Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
–Philippians 3:12-14 New International Version
A second characteristic of church vitality (according to the CTA Report) is that vital churches are forward leaning. In general these are congregations that are looking toward the future rather than remaining mired in the past. They recognize that they prize is yet ahead of them, and as Paul said of himself, they strain toward what is ahead.
The biggest impediment to church vitality in the United Methodist Church may be the inability of congregations and leaders to be forward leaning, choosing to harken back to the past rather than press on toward the future. In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of United Methodist congregations are continuing to live in the legacy of their salad days, remembering life “back in the day” rather than thinking about where God is leading into the future. It’s true as well for church leaders who continue to dust off the same old platitudes and dusty old programs in the hope that maybe past glory will be rekindled and restore the church to greatness. In a very real sense, we are a people looking for a messiah to save us from oppression, but always looking back toward King David rather than seeing the Jesus in front of us who is bringing forth a NEW kingdom.
Now having thrown that bomb in the theatre of conversation, let me pull back into reality. I am not suggesting that pastors and leaders need to barrel in to a traditional museum of a congregation and clean house, pushing change for change’s sake at the expense of those dear saints who have gone before and led the congregation to it’s current place. I have heard far too many stories of young, dynamic pastors who are oppressive in their push toward growth, failing to recognize that the story of the past informs where we are headed and can be a great resources as we move on to the future. There must be room given to allow congregations and leaders to grieve the loss of what has come before, while gently encouraging them on toward what’s ahead. Certainly, there are times leaders need to cut bait and push on, not allowing conversations to get mired in what worked in the 1950’s. But that is always held in tension with the pastoral impulse, knowing that change is hard and we have to provide a safety net as we lead folks to risky places.
Part of the work of being forward leaning is to encourage our congregation’s to be aware of the movements of God’s activity in the world, reading and studying about those movements and practices which are on the cutting edge of relevance to the world we live in. Yes, we have a role as keepers of the ancient texts and knowledge, and some could argue effectively that our role is to sit idly in our monastic bunkers to ensure that the heathens don’t bridge the gates. But even most modern monastics today are engaging in new technologies, new theologies, and all sorts of new ways of ensuring that the gospel of Jesus Christ is adequately shared throughout the world.
That is the tension that we experience in the UMC. How often have I heard the cry that we aren’t growing, but the solution is to call us back to the old way of life rather than to strain forward toward the new. This isn’t to suggest that we compromise doctrines important to our identity in our desire to be missional, but it recognizes that we spend time discerning between what of our identity and practice is essential to walking in the way of Jesus, and what is simply cultural baggage accumulated during the past two hundred years of life together. Are we going to focus on all the bumper stickers on the back windows of our congregational RV’s reminding us of the places we’ve been (something that is fun to do on occasion) or will we keep our focus out the front windshield toward what is in front of us.
Vital congregations understand that moving forward is part of what it means to move on to sanctification. We would be well served if we could let go of our past, honoring it as an important part of our story, but moving on toward something much better.