At the end of Christendom, the church is in crisis. The conditions that allowed the growth of the church until the 1960s have collapsed. While nostalgia for that era continues, there is no going back.

We hear widespread laments at the decline of the institutional church and despondency among church leaders. As a denomination, the ELCA has entered a time for housecleaning and making strategic decisions about the future. There are many proposals about where to invest our time, attention and resources.

The Life of Faith Initiative has assets that distinguish it as a paradigm for the future church. The Life of Faith movement provides an alternative to the church structures of previous generations.

Going “back to the future” involves reclaiming three core practices from the early church:

  • Paying concentrated attention on forming the Christian people to be disciples in Jesus’ name (catechesis).
  • Equipping the Christian people to share the faith through evangelical listening and speaking the gospel to others (evangelizing).
  • Freeing the Christian people by the power of the gospel to participate in God’s work of repairing creation (diakonia).

Leaders need laser-like focus on forming the Christian people for discipleship, evangelizing and diakonia at all congregational gatherings. The Christian people (aka laity) need to become—again for the first time—the primary agents of the church in mission.

We need to invest in a paradigm shift that makes the service by the baptized in their daily lives the central focus of the church’s mission.

While Martin Luther imagined a universal priesthood of believers, this church model was never implemented. The future church will be a people’s movement with pastors and deacons equipping them to be neighbors in daily life.

The Life of Faith Initiative reimagines a distinctive way forward toward the future church. The initiative:

  • Focuses on a foundational paradigm change, not on introducing another program.
  • Promotes a model of activating and equipping the Christian people to be the body of Christ instead of an attraction model that encourages members to support an institution.
  • Employs small group processes that connect the affinities among church members.
  • Cultivates culture change through the strategic use of coaching.
  • Works with congregations of all sizes.
  • Shows demonstrated effectiveness in pilot congregations.

The crisis facing the church in North America cannot be addressed through programmatic efforts. The Life of Faith movement does not seek technical change through a quick fix but promotes adaptive change.

We need to invest in a paradigm shift that makes the service by the baptized in their daily lives the central focus of the church’s mission. This requires shifting from the attraction model to the activation of the Christian people in service to neighbors in all arenas of their daily lives—family, workplace, school, local community and world.

This movement is not limited to congregations of a certain size—it can offer direction and purpose to small congregations and even those anticipating closure. It provides a way forward for living out discipleship in Jesus’ name in different contexts (urban, suburban, small town, rural) and in communities with varying demographic characteristics (age, race, economic status, ethnic background, gender or sexual identity).

We need a new paradigm for the future church that equips the baptized to be church in all their roles and relationships in life. We need a fundamental transformation of the church’s identity and mission.

Craig L. Nessan
Craig L. Nessan is the William D. Streng Professor for the Education and Renewal of the Church, and professor of contextual theology and ethics at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He is the author of The Diaconate of All Believers.

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