Friday, November 23, 2012

Shift Happens (Or It Should)

by Rev. Dr. Larry Hovis

Most of us in North Carolina realize that a significant shift has been taking place in recent years, a shift in the relationship between the church and the culture. Earlier in my life and ministry, the church sat at the center of the culture. A majority of people went to church, or at least understood the nature and purpose of the church. The culture supported, rather than competed with the church.  The church enjoyed a privileged place in most of our communities.

That is no longer the case. The place of the church has shifted from the center of the culture to the margins of the culture. Not only do most persons not attend church, but they don't even feel guilty about it! Some have no direct knowledge of the beliefs and practices of the church and don't see how it is relevant for their lives.

This is a relatively new phenomenon for most of our churches in North Carolina, but it has been going on in Canada for a long time. On a trip to Canada during last summer’s sabbatical, I met with Baptists who share our core beliefs and practices and learned how they have been dealing with shift for several decades. As I visited with Marc and Kim Wyatt (CBF Global Missions field personnel from North Carolina), congregational leaders, regional denominational leaders, a seminary professor and the leaders of Canadian Baptist Ministries (a global missions agency), I learned of shifts they are making that are enabling Canadian Baptists to deal faithfully and effectively with the larger cultural shifts that have now reached the Tarheel State.

From Church-As-Community Institution to Church-As-Mission Outpost

In our heyday, churches were viewed as significant community institutions. People understood what churches offered and came to churches to receive religious goods and services (programs and ministries) in much the same way they went to other community institutions to receive the goods and services they provided. Church leaders worked to provide the best programs and ministries possible in order to attract people to the church, who, for the most part, understood what the church was trying to do.

Churches in Canada no longer pretend that the culture "gets" the church. Instead of thinking like marketers or managers or even chaplains, they are learning to think like missionaries. When missionaries move to a new place of service, they don't assume that those they are trying to reach understand what they are doing. They don't begin by creating programs to attract persons to the church. They first learn the language and customs of the community. They build relationships with people to discern their felt and real needs. Then they begin to translate the Gospel of Jesus Christ into tangible need-meeting ministries that connect with people where they live and where they hurt. Bible studies and worship services grow organically out of tangible expressions of the Kingdom of God, not vice-versa. In the future, in order to deal with the changes in our culture, we church leaders in North Carolina will need to think more like missionaries and less like program managers or chaplains.

From Fearing the Stranger to Welcoming the Stranger

Because of an open-door immigration policy, Canada has become a haven for people all around the world who have immigrated there to flee persecution or to seek a better way of life.  The city of Toronto is the most multi-cultural city in the world, and much of the rest of Canada has become very culturally diverse.

I imagine it was difficult, in the early days of a high level of immigration, for traditional Canadian Baptist churches to embrace the newcomers to their communities. The changes in their communities caused most of them to decline significantly in terms of traditional measurements (attendance and money). But in time, some of them began to discover ways to welcome the newcomers to their communities who came to Canada from other countries. And the congregations that have learned to make this shift are growing again.

For example, I was given the opportunity to preach at Bromley Rd. Baptist Church in Ottawa. It's a church that in many ways is very much like North Carolina CBF churches - architecturally, programmatically, and liturgically. But this traditionally Anglo church has reached out to newcomers in the community, particularly immigrants from Haiti and Karen people. They have reversed the decline in membership and attendance, they have more children in their Sunday School, and most importantly, they more faithfully reflect the Kingdom of God.

In North Carolina, our churches haven't always been welcoming to newcomers. Sometimes, often out of fear, we have shut the doors of our churches and our lives to them. A key task facing us is to make the shift from fearing these "strangers" to welcoming them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

From Mission Trips to Global Discipleship

How can we make these two shifts? Canadian Baptists have developed a powerful tool to equip Christians and churches to move in this direction. Like us, the Canadians have been sending church members on mission trips for three decades. But they discovered, as many of us know intuitively, that these trips often have as great an impact on those making the trips than on those we are seeking to serve. So, they have developed very intentional processes to utilize short-term mission experiences as vehicles for missional formation and discipleship development.

By leading mission trip participants through a pre-trip preparation phase that lasts several months, guiding them in focused reflection during the trip, and helping them apply what God taught them on the trip after they return home, church members who take mission trips not only grow more deeply in their faith, but they are better equipped to serve as missionaries in their communities when they return home.

In the coming years and months, CBFNC will be working to develop processes that will help congregations who participate in our mission efforts to make this shift. Not only will it enable us to be better stewards of the significant resources we pour into mission trips, but it may be a vital avenue of spiritual renewal for our churches and Kingdom-transformation for our state.

The church in North Carolina, like the church throughout North America, is undergoing drastic shifts. We may not like it, but we can’t stop it. Thankfully, like-minded and like-hearted Baptists in Canada have more experience in dealing with these shifts than we do. By learning from them and following their lead, we can make our own shifts that will enable us to be faithful to God’s mission in our time and place.

Larry Hovis is the Executive Director of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina

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