All through the tumultuous last decades of the 20th century, we looked forward to the 21st, hoping for peace and prosperity. With the first decade of this new page of history behind us, we can see that reality fell far short of our dreams. War and conflict, political division and gridlock, and economic turmoil and financial dislocation have all been the order of the day.
At the more personal level, despair, financial hardship, crime and uncertainty about the future haunt the minds of everyday citizens, whatever their station in life. It is tempting in such times to look to schemes, political philosophies or dynamic public leaders to change our lots in life and the course of our nation. Yes, a lot of work needs to be done in the public arena, but I don’t think that is going to transform our nation.
We are not ultimately defined by our laws and economic policies but by the hearts and minds of our ordinary citizens. Yet, what politician is ever going to get elected by saying that he or she is going to change us!
This week, however, I believe I have seen the hope of our nation.. For several years now I have been an Adjunct Professor of Practical Theology at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. As part of that role I teach a class on North American church planting—starting new churches. This week in Ashland we had 23 men and women from various backgrounds and nationalities all reflecting on how they might engage the vision of transforming our society through multiplying society-impacting disciples of Jesus Christ by multiplying new churches in every part of our society.
One contingent from the largest Protestant denomination in Ohio joined in open speculation about what their denomination and our state of Ohio would be like if their almost 2,000 churches began aggressively starting new congregations. Veteran ministry leaders from the African-American community shared their experience and wisdom and talked about their plans to transform individual households and whole communities through starting new churches and multiplying effective ministries.
The Hispanic community was represented and leaders were present from Ghana and Kenya. One denomination paid for a team from another denomination to attend and be equipped—no strings attached. Our own Brethren Church had three Ohio projects represented (including Agora Church) and leaders from Arizona and Florida. One young couple from Canton has started outreach among urban young adults and immigrant Hispanics—one couple possibly conceiving two new Brethren churches!
No politician can say, “I am going to change you!” but Jesus can. We often lament our societal and political situation but forget that it is just a reflection of the hearts, minds, fears and confusion of our citizens. We often try to change our nation indirectly through political or institutional means—we can’t quit trying to do that. But let’s not forget that through the power of the activist love of Jesus Christ and the transforming miracle of the Gospel at work in every segment of our society we can change our nation directly—one life at a time.
I was organizing my office papers last week and came upon notes from a consultation with an expert on denominational transformation. He stated that only 1 out of 10 churches over 25 years old will ever revitalize—the majority will descend into decline and malaise. According to him, at least 40% of the efforts of a denomination must go into starting new congregations and not simply maintaining those they have or that denomination will falter and fail. That is because the unique vitality that exists in a new congregation revitalizes everything it touches.
I believe I have seen the hope of out nation this week—and I am not encouraged. No, I am inspired. I wish I could transfer this inspiring vision to you.