Picture this: An old church is now a cafe. From 9 to 5, it serves coffee, cakes and sandwiches in the historic hallowed space, with light streaming through the stained glass. Young people with piercings serve chai and lattes to customers of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Then, on a Sunday evening, with the smell of coffee still in the air, people gather around tables to talk about justice and economics and to question the role faith plays in their lives.
It’s not a secret: the way we church is changing. Yet many of our structures and systems and ways of doing church still hang on a model from another era. Modern life is different. Work is different; dating, community life, technology — they’re all different. So shouldn’t church be different as well?
This is a question I’ve been asking for nearly 30 years. Perhaps it started when I took my college friend Kim home with me one Easter. When we went to church, everyone else got dressed up, but Kim just had jeans. Afterward, she said that while her experience in church had been nice in some ways, she had felt like a fish out of water.
After college, I had friends who were longing for conversations about meaning and purpose — but church was the last place they would look for such discussions.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked to create communities that offer space for deep relationships and deep questions while at the same time serving people less fortunate than ourselves. I’ve tried a lot of experiments, building the road as I’ve walked it.
In turbulent times, we look for the safe harbor, the thing that doesn’t change, to help us stay grounded. For the church, I believe that the gospel — not the form of church — is that thing.
As new forms of mission and ministry are taking shape, this is a moment of hope as well as pain. Just like the messy but beautiful process of giving birth, the re-imagining of the landscape of the church is an intricate dance of pain and promise.
There’s always a risk when we step into the new. We have to let go of something to make room for fresh things. Isn’t this a hallmark of the Lord’s leading? There is an invitation to trust. We don’t have to have it all buttoned up and figured out before we step out.
As someone who has lived and worked on the margins of the institutional church for decades, I am grateful, proud and optimistic when I see all the vibrant initiatives that are taking root. It is clear this is no longer a fad of the 90s.
You don’t have to look far to see breweries and bakeries popping up in restored church properties or in new monastic communities. Just look around and you will find kitchen table entrepreneurs putting idle church kitchens into service, using food to address loneliness and food insecurity. Churches are also leveraging their land to meet the needs of their neighbors with efforts such as affordable housing, senior communities and new economic development.
These new models are creating jobs, community and new financial futures for congregations. But they’re also showing the world a dynamic church, transforming the lives of people and the community around them. To me, that looks like the gospel in action.
If you are in a church longing to see something new, how do you know where to start?
- Don’t look back. When I travel, I’m often struck by the way that people in other countries seem to be looking ahead, looking forward. I find that in the U.S. and Europe we tend to look back to the “good old days.” This is not a time to look back but rather a time to look ahead and embrace the future.
- Lament. You do need to grieve what is being lost. The ability to grieve well is a signature gift of those with Christian faith. After all, we believe in a gospel of death and resurrection.
- Experiment. When you try new things, hold them lightly. If you want to do something with food, host a farmers market or a pop-up restaurant, but do it once or twice before making further plans and see what you learn. If you know a lot of people working from home, try a work-from-church day. As you set off to do some experiments, it is helpful to embrace a theology of enough and to approach it as a learning exercise.
- Serve. It is important to adopt an attitude of service and to make justice a priority. This starts by really seeing others, loving others and understanding the challenges they face. Launch a listening tour in which you ask questions, listen deeply and find out from your neighbors what they need most. Then start right there! It will lead you to bigger systemic issues, and you’ll be able to approach that complex work grounded in the experiences of those most directly affected.
- Be open to surprise. We know that the ways of God are not our ways. After all, God came to us as an infant and not as someone in power. Be ready to be surprised — and to surprise your community — by doing something new. The church is turning up and creating impact in ways that are unexpected.
I use the acronym BLESS to teach these five steps: Don’t Look Back, Lament, Experiment, Serve, Surprise.
The world hasn’t been expecting the church to radically create affordable housing, provide for those exiting prison, offer services for seniors, etc. To be honest, a lot of people see the church as an in-group seeking to push its own agenda. But that isn’t our story.
Churches becoming pubs and cafes and new housing developments? I say yes, because it is all part of the church becoming new. We can repurpose our sacred buildings so they can shimmer with hope and justice for all.
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