Over the last few weeks I have come across the same issue from several different angles. It is clear that there is something to be noticed and that if we fail to pay attention, we will eventually pay the price (although we are already paying it)
One judicatory that I consult with is wrestling with renewal and there is a tension between renewing the church/congregations vs. renewing individuals. Where should we start? What should the outcomes be? Another project that I am doing with a group of pastors keeps pointing to the same tension – do we renew the church or do we revitalize its members and leaders? And in my own life and work I am sensing the need to be clearer about the work I am doing in my parish and with the participants there.
I think we have thought about Pentecost, which we just celebrated, as the birth of the church. This is an easy connection to make – and it is probably valid enough. But at the same time, Pentecost may be about more than the beginning of an institution. The stirring of the Spirit may have as much to do with changing individuals as it does with birthing a new corporate identity. And our ability to do either may require us to effectively do both.
Last week, I had lunch with one of my favorite writers – John Philip Newell. He has brought a wealth of energy and focus into my thinking as a leader and helped me to see more and more, how important it is to spend personal time paying attention to what God is up to and saying to me. This is not just a private thing. It is something to be done personally but also to be done in community. What I hear God saying to and through me is tied to what we hear God saying to and through us. I am reminded how important it is to be attentive and renewed in my own spirit and to pay closer attention to what God is up to in, with, and under my life.
I am also clear that there is a desire to renew the whole church. This desire is real and very much needed. The decline of the church, especially the mainline church in the western world, is a significant issue for both the church and the society in which we live. A failure to re-engage and re-invent our life together and the relevance and engagement we have with God’s world will means further decline and almost certain death. This won’t stop God from working – but it will mean the contribution God is urging from us will be missed.
Sadly, our anxiety about the church’s future is clouding our ability to do anything about it. We want to fix the church as quickly as possible, which means changing the church collectively. Yet the renewal of the church must be led by people who are led by God. It requires people whose lives are being changed and who are attentive to the Spirit’s voice. There is an answer to the chicken and egg question here: changed people change churches. Personal renewal and the renewal of leadership will precede the transformation of churches. The two can’t be disconnected for a dead church will not be able to sustain the renewal of people. Either side of this argument losing patience with the other will result in a disjointed (and ineffective) effort.
At the same time, I am more and more clear that the starting place will be the spiritual renewal of people who are called to lead and who both are personally transformed and seriously engaged in leading the transformation of the church. This is not an end in itself, although it does have its own value. It is also a means to making the church a different kind of church – one that is attentive to the Spirit’s urging in our personal lives and equally attentive to the Spirit’s movement in the world God loves.
This means that the future of the church will depend on our ability to renew individuals, support them as they engage their congregations, and work with congregations to provide broader engagement of people as disciples and helping them better join with God at work in the world. Most of us bring a bias – personal or corporate. But it is clear to me that both are important and that any corporate renewal will require personal renewal at the front end in order to have any depth that brings a real chance to succeed.