This post is the weekly email I send to our congregation as a regular correspondence from the Senior Pastor’s Office. I just wrapped my first year at Advent. I’ll do a series of posts to share my year-in-review.
First Year Thoughts, Part 1
Hello Advent! This past Tuesday was my one-year anniversary as your Senior Pastor and I was thrilled to reach this first milestone. We’ve had a full year together; the Skillen family has enjoyed getting used to our new city and making so many new connections at Advent.
A year anniversary provided me an opportunity to collect my thoughts about who we are as a church, what we are currently facing, and what our future might be (with God’s help, of course). These observations are hopefully received as my own generous reflections of a church that we have come to know and love. Warning: It’ll take a few weeks of longer posts to share them all. Perhaps you’ll allow me the space to do so.
Part 1: Who We Are
Advent turns 40 years old this December, which has allowed our church to include a few, different generations of worshippers within one church community. Along with that, we have chosen to be a multi-site church that meets in two different locations. At each of those two locations, we’ve organized two, distinct worship styles and expressions to praise our God. Not too long ago, Advent had two co-pastors to help lead the mission and vision of the church. We are a church that has attempted to have multiple “worlds” exist at the same time. In fact, Advent’s theme song might be “Double Vision” by Foreigner. (Try to get that song out of your head for the rest of the day)
If you or I were to ask 10 different Adventites “Who are we?” I hope that we wouldn’t be shocked when we get a few different answers, bracketed by their individual micro-stories, while being situated within the larger narrative of Advent. In fact, Advent is at the church size and church age where 2 to 3 different expressions of a church life cycle are active and present. Let me give a brief overview of the 3 eras of a church life cycle that I find helpful:
When a church begins it starts in the “Prophetic” stage of life, seeking to be a church that doesn’t resemble many or any other ones out there. If it can’t articulate why they are different than others than it is hard to justify the need to exist. So, a group of renegades launch out with a crazy idea to start a new church with zero proof that it’ll last. And at times, it does. It gets stable and able to continue on. It is fueled by being different, new, fresh, and innovative. After some time, that “Prophetic” church start graduates into the next phase of life: the “Therapeutic” stage.
The “Therapeutic” stage of church life transforms the church into a more common church experience where it resembles other churches in the area. One can go from that church to another church and have a comparable experience. It’s innovative edge from its “Prophetic” stage is softened because the church’s currency is no longer to be different, but to be admired and respected within the wider civic community. The “Therapeutic” church often grows by transferred membership, either by area residents transferring from nearby churches or out of town new residents looking for a church similar to the one they used to attend to call home. The “Therapeutic” church’s pastoral team is constantly encouraged to make their church look like others out there.
Religious institutions are like any other sector of society for they are susceptible to changes in culture. During a church’s “Therapeutic” stage it reaches a critical juncture where it must make a decision: will we find unique ways to adapt and change to the contours of culture while still being ourselves? Can we “start over” and continue our story, at the same time?
If the church chooses the courageous journey of being “born again” for a new era of cultural life, it has the opportunity to host a “Prophetic” form of church within its “Therapeutic” operating software, for there is still enough “Prophetic” memory in the “Therapeutic” consciousness to endure years of disruption and transition to organize for mission again. This is not an easy task, admittedly, so some churches steer away from that opportunity and enter into the final life stage of the church life cycle: “Messianic.” And once a church becomes pervasively “Messianic” it cannot transform into a “Prophetic” community, again. The difference between the two is too drastic and the change too disruptive to endure.
The “Messianic” stage of church life is the final stage of life, for the church decides to remain committed to a set of values, ways, and practices primarily from a different era, one that is less and less prevalent among existing churches and that is less desirable to the wider culture. Sometimes these “Messianic” churches have large buildings and great endowments, but shrinking membership and participation. It is not uncommon for “Messianic” church members to move out from the neighborhoods around the church facility, to then have to drive to the building for church functions, and to therefore not have much connection to the communities near the church property. The goal within “Messianic” churches is to keep things the same until the church comes to an end or until Jesus returns, whichever comes first.
This church life cycle paradigm provides three different “worlds” of church where lovely people do their best to represent Jesus towards a watching world. But their difference is definitive. Take for instance the occasion when a church member is asked, “What does success look like to you?” Within this framework, there are three possible answers:
Prophetic- “Success is doing something we’ve never seen before.”
Therapeutic- “Success is updating ourselves to look more like a modern church.”
Messianic- “Success means to not to be influenced by culture and to our best to keep things the way they are.”
I hope that it is fair to say, with as much objectivity as I can employ, that Advent has both Messianic and Therapeutic expressions co-existing within our congregation. And, there is a growing sentiment for a new Prophetic expression among us, too. This framework might explain why when something changes or are suggested at Advent AND when a tradition is preserved at Advent we get a panorama of replies, some in favor of change and some in favor of the preservation.
This is not unique to Advent, but prevalent in most mainline, Protestant churches that desire to do something within our world. So, as we engage in the critical work of forecasting future, engaging in vision casting, and creating strategic plans, let’s keep in mind both the diversity of our congregation and our common dream to make much of Jesus in our world. My prayer is that God would knit our community together in unity as we seek to make more space for new Advent members for our future.
What I am currently reading: Foolishness to the Greeks by Lesslie Newbigin
What I am currently watching: NHL Playoffs (Go #CBJ)
What I am currently listening to: The Bible in 90 Days (Minor Prophets)
An app I am enjoying: Anchor Podcasting