I n Ecclesiastes, the Teacher declared that there is “a time for everything” (3:1-8). It is time for churches and denominations to consider how we can best minister to our neighbors and communities in the 21st century. Knowing that we make our plans under the sovereignty of God, let’s start a conversation about how we can be better and do more effective ministry in the future.
Rapid and profound societal changes are transforming the communities, regions, and nations in which we minister. Several defining characteristics of these changes have been codified in the acronym VUCA, which identifies our times as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Volatility identifies the nature and the dynamics of change. Uncertainty recognizes the unpredictability of change and the likelihood that change will surprise us because it doesn’t happen as we expect. Complexity highlights that change is now a combination of multiple, complex factors, resisting solutions that see change as a simple cause and effect. Ambiguity identifies the haziness of reality, which increases the probability of misreading the context because of the multiplicity of influencing factors.
Societal change, then, is not only rapid and profound, but it is also VUCA. Our current reality is a growing sense of chronic individual alienation, helplessness, and powerlessness in the face of these rapid and profound cultural, economic, and political changes. Our ministry, increasingly, is accomplished as the cultural influence of the church plummets, evidenced by the rapid rise of the “nones,” Americans claiming no religious affiliation or commitment. As a result, the people to whom we minister are feeling alienated, powerless, and hopeless. Yet the church is, at best, just one option among many to help them live and flourish in challenging times.
The Lilly Endowment Inc. recently asked the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian denomination in the 21st century?” How we answer that question is critical if we want to be effective in our calling. Assuming we do, several issues must guide the discussion. We must identify what must not change and what must change. We must emphasize the biblical calling to go, making disciples, teaching them to obey everything Jesus taught (Matthew 28:19-20). So we should place our emphasis on discipleship, leadership development, and outreach at the top of the list.
From here, we must make a decision. We could design a denominational ministry structure based on these priorities, but there is a low probability that it would be more effective than the current denominational structure. Why? Because generic goals make generic, less effective organizations. Because we are not defining what kind of disciples and leaders we want to make. We must do the hard work of defining the characteristics of those disciples.
We must start with the outcomes, not the organizational structure, because specific outcomes result from specific structures. So the next critical step in defining a denomination for the 21st century is to carefully identify what kind of disciples and leaders we want to produce.
Our ministry context is a culture that is producing people who increasingly feel alienated, powerless, and hopeless. The kind of disciples we want to form exhibit the exact opposite. They are in community, empowered, and hope-filled. This is the counter-cultural aspect of Christian ministry. Let me introduce another acronym to describe these disciples—HERO. We want to produce disciples characterized by hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism (HERO). Scholars and practitioners call this combination of personal characteristics “psychological capital.” These characteristics contribute to human flourishing of individuals and communities. As Christians, we recognize the biblical basis of these characteristics. They are characteristics not just of psychological capital, but of psychological/spiritual capital.
Hope is an essential element in human flourishing. Hope is the expectation that certain things will happen. As Christian disciples, our hope is that the promises of God will be fulfilled in Christ. The ever-present Holy Spirit empowers our hope. Without hope, humans feel powerless and alienated.
Efficacy is a sense of being empowered, which is the opposite of powerlessness. In this context, efficacy means that disciples and leaders have a sense of confidence and empowerment to take on challenges and persevere through change. Of course, we know that our power is insufficient, but we have the empowering grace imparted by the Holy Spirit to enable us to live into challenges and change (Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 4:20; Romans 15:13). Efficacy in this context must be distinguished from the self-help and self-confidence touted as the solution to all our problems. This is not the efficacy Christians pursue. Our efficacy, our power is found in Christ—”I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Christian efficacy is not so much belief in self as it is the belief in self-in-Christ.
Hope-filled and Spirit-empowered disciples and leaders are also optimistic, meaning they make positive attributions about events, circumstances, the future, and the past. For example, an optimistic person can fail without it being fatal. They expect good outcomes and can see a silver lining in adverse outcomes. Optimism is not positive thinking—it is a state of mind and heart empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, disciples and leaders characterized by hope, efficacy, and optimism are resilient. They bounce back from adversity. They are more likely to persevere through personal and organizational hardships and struggles. But resilience is more than “bouncing back.” Resilient people learn and grow through adversity. They become even better than they were before difficulty. This reminds me of the biblical concept of refining, or pruning (1 Peter 1:7; John 15:2). Imagine the impact of producing HERO disciples and leaders.
HERO disciples struggle and face adversity like everyone. But through the struggle, pain, and adversity, they are resilient. They grow better and stronger through these experiences rather than being destroyed by them. Their relationships, marriages, and families are positively impacted. And their churches, businesses, schools, hospitals, neighbors, and communities are positively impacted, as well. Transformation begins with individuals and spreads to communities.
The counter-culture of Christ lived out through HERO leaders and disciples brings hope to the hopeless, empowerment to the powerless. It exchanges the pervasive cultural cynicism and pessimism for Spirit-empowered optimism. Empowered by the Spirit, hope-filled optimism is transformational, and not only in individuals. Imagine the impact HERO leaders and disciples have on their businesses, schools, hospitals, workplaces, and communities. HEROs are more productive in problem solving and more willing and able to engage innovation. They are sources of well-being in their communities, increasing the overall sense of shalom. Moreover, they become resilient amid the hardships and stresses of our VUCA culture.
So, the question to answer is: How do we structure ourselves organizationally to facilitate and encourage the formation of HERO disciples and leaders in congregations within the Reformed Church in America (RCA)? One answer is to focus on making our congregations and classes (regional groups of churches) into learning organizations. To accomplish that, we should focus on Peter Senge’s five disciplines of the learning organization: personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking.
Personal mastery is the core of individual discipleship involving traditional spiritual disciplines engaged in learning and growing as Christ-followers. Focusing on mental models, our subconscious maps of how things work requires that we examine those models to assess their accuracy and effectiveness for ministry in our current contexts. Shared vision becomes a reality as we work collaboratively to identify a way to bring our unique ministry strengths and approaches to minister to our neighbors and community.
Team learning as a core discipline of learning organizations is based on the intentional, ongoing practice of learning together, as leadership groups, ministry teams, and small groups of collaborative learners. Senge’s fifth discipline, systems thinking, is an essential tool for future-focused leaders. Every church is a system, and effective HERO-making churches maximize their system to accomplish that goal. We must recognize that a system is more than the sum of its component parts. Every congregation is an interrelated, interdependent body of unique parts, each doing its work (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Each congregation is part of a larger system, a classis. Every classis is part of regional synod. Together, congregations, classes, and synods form the denominational system. Just as a congregation functions as a body, so the denomination is a larger body that functions best when every region, classis, and congregation functions as it was gifted, equipped, and intended by the Jesus, the Head of the Body.
To achieve that, regional synods must resource, support, and encourage the HERO-forming learning organizations at congregational and classis levels. This change requires migrating from informational to transformational influence with our neighbors, in our communities, in our world. In this sense, the church must return to the basic calling to be “salt and light,” deeply involved in our cultural contexts through transformational engagement (Matthew 5:13-16). This necessitates intentionally changing from a centralized ministry focus to a decentralized ministry focus: we gather as a church to scatter as the church wherever we go (Matthew 28:18-20).
There is a reason RCA churches are not independent or autonomous congregations. Reformed Christians understand that we are better together, a systems view of the church. That’s why we focus on communal discernment and deliberation. We emphasize collaboration and cooperation, networking, and interacting with other congregations, classes, regions, denominations, and strategic partners to implement more effective ministry. As we all know, ministry is accomplished through relationships. So our ministry organizations—congregations to denominations—must focus on building relationships. Networking is no longer optional. It is essential in the 21st-century global context. We learn and grow together in collaboration with congregations from the Global South, Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Strategic partnerships and cross-boundary collaboration make it possible for a denomination to make a global impact. The RCA can continue to be a globally effective ministry engine for the 21st century. Becoming learning organizations that form HERO disciples, we can be a ministry that fosters transformation.
The transformation begins within each of us and will spread as we open ourselves to the Spirit-empowered ministry Christ intends for his body.
John Messer is regional executive and leadership development catalyst for the Regional Synod of the Great Lakes in the Reformed Church in America.