Would I be stating the obvious if I were to say that doing church ministry today requires something different than 25 years ago? What about even 5 years ago? The reason why this is true is that the context of ministry in the 21st century is different that anything we have ever seen before.
We are living in a era of high velocity change. Alan Roxburgh, who is a consultant advising churches, says that “American Culture is changing so rapidly that it may be called a ‘dis-continuous' culture.” Some have described our world now as a “permanent white water society.” Technology is changing so quickly that the information students learn in technical colleges in their first year of study becomes obsolete by their third year of study.
We are also living in a time that is referred to as post modern. This describes how our culture is in the middle of a major shift in how it understands truth. Before this shift, we believed truth was a constant. For example: we believe the Bible is true, so if we follow its teachings, it will work for us. Now truth is relative and based on experience. People will only believe that the teachings of the Bible are true if we show that they actually work in our lives. Personal experience trumps established truth.
Not only are we living in a time of post-modern, high velocity change, we are also now living in a time that can be characterized as post - Christian. The Christian Era was ushered in when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and declared the Roman Empire to be the Holy Roman Empire. Almost overnight the Church went from persecuted minority to the center of life and culture. This position of privilege continued for 2000 years. Yet in the last 30-50 years something has changed. The rise of religious pluralism and secularism along with the breaking down of the physical barriers of time and space has pushed the church from the center of North American culture to the edges or margins. There are even those who have said that the society we now live in has no edges. Things are changing so rapidly that there is no center and no margins. For much of the emerging culture, the church and its ways of doing things has become simply irrelevant.
So we as a church find ourselves stuck between what was and what will be. We feel this tension of wanting to hold on to what we know and understand while at the same time realizing that to be faithful and successful in today’s culture means adapting to a new way of life. The challenge we face is relating the timeless message of Jesus to our dramatically different time in a relevant manner.
Healthy churches acknowledge that our context has drastically changed, and they are willing to explore new ways of doing ministry that take the new context seriously. They realize that what used to work in the past will usually not work in the new context, because we have new challenges that we have never faced before. We have entered a period of time where we have to do “trial and error” ministry. We have to be creative in trying new things knowing all the while that what we try might not work. If something doesn’t work, we chalk it up to experience and try something new. As we try different new approaches, something will eventually click. This kind of trial and error ministry requires a deep trust in the promise of God that not even the “gates of hell” will prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). If the church will prevail through the attacks of hell, it certainly will survive some experimentation whether done successfully or not.
So let me leave you with a thought provoking question: How do we reach people with the gospel of Jesus in this high velocity, post-modern, post-Christian world?
This is the key question that we are all trying to answer one ministry attempt at a time.
Grace and peace to you.
Lee Zehmer is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, NC; Moderator of the Church Growth and Transformation Committee of Salem Presbytery; and the Vice-President of Lay Pastor Ministry, Inc. He lives in Lexington with his wife Brooke, a principal in the Rowan Salisbury School system and his youngest daughter. He has recently sent his eldest twin daughters to their first year at Wake Forest University.