Re-Imagining Congregational Ministry

What shape will congregational ministry become in the future? How can the Regional Synod of Albany help congregations live into a missional approach to ministry? These questions shaped the agenda for twenty church leaders in Albany Synod called together by the Congregational Service Commission at the Fowler Camp and Conference Center's Chi Rho House in February 1997. Joining the retreat was George Hunsberger, professor of missiology at Western Theological Seminary and coordinator of The Gospel and Our Culture Network. He shared the Network's focus on strategies necessary for the recovery of the church's missional identity.

Recovering missional identity is a familiar theme in Albany Synod. In 1995, the synod reorganized for mission by creating the Synod Mission Council. Prior to the creation of the Mission Council, Synod had focused on providing programs to strengthen the life of congregations. Now, the emphasis is on mission and how Synod helps congregations serving as missionary outposts proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God in an increasingly unsympathetic and apathetic culture. This retreat was the first step in developing an approach to work with congregations to build the church. Several insights gained on retreat will help shape future ministry with congregations.

The church now lives in a post-Christian era.  Congregations and clergy no longer enjoy the social position which formerly gave them prominence in North America. For example, churches no longer have influence regarding the scheduling of events by community organizations. Our congregations now live in a vast mission field where many are apathetic regarding the gospel.

Congregations will recover a missional character. They will become what David Bosch describes as "a body of people sent on a mission." Hunsberger noted two foci. First, congregations will recover their missional identity in a culture which draws people away from, rather than pushing them toward, churches. Second, congregations will become missionally engaged in their context with members involved in mission and ministry they perceive is faithful and having value and worth.

Congregations will come to terms with a pluralist society. The church will come to realize it must learn how to minister as a minority in a society composed of many colors, of Asian, African, and Hispanic heritage (as well as European), and of many ethical values. In addition to atheists, Christians will live next door to Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, who affirm different ultimate principles.

While living in a consumer culture, a missional congregation will move beyond consumerism. Church growth advocates have urged congregations to attract people by offering better and larger programs, thereby strengthening the perception of churches as vendors of religious goods and services and occasionally pitting church against church. In moving beyond consumerism, currently dominant images will shift--in worship from a passive/entertained audience to worship participation (including roles in developing worship content), and in administration from policy committees to an emphasis on ministry teams.

A missional congregation will cultivate the future. It will transform congregational life by emphasizing ministry which corresponds to a vision for the future shaped by exile not exodus. An exodus paradigm conjures a crusader conquering the land (North America). An exile paradigm conjures life in the midst of an alien culture but still singing the Lord's song. These insights and others significantly influenced thinking at the retreat. A great deal of work lies ahead. The next task is to develop strategies to work with congregations in re-forming ministry. We have a tradition--semper reformanda, which will help us live into the future--always being reformed according to the word of God.