Navigating Paradigmatic Tidal Conditions

If sociological researchers such as George Barna and others are correct, there is a tidal wave of change coming for Western Christendom, specifically in terms of church life. I doubt that we have much of a grasp on how the church will look in the next 30 to 50 years, but I suspect that if the research is correct and if the church does not begin to take it seriously, much of what we now experience in evangelicalism will be washed ashore like driftwood which does not even realize it has been uprooted.

Borrowing from the vocabulary of seafarers, I think of the imagery presented by the Columbia River Bar. Unique to large rivers, the Columbia flows into the Pacific as an intense funnel which can create catastrophic conditions within mere moments out of a relative calm. I know of people who have died as a result of trying to navigate the bar. As a point of comparison, churches who are functioning or even innovating (by that I mean innovating in comparison to what their church had previously been doing) within a paradigm which has long since been proven ineffective and irrelevant to the culture may soon find themselves in jeopardy, fighting for their very lives simply because they ignored or remained ignorant of the massive societal shifts going on all around them.

When Constantine began pouring finances into the construction of church buildings in the fourth century, he moved Christianity from its generative roots of mobility into specific locations. Many of those same cathedrals and chapels now stand empty or relatively unused, except to be admired for their historic and architectural value. Fast forward to contemporary US American Christendom and ask yourself, which of the massive structures dedicated to location based ministry today will someday be viewed as relics of a bygone era, though in many cases, without the value of architectural artistry? That is to say, to what degree will churches become less focused on location and more focused on neighborhood? From Barna’s perspective in his book Revolution, campus based churches are a dying breed which no longer retain value in reaching the culture. I should hasten to add that I do not buy into his view wholesale. I am not prepared to abandon the local church. Nor do I think that finding community within the neighborhood in which I reside requires that I do so. But we must not ignore the fact that people are checking out of the location based church paradigm in alarming numbers.

My purpose in this post is to nudge my esteemed colleagues who honor me by reading these words and and to encourage us all to think through biblically why we do what we do. And as we consider again the biblical foundations for our models of ministry, we always should take a fresh look at how much of our paradigm is actually based on culture, rather than biblical principle. I think it is critically important to exegete the culture as well as the Scripture. This is easier said than done.

Again, I am not prepared to abandon location based church ministry. However, I am challenged to consider the value of the sorts of neighborhood initiatives championed by Randy Frazee in his book The Connecting Church. While reading it, realize that the paradigm shift which his former church, Pantego Bible Church, underwent was a long process which held its share of mistakes and unforseen pitfalls. Specifically in terms of children’s ministry I perceive that this model has a long way to go, but there are hopeful signs. More to come on that soon.

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