Constants in the context of change

July 18, 2017 | Viewpoints | Volume 21 Issue 15
John H. Neufeld |

If I were to give a 14-minute TED Talk in our church context before the restructuring assembly for Mennonite Church Canada and its area churches in October, this is the gist of what I would want to communicate. I would like to ask and give an answer to an important question: What is it that is more important for all of us than our current and necessary restructuring? Or, to put it another way, what is the core vision for the church that undergirds whatever structures we create and is foundational for the life of every congregation?

Consider that restructuring is a secondary concern. Our primary concern should be to wrestle and reflect on what it is that we are aiming for in our congregations, and in and through our denomination. I am suggesting that we should consider the following five goals for being church:

1. Growth in Christian identity.
2. Growth in a sense of vocation.
3. Growth in the ability to cope with crises and challenges.
4. Growth in awareness of issues needing attention.
5. Growth in biblical knowledge.

These five goals constitute our basic vision for the church. They are understandable and accessible to everyone; and they are embryonic and expandable, depending on specific needs and particular circumstances.

By giving everyone a shared foundational understanding of what being the church means, they provide a strong motivational basis for doing God’s work in our local communities and around the world.

These five goals serve as the dynamic constants in our contexts of change (structures, leadership, budgets, demographics, congregational size and cultural variations). This handful of goals is useable and relevant in all conceivable situations and is applicable to everyone across the age span.

I believe these five criteria are helpful in evaluating our efforts in preaching, worship services, pastoral care, Christian education and music. By using them, we are able to assess how faithfully the work of the church is being done. They are also descriptive outcomes used by church leaders at all levels to provide focus and balance for lifelong learning and development.

The content and potential in these five goals

The goal of growth in a sense of Christian identity is concerned with a growing awareness of who I am before God, in relation to myself, in relation to others in closer circles of association and to others we might encounter.

The goal of growth in a sense of vocation is concerned with knowing that we have been called by the Lord to serve others in all of the various contexts of our lives: our families, churches, the world of work, the communities we live in, and others in world nearby and far away.

The goal of growth in the ability to cope with crises and challenges includes developmental crises that are common to the life cycle and to circumstantial crises related to the unexpected issues that arise. Many of life’s crises and challenges are dealt with successfully, but there are also special situations in which we may need to have someone to lean on for support and insight. This goal overlaps with many of the concerns associated with pastoral care and supportive relationships with others in the community.

The goal of growth in awareness of issues needing attention includes issues that individuals need to attend to as well as issues that the church or the denomi-nation have to address. Issues needing attention are constantly changing, and we need the help of the community to both discern what seems to be relevant and what needs to be getting priority attention.

The goal of growth in biblical knowledge focusses on the need for updating our understanding and interpretation of Scripture. Thematic preaching and teaching, as well as reading and study groups, provide the opportunities for lifelong learning and development in this area.

In conclusion

By giving attention to these basic goals of being church we have the basis for a lifetime of dynamic and invigorating growth in faith and discipleship, and our pastoral and denominational leaders will have the criteria and the outcomes needed for shaping and discerning fruitful ministry.

This is the gist of my answer to the question, “What is the core vision for the church which undergirds whatever structures we create and is foundational for the life of every congregation?” I invite you to consider it and improve on it. What would you want to say to the church before it restructures this fall?

John H. Neufeld was president of Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University) from 1984-97 and before that was pastor for 15 years of First Mennonite Church, Winnipeg.

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