Five Ways to Future-fit Your Church

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God is using the church as an instrument to futurefit the world now with the life of heaven. The Spirit is forming communities that are beginning to reflect the urban-garden, tree-of-life scenario to come.

Futurefitting is about restructuring the local church to reflect the diverse singularity of the triune God and the deeper story of temple and tabernacle, Jerusalem and Antioch, deep roots and wild branches. Or more simply, restructuring local churches for mission.

Structures matter. Jesus warns us about pouring new wine into old wineskins. In the process of fermentation and expansion, the new wine would burst the skins. We put new wine into new wineskins, so the fresh, flexible skin can hold and deliver the expanding wine. So “new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matt. 9:17). Notice the focus is to preserve both/and the new and old wine. We need that fine vintage (attractional) stuff, and the fresh (emerging) stuff. The content stays the same, the container/structure/form changes.

The blended ecology allows local churches to dispense both the fresh and vintage forms of wine. Existing congregations restructured in the blended ecology way can join the disruptive work of the Spirit and release innovation through the employment of dispersed leadership and experimentation. In discussing a missional ministry for a missional church, Alan Hirsh reveals the breakdown often occurs at a structural level because people are unwilling “to reconfigure ministry to suit the missional context.” (Alan Hirsch, Tim Catchim, and Mike Breen, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church [San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012], 7.)

Unlike the Masdar City project, most of us do not have the luxury of starting over and designing the eco-city from scratch. Our work is more reflective of those engineers tasked with retrofitting cities with new green technologies. Once we become aware of the pollution and lack of sustainability, we are faced with an adaptive challenge. We cannot scrap the city and start over; we must work with what we have and introduce incremental changes that will transform the urban ecosystem.

Again, in the realm of taking declining inherited congregations and refitting the communal ecosystem for resurrection, futurefitting is a more appropriate description. The Spirit is rewiring the community with God’s future life now.

If we accept the premise that resurrection is a remix, the power of God to take what was and reconfigure it in a splendid new creation, then for churches to experience revitalization we are going to need a remix of our current structure.

Let’s again call to mind both temple and tabernacle, Jerusalem and Antioch, as we dig into the practicality of futurefitting.

Our primary challenge is not to do Jerusalem better. In fact, there are much better resources regarding how to do the attractional model of church better. The real question that we must now turn to is: How do we do Antioch? How do we cultivate and release the kind of emerging forms of church we see in the book of Acts? How do we tend the relationship between the inherited and emerging forms?

Here are some suggestions to futurefit your church for the blended ecology.

1. Reimagining Revitalization

Futurefitting begins with leadership in the inherited church. Antioch started in Jerusalem. The death of Stephen and the oncoming persecution of the gathered church gives birth to the scattered church (Acts 11:19). This is exactly the way Jesus envisioned and structured the movement to take place (Acts 1:8). While Antioch becomes the church in all its fullness, it also stays connected with and gains authority from Jerusalem. The two support each other in a symbiotic way (Acts 11:22, 26–27; 15).

However, futurefitting is more than an attempt to revitalize dying churches. The purpose is bigger than that. It’s more about cultivating transformation in the larger communal ecosystem.

Makoto Fujimura is an artist and author who works in the International Arts Movement. In Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life, Fujimura challenges us to reimage culture not as a territory to win, but a garden ecosystem to tend and steward. He challenges the zeitgeist of consumeristic pursuit and warns of the danger of losing our identity as creators who are reflections of the creator God.

What if local churches did not see their communities as something to fix, win, and convert, but rather a cultural ecosystem to steward and cultivate? What if we were to understand mission more as a collaborative art than a science, and the unique role of the artist as what Fujimura describes as mearcstapas the “border-stalkers.” (Makoto Fujimura, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life [New York: Fujimura Institute, 2014], 39.) To reenvision revitalization as cultivating new ecosystems, we need to break free from the corporate emphasis of initiating programs. The mearcstapas (an Old English term from Beowulf) aptly describes the kind of adaptive leadership your team needs. These border-stalkers of the ancient tribes lived on the edges of their groups, moved in and out, and brought back news. Like the mearcstapas, you will need to inhabit the liminal space, and incarnate the role of helping fragmented cultural tribes find hope and reconciliation.

As border-stalkers you live in the gap between Jerusalem and Antioch, holding those ways together in creative tension. We are just enough part of the congregation that we can provide care, guidance, and leadership while also providing the same in the larger communal ecosystem.

Border-stalkers must live in multiple habitats at once. They can move freely between the relational networks. They are mobile and sent, living in a state of motion. Along the journey they build significant relational connections in the various tribes, but their identity is not limited to any single tribe. They must have the capacity to join these hyper-mobile tribes moving through the space of flows created by technology and be an incarnational presence there, as well as being with the stationary folks who have made a home in the inherited system. In Fresh Expressions US, we call border-stalkers “pioneers.”

Jesus was the ultimate mearcstapa. He danced between the borders of heaven and earth in the incarnation. He moved among the people, both at the synagogues and on the hillsides. He not only extended love to the children of Israel, but to Samaritans, Roman centurions, Syrophoenician women, sinners, tax-collectors, priests, and prostitutes. He moved in and out of the tribes, bringing hope and reconciliation. He was the enfleshment of both temple and tabernacle.

As a presence in Jerusalem, you are invaluable to this resurrection remix process. You are a keystone species within our mega metaphor of ecosystem cultivation. Your behaviors and words have significant impact on the entire ecosystem. If you are a traditional congregation on the new missional frontier, you are going to have to do some evolving for all this to work.

2. Rewiring the Local Church 50/50: Jerusalem and Antioch

Restructuring allows churches to carve out time for local experimentation. Many times, all our time becomes consumed sustaining all the programs of the inherited system. This makes planting fresh expressions of church throughout the community challenging. A good and simple rule of thumb is the 50/50 rule. Fifty percent of our time needs to be structured toward taking care of the congregation. Fifty percent of our time needs to be spent as missionaries in the community. That means for whatever number of hours our church is active, we need to divide our time in this way.

The whole church must restructure itself to focus half our energy on caring for the tree and half our energy planting fresh expressions in the community.

A growing problem for many leaders is the inability of churches to support full-time clergy. Full-time pastors are becoming a luxury to most congregations. In the future, there will be an increasing number of bi-vocational clergy—tent-makers like Paul the apostle. However, we all know there’s no such thing as a part-time pastor. Congregations have expectations of their ministers, some that stream back for many decades to the golden age of Christendom. There is an expectation that the pastor is always on call.

Revitalization is not birthed by placing more expectations on already-exhausted clergy.
We need to set clergy free from those Christendom expectations for revitalization to occur: 50 percent of their time spent cultivating the inherited congregation with the other 50 percent being out in the community at large. This is time to simply be in third places, to pray, observe, and encounter.

Consistent presence in those spaces can open all kinds of opportunities. This is not just a rule of thumb for the appointed leader. The leader is modeling the behavior we want to see manifest in all staff and the congregation at large. Everyone in the church must divide their time in the 50/50 way. The leaders of the congregation are establishing behavioral patterns in the congregation through modeling.

Don’t have all your meetings at the church compound! Meet in a restaurant, park, or coffee shop. If you encounter people in those spaces, engage them. Always ask staff of establishments if they need anything. Ask your servers if there is anything you can pray for them as you bless the food (and make sure you tip well if you do!).

Do you have Wednesday night Bible study meeting at the church facility? Why not move out into a public venue? Need to visit with potential new members? Go to their homes. Cancel church functions on the grounds to encourage the congregation to attend community gatherings. Meet with people at their jobs when possible. Do staff meetings have to take place in the office? Do you already have a connection with a local business owner who would welcome you to gather in their space? Everything you can do out in the community or in someone’s home, do it!

Churches that live into this blended ecology way are also seeing the emergence of a new kind of co-vocational leader. Bi-vocational, with the prefix “bi-” as twice, double, or dual, literally “two voices” or callings, describes persons who serve a local church and maintain employment at another job. Co-vocational, with the prefix “co-” as with, or together, literally as “with voice” or a “with-ness” calling, describes persons who turn their work place into church. For example, my friend Shawn Mickschl, a self-described “seminary fail-out” who works as a server in a local Kentucky restaurant, pastors a fresh expression of church for fellow servers and patrons of that space. His focus is not to get them to attend a church service, but to be church with them there. Cultivating fresh expressions can transform the inherited congregation into a training hub for co-vocational persons, releasing every Christian to become a minister.

3. Restructuring the Inherited Leadership System: Gather, Grow, Go

To implement the 50/50 concept throughout the congregation, the leadership of the local church will typically need to be restructured. Most congregations are hardwired for Christendom. They operate primarily in the attractional mode. Committees, teams, and processes were structured under the Christendom assumptions, so the majority of the energy and time is dedicated to the internal protocols and processes. If a church does have a missions committee, it is probably focused on mission work over there. It may be concerned with the support of missionaries in other countries or organizing the annual out-of-country mission trip, for example.

On the new missional frontier, leadership must be reoriented around local mission. The local church is on the mission field. When you walk out to the parking lot, you are in the third largest mission field in the world. In denominational contexts, you may need to get permission to reorganize the leadership structures of the local church from whatever hierarchal authority that oversees your church. Many local congregations I’ve worked with have maintained the old committees and, therefore, met denominational requirements, but have created new leadership teams beside those existing committees.

At Wildwood, we stripped down our why to what we call the three Gs: gather, grow, go. We believe it captures the four essential marks, or ingredients, of the church throughout all time and the prominent themes permeating Scripture. So, we gather as a community of believers (a community that is one and catholic), we grow in love for God and neighbor (a holy community), and we then go (a community sent in mission). We see from cover to cover in the Bible the themes of community, holiness, and mission.

With our new and simplified vision, we soon realized that our inherited leadership structures did not lend themselves to our purpose. Most meetings were about reading minutes of previous meetings and making internal decisions about the inner life of the church. Mission was something we paid others to do.

Now our leadership structures flow from our threefold purpose. We have a gather team, concerned with forming community in many ways; a grow team, concerned with discipling people in Christ; and a go team, focused solely on engaging the mission field around us. Each area is just as vital and important. Being structured in this way allows us to create space for experimentation in the community.

4. Forming the Team: Quality Care and Disruptive Innovation Departments

A practical way to think about cultivating the blended ecology in local congregations is to embrace this concept of Jerusalem and Antioch. To borrow from the language of the business world, you can think of your church as having primarily two departments. One department is all about Jerusalem, caring for the inherited congregation. You can think of this as your quality care department. Any organization that doesn’t take care of its existing customers won’t be around long. At the same time, taking the lead of some of the larger proactive corporations, you need to a create a disruptive innovation department.

There is no quick fix. Local churches cannot be reoriented around mission overnight. That is not a realistic expectation in most inherited congregations. It is much easier in a church plant when you build that into the DNA from the beginning. In the inherited congregation, an apostolic awakening must take place first. In my experience, mission is like a virus that spreads throughout the body, but it must start somewhere. Creating a team specifically for that function is essential. Dream big, start small.

While most of the committees, teams, and meetings will be focused on quality care, identifying some of your key leaders to start a new department is a simple change that can have massive impact. This is your Antioch team. These are the border-stalkers you want to collaborate with and invite to explore innovation and experimentation. This gives every church an opportunity to create a research-and-development division within the inherited system and break the toxic loop.

You need to identify your keystone species for this team. Some of them are already in your church, but not all of them.

Many churches have non-functioning or barely functioning evangelism committees. These committees can easily be futurefitted to become the fresh expressions team. Make it clear from the outset that this department will be involved in risk-taking experimentation. They will need people who are willing to engage in the disruptive work of mess-making.
On the new missional frontier, there is no room for heroic solo leaders. Lone wolves become just wolves. You are going to need a team.

The team needs people who fill each of the essential roles: pioneers, supporters, and permission givers. You also need to begin identifying potential persons of peace. You may find it helpful to structure the team in the following way.

You want your solid and devoted Christians, those who are mature in their faith, as the core of the team, if you will. Most of the time, those folks have little connection to people beyond the local church. We have done such a great job creating an alternative community in the world, we have lost connection with the community around us.

But you also want to have some people on this team who are newer Christians and maybe not even members of your church. Maybe they are just exploring. Inviting these people on the fringe of the core is vital. They often still have connections with relational networks in the community and may even have access to the persons of peace. They also bring a unique perspective. Like the border-stalker, they have a vantage point that others in the core may not have.

Finally, you to want to have people on the team who may or may not even be Christian. These are people on the fringe. These folks most likely have no connection to your church at all. They may even become the persons of peace themselves. The perspective they bring is crucial to the whole venture. They can keep the team from speaking Christianese or falling into the trap of fixing, taking, and winning our community back. They may be the ones who open access to the third places in the community.

5. The “Work” of the Team—Design Thinking

The number-one problem of most churches: they never start. Every time I’m coaching a church through the process of adapting for the blended ecology way, it happens. The moment when someone in the group falls into the institutional mode of thinking. They ask questions like, How will we measure? How much will it cost? What will we do when      happens? Will those people in the fresh expressions ever come back here to real church? These well-meaning questions can paralyze any forward progress.

In the West, we are programmed to figure out all the answers before we start (causal reasoning). On a journey, we like to know every turn, how many stop signs, U-turns, and traffic delays we will have. Fresh expressions don’t work this way. The early church didn’t have all the answers; they just started and trusted the Holy Spirit (effectual reasoning). I want to suggest that design thinking provides a strong framework for your team to utilize.

Design Thinking is a model of thought and reflection centered on people. It refers to design-specific cognitive activities applied during the process of designing. This methodology is widely used as a tool across disciplines. One prominent motto in this framework: “fail early in order to succeed sooner.” (Grácio Luz, Ana Helena, and Cátia Rijo, “Design Thinking in the Scope of Strategic and Collaborative Design,” Strategic Design Research Journal 10, no. 1 [January 2017]: 30–31.)

Failing forward faster is a foundational design thinking principle that helps to maximize learning and insights crucial for human-centered innovation. The focus on collaborative work in small groups where everyone is fueling the creative capacity of the team is part of the magic of the design thinking process.

(A) Empathize: The team must first gain an empathic understanding of the people we are trying to reach. Who is our other and how can we be with them? What struggles do they face, and how can we be a withness within those realities? In the fresh expressions journey, this is about listening, then loving and serving.

(B) Define: This is a journey of understanding what’s sore in the community. What are the needs here? How do we come together in a mutual exchange of blessing to find healing together? How do we offer communal life with Jesus, and love and serve each other around the sore spots?

(C) Ideate: This is about asking “what if” with our eyes toward God’s promised hope for the future. There are many techniques to cultivate healthy brainstorming sessions, but the main idea is for the team to come up with as many ideas as possible, and nothing is too outside the box. Prayerfully, we now ask how God is calling us to form community with new people, in new places, and new ways.

(D) Prototype: This is an experimental phase, in which we get out in the first, second, and third places and simply try stuff. We use prayer walking and establish a small go team to become an incarnational presence in a space. We pray, observe, and encounter. Form relationships with the persons of peace who grant access to those spaces.

(E) Test: It’s important to remember here that this is a non-linear process, so we remain reflexive as we move through the interweaving stages. It is a fluid process, in which the team will flow and recycle in different directions. The test stage involves iterating frequently based on continuous feedback, experimenting, failing, and using improvisation as you go. Start trying stuff!

This methodology helps to eradicate the complexity and disorder in the initial stages that usually paralyze churches from starting to engage their community. The advantage of design thinking allows the team to immerse themselves in a problem to innovate a potential solution. We start from the perspective of the people we are seeking to be with. It is in essence an incarnational approach. The emerging forms of church take shape in a collaborative process, where responsibilities are shared among the team and the host culture.

The process involves iterating frequently based on continuous feedback, experimenting, failing, and using improvisation as you go. It is often not a neat, clean process in the sense of thinking through all the potential implications then starting. It is starting, then dealing with emergent implications as they arise.

This process also untangles us from outdated missional methodologies in which we view the larger community and its people as a problem we can fix and shifts us into joining the people in their reality, working together in an adaptive way to bring healing to the community. It’s messy stuff; one that requires a particularly artistic approach to creativity.

The small changes emerging from the experimentation of your fresh expressions team will be amplified through the grafting (feedback loops) we will discuss later. Don’t underestimate the power of these seemingly small developments. They will become the strange attractor that draws the whole system in a new direction over time. Maybe Nike was onto something as a good motto for your team: “Just do it!”

If you would like to learn more about how the blended ecology of churches can help transform your community’s self-understanding and engage in meaningful mission, you will find Deep Roots, Wild Branches by Michael Beck helpful. “Michael Beck is the premiere practitioner and pioneer of the Fresh Expressions movement in the United States today. He has real life experience leading a traditional church that is also leading the way in the blended ecology of church. His faith community is making new disciples of Jesus in new places and in new ways all while being anchored to a traditional church that is also growing.” (Jay T.) Get it from our store here.

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Reverend Michael Beck serves on the Fresh Expressions US national leadership team as director of remissioning, as well as the cultivator of fresh expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael and his wife, Jill, are the co-pastors of Wildwood United Methodist Church, where they direct recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, an interracial unity movement, and a network of thirteen fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors, dog parks, and burrito joints.

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