Nine lessons on the missional church

Published December 1, 2011

In a post-Christian world where the church is increasingly relegated to the margins of cultural life, what does it take to grow a church? How can we develop healthy, vital congregations that witness and proclaim the gospel faithfully and effectively? What will it take to reverse the 50-year decline of the Anglican Church of Canada and make our churches authentically missional enterprises committed to transforming lives in Jesus? Here are my reflections on these questions.

1. It’s all about leadership.
While the pastoral model of ministry has served us well, today the church needs leaders to take us to uncharted territory where there are no road maps or highways. Leaders motivate, inspire and empower members for ministry. They are visionary, seeing the big picture while not ignoring the details. They are focused, yet humble; committed but open; decisive but collaborative. Being a leader is about doing what has to be done in order for the mission to be accomplished.

2. We’re all missionaries now.
Every parish is a mission outpost; we need to be passionate about reaching out into our community and engaging people with the good news of Jesus in new ways. Our churches need to be known more for their passion for Jesus than for their strawberry teas, book sales, bazaars and concerts-churches that are Jesus-centred, Spirit-filled and mission-oriented.

3. Structural change will not work without cultural change.
Many Canadian dioceses have restructured their parishes as a way of buying time and surviving a few more years. Inevitably, parishes continue to decline because the hard work of cultural transformation has not taken place. Here is the hard truth: if our churches only improve what they have been doing, they will die. We must change or go the way of the dinosaur.

4. Church growth is about Jesus.
When Jesus is at the centre of a church’s life and ministry, it grows. If you don’t believe me, visit all the growing churches in your region. You may not agree with their theology or worship, but most of them have a passion for Jesus.

5. The emerging church model will not save our parishes.
While the emerging church model has value in reaching non-Christians, its relevance to the traditional parish is questionable. And if traditional churches want to grow, they will need to engage non-Christians more effectively, connect with their communities and be clear about what they have that people cannot find elsewhere. Relevant ministries, biblical preaching, helpful teaching, good music, user-friendly liturgy and solid family programs for children, youth and adults are common characteristics of growing traditional churches.

6. It is not our message but our methods that need to change.
The gospel is as relevant today as at any time in history. People like Jesus, but they do not like the church. Why? Because they perceive the church as dull, boring, old-fashioned, outdated and irrelevant. We have to change our methods of doing ministry. We need to step out of our comfort zone, innovate and take risks on behalf of the gospel.

7. Pyramid leadership is out.
Circle leadership is in. Power, authority and decision-making are increasingly decentralized and disbursed. Therefore, we Anglicans need to explore ways of being Episcopal without being hierarchical. We need to be permission-giving and empowering rather than authoritative and controlling. We need to put a premium on love and grace rather than on rules and regulations.

8. The church is a business.
Whether we like it or not, the laws of economics apply to the church as they do to any business. We have bills to pay, salaries to meet, budgets to keep, buildings to maintain, and programs to fund. None of these things is possible without prudent financial management and sound stewardship.

9. God reigns.
We must never forget that. While no one knows what the future holds, we do know who holds the future. We are in God’s hands. We live in God’s world. We are entrusted with God’s mission. We are God’s beloved children always and forever. And so, we never give up and we never give in to despair. We keep on going because God is with us every step of the way.

Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.


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