[ Community Impact • Evangelism ]
The #ReimagineFORUM Coaching Session with Ken Oliver
- Why is it important for Christian leaders to begin a journey of rethinking ministry?
As Bob Dylan said “the times, they are a’changin.” The world is not only different from my early days in ministry in the 1980’s, the church itself has changed. The Evangelical world has been caught up in the idea of culture war – a thing that was alien to our thinking in the 1970’s and 80’s. If the Evangelical movement since World War II was a movement away from the Fundamentalism of the first half of the 20th century, then since the mid-90’s we have come full circle. Evangelicals feel not only alienated from the centers of culture and learning, but we feel under attack. We have “lost” a few battles, especially on the issue of gay marriage; however, we have made significant progress on issues such as valuing the life of the unborn and protecting women and children from sexual trafficking. Yet even our victories feel like defeats. There is a creeping paranoia and withdrawal into a safe world that makes evangelism problematic. We cannot reach people for Christ unless we are willing to enter into their world, not just physical world, but their world as they know and experience it.
- Why will a "reimagine-journey" be difficult and potentially dangerous to the status quo?
The Reimagine-Journey is difficult because it is different. It calls us out of a world we know and feel safe in. It challenges a lot of the turf that we have fought over and asks us to question “what is really central to the gospel message”? I have been reading Acts following Pentecost, diving into the world of that early emerging church. Acts 10-11 is a pivot point. Peter, the leader of the Jerusalem church, deeply immersed in the culture of Judaism, has an encounter and a vision from God that challenged his cultural understanding of faith. Peter dared to act on faith. And he paid a price. While not explicit in the text, it is easy to see that Peter’s challenging of the Jewish cultural norms resulted in his loss of leadership in Jerusalem (Acts 11.2). Instead James, the brother of Jesus and the conservative defender of the faith, emerges as leader (Acts 15.13). And the Jerusalem church, initially the leadership center of Christianity, becomes a sort of backwater, fighting old cultural battles while the healthy and vibrant church grows elsewhere.
- Agree/Disagree ~ We live in an extraordinary world: Globalization (and a global pandemic). Immigration. #BlackLivesMatter. Gender reclassification. Marriage Redefined.. #MeToo. The rise of White Supremacy. Terrorism. Unpredictable Weather. The impact of the Industrial Revolution gives way to the Technological Age. . . . This a time of epic change that requires the Church to rethink how we apply biblical truth to the traditions-programs-models-systems that format everything we do.
Yes, I very much agree. The world has grown both more global and more tribal. The issues are not necessarily new, but they have taken on a heightened sense of importance. In a certain sense, things have not changed. I have been reading Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson’s years in the U.S. Senate. At that time, we struggled with global reality (retreat into isolationism or take up the cause of freedom), the distrust of international institutions and the civil rights struggle. What has changed is that there is much broader public awareness of the issues, and the issues themselves have become more acute. What is fascinating in reading about those times is how close we can to charting a very different course. We almost got sucked into a global war with China while at the same time we almost withdrew from NATO (sound familiar?)
Yet I agree that today is extraordinary. Perhaps every generation feels that way. But there are two very big differences, and both differences have to do with the church. First of all, we live a world of the Global Church. Christianity is no longer an American-European institution. Whatever direction God leads his church, I am certain that leadership will come from a place that is not the United States or Europe. Secondly, we are poorly prepared for whatever changes are coming our way. The church has always had a person of learning who took the role of public theologian, a person such as Reinhold Niebuhr, who helped shape the Christian response to public events. Today, we have a diversity of voices, and the loudest are (sadly) the most reactionary.
I do see some hope, especially with the under 35 crowd. They are less caught up in old cultural battles and are willing to explore new ways of being Christ followers. The challenge of these younger leaders is a general ignorance of history. If a leader is also willing to be humble and to be a life-learner who studies history, then I will have hope that good things will come.
- What does it actually mean to "reimagine?" Please unpack the word as you understand it and the components of a reimagining process.
Reimagine means that we cannot stay the same. In fact, reality is forcing change. The question is will we react positively with planning and forethought, or will we react out of fear? First of all, the traditional way of training and certifying ministry leaders is on the verge of collapse. There are more seminary graduates than church staff openings, and all seminaries are seeing a steep decline in enrollment. The churches themselves are aging out. Some surveys are seeing a 40% drop in church membership by 2050. The church building is becoming an expensive burden as aging structures take up more and more of the finances. The result is many churches have turned inward – mission giving is often the first to go.
The mega-church is yet another reality that impacts mission. Mega-churches have upended the traditional way the mission work is done, and this is not necessarily a good thing. Everything originates out of the church and feeds back into the church. Mission is not giving, but investment. Even those “mission” projects that feel like they are sacrificial – such as digging wells in Africa – are really focused on building group loyalty and church brand.
To reimagine ministry is to see ministry not in terms of the American definition of success: money, numbers, books published, political power, etc. We may not have anyone follow us on twitter or read our blog. To reimagine ministry is to go outside of ourselves. To see our ministry as the ministry of Christ to the world. To listen to the Holy Spirit and ask what next? And, perhaps most importantly, it is within the context of a ministering community. To be one of many, not the celebrity in front. To be the listener and explainer when necessary. It is perhaps just the old-fashion role of a pastor. But in today’s context, it is radical.
- What roadblocks or resistance, barriers and boundaries, inhibit or prevent leaders from pursuing a discerning assessment when they commence a journey to reimagine ministry?
I see two primary roadblocks. First is that the standard model of doing church is expensive. We have expensive buildings, we have expensive staffing, etc. I predict that most congregations in the future will have limited resources and will need to figure out how to be church without building or staff, or by sharing spaces. Secondly, we are too sold on the standard model of success. What is the standard model of success in American? It is not that different from the corporate model of success. If we don’t have a church growing by 10% per year, we have failed. We should have a growing budget and a growing staff. Professionally, if we don’t have a book contract within the first decade of ministry, we have failed. We want to be the one invited to be the keynote speaker, listed high on the marque at the ministry conference, etc. I think that the standard model of success has distorted the true model of success for a pastor/leader. The Christian leader is called to be faithful, period.
- "Where do I begin? Where do you recommend a leader looks first to ensure they commence a truly Spirit-led, Scripture-fed journey?
I am responding to this question as a ministry leader of a para-church organization. This is somewhat different than my response would be as a church leader. The place to begin is to educate yourself about the issues in the world in which we live. On the issue of racism, I would start with Divided by Faith by Smith and Emerson. There are many other works out there, but I have found that this is a good way to enter into the conversation for a White Evangelical. I have not found an equally good book on economic issues. If you want to take a really deep dive, I have found Alastair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry the best analysis of the impact of the Enlightenment on modern thinking.
Secondly, you need to work with your Board and continually evaluate your mission. One temptation to avoid is taking a radical move away from your historic mission. If your mission is evangelism, the question ought to be how do we better achieve evangelism, not ought we change and become a different kind of organization? At the Bible Society, our core mission written one hundred years ago was to 1) Provide Bibles to those who need them, and 2) Encourage the serious reading and study of Scripture. Many have said, “Since the Bible is available for free on any smart phone, why do you still need to distribute Bibles? Should you not change your mission?” This is a real challenge, and if we concluded that our work was no longer necessary, then we should seriously consider dissolving. However, after much consideration, we came to two important conclusions: 1) there is still a large population in the jails, hospitals and other institutions that do not have easy access to the Bible, and 2) even though general access to the Bible is everywhere, actual Bible reading – even among those who attend church regularly – is at historic low points. Christians in the United States are becoming increasingly ignorant of the Bible.
In the process of this evaluation, we also discovered a third point: the Bible Society is one of the only safe places that Christians of different traditions can come together. The old church councils and ecumenical organizations are either gone or else have been controversial as they focus on more political issues. The Bible Society has become a place of networking, encouragement and dialogue around the Bible which we all share and value. We are, in a sense, in the community building business, and we are doing this not because we have changed our mission but because our mission has encountered a new reality which allows us to both change and be faithful to our historic mission.
- Who are the thought leaders the Holy Spirit is using to help the Church reimagine?
I must confess that this is not something that I can speak to well. In my local world I can recommend both Phil Miglioratti and John A. Armstrong as leaders who are pointing us in the right direction. I honestly do not know other national leaders who I can point to. Not that they are not out there, but I have not yet encountered them.
- How does your ministry help Christian leaders equip those they serve to begin the reimagine-journey?
Because we are a local – rather than national or global – ministry, our focus has been on building personal relationship through one on one contact. I would say that rather than coaching our focus is on encouragement and resourcing. Having said this, I have had a number of opportunities to coach other Christian leaders either through sharing of experience in matters of social justice or in the more mundane level of financial management.
I have not yet written a book, so I have nowhere to send you in that regard. If, however, someone finds anything that I have said interesting and they want to discuss this further, I am open. I have no interest in engaging in a political argument. However, if your focus is ministry, please send me an email to Ken-Online@ChicagoBibleSociety.org
- Additional coaching insights to share? Questions we must pursue?
I am grateful for the forum that Pray.Network has provided. I think that you are asking the right questions, and the questions are open enough that someone like me has the freedom to share. One thing I would love is the opportunity to interact with people on line who have real serious questions about the Bible and how the Bible speaks justice. There is a lot of stuff out there that is very political and turns people off before they finish the first chapter. I would love to create a safe place where people can ask honest questions without being shamed.
- Please write a prayer that sets us onto a reimagining journey . . .
Lord, give us grace and keep us faithful. We need your grace because we so often fail and do not do the right thing. Lord, keep us faithful because faith is really so very hard, and it is so easy to fall back to fear or resentment. Somewhere between the triumphal march into a false reality and the despairing surrender to a reality that overwhelms us, there is real life. And real life cannot be navigated without faith. Lord, keep us gracious when others are mean-spirited. Lord, make us peacemakers when others seek division. And Lord, make us seekers of your justice when there are so many claims and just as many denials. And Lord, as you prayed in the Gospel of John, let the world know that you are real by the loving witness of your followers. Let us live into that great high priestly prayer of Jesus even when we fall short. Lord give us your merciful grace to be faithful. Amen.
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