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Hope for a New Thing - Reflections on a Missional Church Journey

by Mark Verdery

Mark Verdery with Phyllis Tickle

“What in the church must die, so that the new can be born?” This is the question I posed to four other South Carolina presbytery executives, as we began our journey together as a peer group in Columbia Seminary’s Sabbath Study and Service (S3) Project four years ago.
“We” were a group of five pastors who were, at the time, the appointed shepherds of five presbyteries in South Carolina.*
While we already met together regularly and had often worked together on projects of mutual interest, we wanted to become more than a “work” group. We realized we shared not only a passion for serving Christ and Christ’s church as pastors; we were friends – with mutual interests outside of church work.
So, we successfully submitted a project proposal to Columbia Seminary’s S3 Project, with an eye toward finding creative ways our five presbyteries can work together.
In particular, we hoped to explore how the emerging model of missional communities might prove helpful to us as we worked with congregations in our presbyteries.
Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves writes that the first word in the emergence of hope is “No!” No to the validity of the current state of affairs, and No to its continuation.
What made our S3 peer group such a transforming experience was that together, as we engaged in theological reflection around this concept of missional church, we empowered one another – in our various contexts – to say “No!” to the way we have done church in the past and to explore this missional model in our age of discontinuous change.
We discovered together that our current church is in a foreign culture, and you can’t put the same old thing in a new culture and expect it to survive.
To use Phyllis Tickle’s imagery, we are experiencing one of those great “rummage sales” the church puts on every 500 year or so. Change – a “new thing” – is what God is about in the church of Jesus Christ in these days, and change is never easy.
In the midst of the flux, anxiety, and uncertainty throughout the church, I have found hope and good news particularly in three experiences provided by Columbia Seminary: the S3 Project and two conferences on the emergent church movement.
At one of these conferences, I was introduced to Diana Butler Bass. Her hope-filled message was that missional transformation can and indeed does take place in mainline churches.
After reading Bass’ book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, our S3 peer group invited Bass to lead a retreat for ministers and educators of the five presbyteries in South Carolina.
This was the beginning of an ongoing conversation in our presbyteries about the challenges and possibilities of missional transformation within congregations. Sixty-five ministers and educators attended this event in Fall 2008.
Alan Roxburgh is another prophetic voice of hope in the church at this time of great change. Our S3 peer group “met” Alan Roxburgh through his books, The Missional Leader and The Sky Is Falling!?!: Leaders Lost in Transition.
Roxburgh affirms that God is at work even in confused congregations and their organizational systems, calling forth new imagination. Commenting on denominational leaders like me, Roxburgh writes:
 “Alongside the daily struggle to guide their systems, these leaders have a firm conviction that God is not yet finished with them and their denominations.”
Roxburgh believes we are at the end of a long, dark tunnel and entering a time when many of our denominations – which have been written off by our post-modern culture – are on the verge of discovering the amazing way God renews.
This fall, Roxburgh will lead a retreat for ministers, educators, and other church leaders of the five South Carolina presbyteries. His theme: “Moving Back into the Neighborhood.”
We will introduce participants to the idea that being a missional community means moving out of the four walls of the church building and “back into the neighborhood.”
Neighborhoods – the places where people in the church live and work, as well as the area in which the church building is located – are the contexts into which God calls us to live the mission of Jesus.
To paraphrase John’s description of the incarnation: He moved into the neighborhood and settled in right beside us. That is the character of the local church and the catalyst for missional transformation.
Through my S3 peer group and Columbia Seminary’s emergent church conferences, I am discovering that competencies for this missional journey can be learned only in community with others. Such competencies include helping one another articulate an understanding of our own unique contexts, mutual support and accountability, and theological reflection.
I am more and more convinced that presbyteries are key to missional transformation in congregations. The presbytery can bring people together in community and be a catalyst for this new journey of missional transformation.
What in the church must die so that the new can be born? The church must die to self, so that a new focus can be born – a focus on being God’s partner in mission in the world.
We must die to our focus on maintaining the organization, so that a new emphasis on mission can be born.
We must die to “getting members,” so that an emphasis on disciple-making can be born.
These are the hallmarks of missional transformation. As The Book of Order reminds us:
“The Church is called to this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality of Christ.” (G-3.4000)
With every journey, we leave behind the known and familiar. Like Abraham and Sarah, we set out by faith, not knowing where we are going.
In speaking of Abraham and Sarah’s journey of faith, Walter Brueggemann suggests the whole Abrahamic narrative is premised on a seeming contradiction:
“To stay is to remain barren. To leave in risk is to have hope.”
*Members of this S3 group: Donnie Woods (Charleston Atlantic in Charleston), Alan Arnold (Trinity Presbytery in Chapin), Jud Shaw (New Harmony in Florence), George Wilkes (Foothills in Spartanburg), Mark Verdery (Providence Presbytery in Rock Hill).