by Pastor Doug Kings

Next week when I’m back in town, I am going to write a follow-up to the ELCA assembly meeting and its plans for reorganization. I wrote the following (edited) piece a few years ago and it gives some “food for thought” about that process and the state of the church.

It’s a common story: companies and institutions trying to find their way in a new environment. Change is the only constant, they say, and any organization that doesn’t adjust to change won’t be around for long. Companies find that their product has been improved upon by a competitor or their customer base is disappearing. Nonprofits find their expenses ballooning or their donors losing interest in their cause. Whatever the reason, organizations everywhere are in constant struggle to adjust their operations to new realities, many of which have caught them by surprise because of their own myopia and denial.

The church, of course, is no stranger to this state-of-affairs. The memberships of most congregations and denominations have been in free-fall for a generation. In thinking about its response, the church uses much the same language found in the secular world: reorganize, redevelop, redirect, rehabilitate, restore, renew.

Sometimes the renewal needed is physical: fresh paint, caulking windows, replacing HVAC systems, etc. The appearance and functionality of a church’s property are important to its well-being. And many rightly perceive that a rundown building is often a sign of the state of a congregation.

Renewal must go further than that, however. Today the emphasis is on connecting with a population different somehow from the current membership. Young people (which can mean anyone under 50) are recognized to have different tastes in music than what has been traditionally used in worship. They also communicate differently. Websites, blogs, email, tweets, texts, and social media have all come about in the past generation. Previous church mainstays, newspaper ads and printed monthly newsletters, now reach only a small portion of the potential audience.

But while renewing a church’s property and organization can be essential, it also won’t be enough. From retailing, this is what I describe as changing the packaging and the marketing but leaving the product untouched. For the church in the 21st century, that’s not going to cut it.

While it may be true is some situations, for the church it’s not “all in the presentation.” One of the most well-known examples is so-called “contemporary worship.” Its hallmark is the use of modern music and instruments, yet much of its theology is dated and conservative—more so than in most “traditional” liturgy!

To stay with the retail analogy, many would object that the church’s “product” never changes: it’s Jesus Christ. True, of course, but over the centuries the church has experienced many shifts in how it understands Christ’s meaning and significance. This has often occurred at moments of crisis in the church’s life—the Reformation being a dramatic example.

Today is another such situation, with many people experiencing Christianity, and religion generally, as irrelevant to their lives or even hostile to important values they hold. This is the central theme of John Philip Newell’s Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation. In the introduction, the author describes the situation.

There is widespread disillusionment within the Christian household today. And by Christians household I am not referring solely to those who attend church. I am including the much vaster number of us who have grown up in Christian families or Christian cultures and who choose to have little to do with the church. There is despair about much of what Christianity has to offer. So many of its teachings and practices seem either irrelevant to the deepest yearnings of the human soul or flatly opposed to them. Why? Is it not in part because we have been taught to distrust our deepest yearnings rather than to see them as Sacred?

For centuries, church authorities strove to convince people that it held the secret to escape from the miseries of life. But they said little about how to experience the goodness of life, as is taught in the Genesis creation story, for example. It was a self-serving message which kept the pews full for a long time, but not anymore. Rather, people want to know what relevance Christ has for their life here and now. As Newell says,

At key moments of transition in the history of the Christianity, inspired Christian teachers have asked, “Who is Christ for us today?” That is the question the great German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, asked in the midst of the terrible wrongs that were being done there. The question, he believed, was not “Who has Christ always been?” but “Who is Christ now?” We too live at a time of transition as well as at a time of deep wrong. And we are in the midst of a change of age. Never before has humanity been more aware of the oneness of the earth, even though that awareness is being opposed by some of the world’s mightiest political and religious forces. The growing consciousness is that life is interwoven . . . and that what we do to a part we do to the whole. So who is Christ for us now? What is it we are to bring from the great treasure trove of the Christian household to the awareness and longings that are stirring within the human soul today?

In Romans, Paul writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Paul believed the renewal brought by Christ was not just a surface makeover but a radical transformation affecting individuals, nations, cultures, and ultimately the whole world. This is the kind of renewal that Jesus meant by his announcement that God’s reign was at hand. It would turn things upside-down. It is the kind of renewal we in the church must be talking about to bring genuine hope to people today. Anything less shortchanges Christ and shortchanges world.

Blessings in your life and ministry.