Birthing The 21st Century Church: A Wilderness Journey

English: Sterzing, Holy Spirit church frescos,...
English: Sterzing, Holy Spirit church frescos, on the northern wall, representing the infancy of Christ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

L.D. Turner

To say that the Body of Christ is undergoing major changes may rank right up there with the greatest understatements of all time. Whether we are talking about the local church or the global church, we can easily see that old structures are crumbling and new forms are gradually taking shape. Some of these forms are positive and may well be of a lasting nature while others are less attractive and hopefully fleeting.

As someone who cares deeply for the kingdom message of Jesus, I am well aware that the church’s primary mission consists of doing all that we can to establish that kingdom on earth. And I will admit that there are times that I become frustrated, discouraged, and anxious when I see little progress being made or witness the church getting bogged down in petty conflicts that accomplish little other than bring a grin to the enemy’s face. In far too many instances I am convinced that we, as the church universal, have drifted away from this central aspect of our mission and our calling.

As I was prayerfully reflecting upon the future of the church on my morning prayer walk recently, I found the Spirit nudging my mind to the story of the Israelites as told in Exodus. In their meandering journey to the Promised Land, the Israelites repeatedly lost faith, took wrong turns, complained loudly, and, on one occasion, went so far as to create a golden cow to worship. Yet in spite of their lack of faithfulness, their infidelity, and their disobedience, God never abandoned them. He came into their midst as a cloud by day and a fire by night and in doing so, led them across the Jordan and into the land where he intended for them to dwell.

Reflecting on these familiar themes, the Holy Spirit led me to see that is so many ways, the church is in a similar situation as the ancient Israelites. As the Body of Christ wanders through this present sea of change, it is easy to lose our direction, to have our faith falter, to bicker, complain, and lose our trust in God. Yet like he did with the Hebrew people, God is with us and will lead us into the “Promised Land” of a renewed and revitalized church. We cannot yet know what form that church will take but if we continue to walk forward and trust the Father, he will guide us every step of the way. Although we may not be able to clearly see the ultimate outcome of this transition process, we can trust God to reveal the next step with encouraging clarity.

I took much comfort from that revelation from the Holy Spirit that morning and I continue to derive an optimistic outlook from what I learned on that particular prayer walk. Just as the Hebrew nation was God’s chosen people in those centuries before Christ, the church now has that blessed identity and it is incumbent upon us to trust that the Father will complete the great work that he has begun with us.

It may be, however, that the various forms the church takes and the methods it uses may be far beyond the pale of what we expect. With that fact in mind I strongly encourage each and every one of you to have an open mind and a flexible attitude as God’s “new work” unfolds.

Patricia King, in the introduction to her book Spiritual Revolution, speaks with both insight and clarity as she describes the revolutionary changes taking place in the Body of Christ and the importance of having a positive attitude toward this transitional process:

We must be willing to lay everything on the altar, including our opinions, our programs, and our old structures. We must be willing to follow Him with passion and devotion as the revolution unfolds. This emerging revolution will manifest God’s goodness, power, glory, supernatural signs, wonders, and miracles. The revolution will transition a powerless church into a light-radiating Body of His presence, full of pulsating heavenly presence and power. The revolution will call us to walk like Jesus did in the Gospels and the apostles did in the Book of Acts. The revolution will call for people clothed with heavenly power and godly character.

Of course, not everyone will be open to the coming changes and resistance will be strong. King continues:

As in past historical moves of revolution, there will be those who resist and harden their heart, desiring to hold on to the old ways and mind-sets. Change is often difficult because it forces people to rethink hardened opinions and be willing to remove ourselves from the rut of our comfortable lifestyles. However, in spite of those who resist the revolution, there will be those who embrace it, jumping on board and following Jesus into new and uncharted territory. Some things that God will manifest in these coming days have never been done before, things that will stretch our imagination and challenge our intellect.

For many of us, change is very difficult. This is especially true with behaviors and beliefs that are deeply ingrained or held with great affection. The following story from my own experience, although not related to a deeply held belief, does illustrate clearly the dangers of stubbornly holding on to something that has outworn its usefulness.

From the time I was five years old I have been an avid baseball fan. I played the sport throughout my school years and, once I became an adult, played competitive softball for many years.

I normally played middle infield, either second base or shortstop. For many years I used the same softball glove. In fact, I used it so long that the strings kept breaking, all the padding was gone out of the pocket and the leather was cracked in several strategic places. Nevertheless I refused to buy a new glove, in spite of the frequent protestations of my teammates.

The reason was simple. I was comfortable with this old glove. It molded to my hand perfectly over the years and it felt reassuring to put in on before I took the field. All too often, however, I would catch a hard line drive right in the pocket and my hand would sting, then remain numb for several minutes. Still, I wanted no part of a new glove.

A new glove, as anyone who has played the sport knows, is a real pain for awhile. It feels funny, awkward and stiff. It is easy to make errors with a new glove, at least until it is broken in properly. No, my old glove was fine thank you very much.

One day our third baseman wasn’t able to make the game and I played the so-called “hot corner.” Things went okay for the first two innings. Then, in the third inning the batter hit a hard liner right at me. I responded quickly and raised my glove, only to have the ball break right through the ancient webbing and hit me square in the forehead, knocking me out cold.

Two days later I bought a new glove.

My experience with my old softball glove is not unlike my experience with the behaviors that flow from my old self. No matter how much I try to take off the old and put on the new, the old keeps rearing its head and biting me. I suspect that I am not alone in this predicament.

Many of my old behaviors and especially old, erroneous and limiting mind-sets, like my old softball glove, may hurt me time and time again. But, they are comfortable in the sense that they are familiar and predictable. My old self resists change and it is here that we are vulnerable to our habitual responses to life, however unhealthy and painful they may be. The great work that God is doing in renewing and rebirthing the church will require that we turn loose of some of our most cherished ideas and ways of doing things in order to allow the refreshed and revitalized church to take root.

As committed followers of Christ we must consistently face reality as it is. And the fact is, the church is in deep trouble and unless we make a significant course change, we could easily find ourselves on the verge of extinction. In fact, many denominations are already on the endangered species list. We can no longer afford to linger in denial of these realities, as harsh as they are. One lesson we can take from the mass exodus from our sanctuaries is simply this: business as usual is no longer an option.

The church presently finds itself in a situation where it must not only consider possible change, it must instead embrace change. As mentioned earlier, there will always be those that resist change. They dig in their heels, set their jaws, and grind their teeth until their faces take on a fossilized scowl. Yet change is not only essential to the church’s survival, it is also an opportunity for the church to renew itself and remain relevant to the world it is called to serve and save. Graham Cooke and Gary Goodell, in their book Permission Granted to do Church Differently in the 21st Century, speak to the nuts and bolts of the process of change:

Every change involves a letting go of one thing to reach out to what is next. It is death by installments – the slow death of our mind-sets, our attitudes, perceptions, and paradigms with nothing obvious to take their place. That is, we see only the replacement concept as we journey. We don’t just see it, though; we experience it. Sometimes our experience is first, and we go through something that we understand only in retrospect. It is important, therefore, if we are to journey with the Lord into new lands, that we build in time to reflect and review where we are and where we have come from. Our road map of faith must be kept up-to-date and relevant for anyone coming after us.

Paradoxically, the dwindling numbers in our churches has taken place during a time of intense spiritual hunger in our culture. America has become a veritable spiritual smorgasbord with both traditional and non-traditional religions and spiritual systems to choose from. Increasingly, people are approaching their spiritual needs in cafeteria style, taking a little from here, a smattering from, a touch of this, and a dollop of that. I have one good friend, for example, who describes himself as a Shamanic Episcopagan.

The church, for the most part, has failed to recognize and respond to this spiritual appetite that has been escalating in this country since the early 1960s. When confronted with questioning but sincere spiritual seekers outside the norm of what they were comfortable with, far too many churches circled the wagons rather than reaching out to these spiritual vagabonds. In so doing, organized Christianity wasted a golden opportunity and suffered a loss of sociological relevance in the process.

Equally tragic is the fact that the church has also failed to recognize and respond to the spiritual hunger within its own ranks. Granted, there are a number of churches that are vibrant, alive, and truly are disciple-making entities driven by Jesus’ kingdom calling. I am aware, however, that a greater number of churches have greatly missed the mark in this regard, choosing instead to offer up a palatable, non-threatening form of Christianity that makes true discipleship optional. This approach to organized Christianity is dying under the weight of its own lethargy exclusivity. It is my firm, faith-based conviction that God will replace this dying brand of Christianity with another form of the faith that will satisfy the spiritual hunger of those genuine seekers within its membership and outside its ranks as well. Patricia King elaborates on the spiritual revolution mentioned earlier:

In the coming spiritual revolution, a spiritual hunger will surface like never before. You will see hunger for the supernatural and for the raw power of God. Young people especially will search for deeper meaning to life. They are not looking for a church service to attend or for a club to join. They are searching for spiritual realities that transcend religious traditions. They are looking for models that can be applied to their lives. They are looking for what is truly real and for what is eternal. They are weary of simply hearing the words preached. They want demonstration.

The spiritual revolution described by Patricia King is not coming at some future date; it is already upon us and is progressing at lightning speed. And it is not only the young who are seeking deeper answers. As great numbers of Baby Boomers move into their retirement years, they suddenly find themselves confronted with their mortality and are increasingly seeking deeper answers in their quest for meaning and purpose in their golden years.

Rather than burying our heads in the sand, the church can instead view these new realities as both challenges and opportunities. With the Holy Spirit leading the way, serving as our guide and our comforter, we are in better circumstances than the ancient Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. In addition to the Father serving as our cloud by day and our fire by night, we have the power of the Spirit residing within us, equipping us to face the challenges ahead and to succeed in giving birth to new wineskins for the gospel message and new forms for the church assume.

We can trust God to complete the work he has begun and we can trust his integrity when he says that he will always be with us, even until the end of the age (Matthew 28: 20). If that is not enough to give us positive encouragement, we can also consider the reality that residing within us is the same power that raised Christ from the dead. If that power can give us the empty tomb on Easter morning, surely it can resurrect the Body of Christ in this critical age.

Think about it.

© L.D. Turner 2013/All Rights Reserved



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