A New Apostolic Moment

By Anthony B. Robinson

Journeyman Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry once announced, “I have seen the future, and it’s much like the past, only longer.”

Though making forecasts about the future of anything, particularly congregational life, is a fool’s game, I am confident about saying this much: Dan Quisenberry’s pronouncement is probably off target when it comes to mainline congregations in North America.

Indeed, it appears to be a time of deep and genuine “shaking of the foundations,” to use Paul Tillich’s famous phrase. A more recent observer, Phyllis Tickle, argues in her 2008 book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, that we are in one of those once-every-500-years watersheds in the life of the faith (the others include the Reformation, the Great Schism, Gregory the Great and the Monastic Movement) when the church holds a huge rummage sale. Most everything is put out on the tables to be sorted through, turned over, and examined. Some forms and practices of church will be discarded and sent to the rubbish heap. Others will be reconditioned, recycled and appropriated in new ways. Serviceable practices are retained without overhaul. But the point of Tickle’s homely image is that everything is up for grabs.

The End of Christendom?

Tickle does not view this as a bad thing, but on balance a good one. She notes that the effect of these every-five-centuries paroxysms has been two-fold – to spread the faith to new demographic swaths or segments and to expand the faith geographically. Tickle’s hopefulness may be justified, but for congregational leaders on the ground, the realities can be unsettling indeed. Many feel they are peddling as fast as they can simply to stay even. Others notice that once-reliable methods and strategies aren’t as fruitful any longer. True, one finds vital, healthy, growing congregations here and there all across the land. But it’s difficult to tell whether they are harbingers of a new future or merely exceptions to a broader rule of disarray and decline.

Based on my travels and observations as a teacher, preacher, and consultant, let me suggest three directions or forms that congregations of the We’ve been living too long with an over-simplified script that says only conservatives thrive.

Protestant mainline are taking these days. Of course, limiting my conjectures to the Protestant mainline may, right off the bat, be judged a fatal flaw. A good deal of what is emerging is emerging elsewhere, whether in different lands and continents, different ecclesial traditions or denominations, or among generational cohorts or ethnic and cultural groups not much represented in the historic mainline. I will return to say a further word about all this in conclusion.

As for the three forms or directions my experience identifies, I will dub them “Civic Religion,” “Culturally Accessible Church,” and “Communities of Formation/Discipleship.” For this formulation I owe something to Dan Benedict and his work in Come to the Waters: Baptism & Our Ministry of Welcoming Seekers & Making Disciples.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, we were encouraged to “attend the church of your choice.” That friendly slogan, brought to us as “a public service message” on TV or radio, betokened an era of great continuity between church and culture. Religion in North America was, Dan Benedict

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Journeyman Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry once announced, “I have seen the future, and it’s much like the past, only longer.”

observes, “institutional, optimistic, and voluntary. People joined churches as part of their civic and community life.”

I suspect this form of congregation remains significant in parts of North America. Certainly it offers at least for many the comforts of familiarity. In her work, Diana Butler Bass describes this as “Established Churchgoing.” The church functions as a kind of chapel, and ministers as chaplains, to the culture.

Though “Civic Religion” may persist and even be relatively strong in some parts of North America, it looks increasingly hard to pull off. In much of North America, “Christian memory” seems reduced if not vanished altogether. People no longer feel socially obligated to church involvement, and the competition from work, leisure, and sports is intense. That doesn’t mean that we will stop trying to reassert the centrality of “established churchgoing.” It does mean that it will be an uphill struggle and marked by some sense of both disconnect and nostalgia.

Thou Shalt Not Bore

A second form of congregation is the “Culturally Accessible Church.” This is most famously embodied by the megachurches that began to emerge in the late 1970s and flourish in the 80s. Their motto might be, “Out with the old, in with the new.” Music, building design, orders of service, and clergy roles were all changed in the name of innovation and broader appeal. They deployed an aggressive use of media in order to reach people who are “uncomfortable with church.” Contemporary Christian and praise music led the way, and churches throbbed with the sounds and style of mall and cineplex.

In some respects, of course, this is nothing new in American religion. Innovators and entrepreneurs have always been at work in this vineyard. One recalls the “New Measures” of Charles G. Finney, his revivalistic methods of the Second Great Awakening early in the nineteenth century. These were met with enthusiasm – and skepticism. Still, the Culturally Accessible Churches, and there are now a fair number in the old mainline, have discovered ways of reaching people that churches had not been reaching. Participants in such congregations tend to say their church is “different” or “not boring.” One can rejoice when church isn’t boring, but this claim and achievement come at a cost. Borrowing so much from contemporary culture, the Culturally Accessible Church has never quite shaken the criticism that it is turning religion into another consumer product or experience.

A third form of congregation now taking shape might be termed the “Community of Formation/ Discipleship.” These may be smaller congregations, though not always; I recently took part in the life of an Anabaptist megachurch in Toronto, suggesting that seriousness about discipleship doesn’t have to

These congregations tend to be post- modern in style and sensibility. One indication of this is that they are self-consciously in tension with the surrounding society. They regard the church as a sort of apostolic outpost in the mission field of a diverse, up-for-grabs North American culture.

mean small. These congregations tend to be post- modern in style and sensibility. One indication of this is that they are self-consciously in tension with the surrounding society. They regard the church as a sort of apostolic outpost in the mission field of a diverse, up-for-grabs North American culture.

Such congregations exist at a variety of points on the theological spectrum. Some are more evangelical, others more “progressive,” some think of themselves as “emerging church,” while others work hard to be multiracial or multicultural. They tend to take both conversion and discipleship seriously. They do not offer the comfortable familiarity of the Civic Religion model, or the instant appeal of the Culturally Accessible version. My hunch is that some congregations that have long been in the Civic Religion tradition, or some churches that tried the Culturally Accessible strategy without great success, will find greater affinity and connection with the Community of Formation/Discipleship form of church. Sometimes this move toward the disciple- ship model is an intentional choice, other times something that evolves as congregations place greater emphasis on formative spiritual practices.

The Vanishing Mainstream

Part of the great shift and change of our time is, however, the loss of mainline and even Protestant predominance in North America. According to a recent Pew Research Study, the Protestant “share” has slipped to 51 percent (and that includes all varieties of Protestant, not only mainline). Nor does this mean that Roman Catholics are the wave of the future, since Catholic numbers have been maintained by immigration more than any other factor.

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What does seem to be the case, as in so much of postmodern culture, is that there is no established norm, no “mainstream,” but rather many and shifting streams.

So Protestant (and other) congregations will for the foreseeable future find themselves in a competitive environment. Here at the “end of Christendom,” we compete for people’s hearts and minds, time and loyalty. In this teeming post-institutional pluralism, I encounter young pastors who are excited about the array of possibilities for ministry and mission, the challenging need for deeper teaching, deeper community and relationships.

The scene is likely to be ideologically diverse: we’ve been living too long with an oversimplified script that says only conservatives thrive. Arguably, this moment is not unlike another watershed period in the long series of great historic turns of church history – the first-century period of the church’s emergence. Congregations alert to the pulse of the culture might well want to claim our time as a rich apostolic moment – a time for rediscovering the words of Jesus, a time for gathering and making and sending disciples – a moment where much is at stake.

Anthony B. Robinson, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, is a speaker, teacher, preacher, consultant and coach serving congregations and their leaders. He is also the author of nine books; the latest is Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations (Eerdmans, 2008). 

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