vocal band, but I realize God is calling me and those I lead to embrace a new vision bold and creative enough to impact the world of today and tomorrow.