Earlier this summer, Dr. Dan Aleshire gave the opening address at the biennial meeting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) here in Pittsburgh. The key sentence in his presentation was this: “Every future has a history; but not every history has a future.” He then illustrated his theme by referencing the history of three different churches in Pittsburgh’s downtown area.
Each of the three churches had a distinguished and somewhat remarkable past; but the histories of those churches do not dictate their future—what they are like today, or what they will be like in the years ahead.
Dr. Aleshire was setting the stage for a challenge to the more than 250 theological schools in the United States and Canada—the schools under the umbrella of ATS nurture and supervision. In truth, theological education is confronting unusual and unprecedented challenges and times. What has been their history does not necessarily portend what their future will be like.
I sensed, as I listened to his talk, that his words had an important meaning for the local church and leadership in the coming years.
The ministry and mission of the local church are changing faster than most of us realize. Fifty years ago, a great deal of “sameness” permeated local congregations across this country. Not necessarily boring or uneventful, but much the same nonetheless About 25 years ago, styles and modes of ministry began to shift—in all different directions. What ‘used to be” no longer adequately predicted “what might be” in the coming years. Not every history has a future!
Local churches need to discover their unique ministry, mission, and gifts for the setting in which they are placed. I have long believed that every local church has unique gifts to be responsive to what God is calling that church to be in the present moment. Every local church has a past, but that past does not necessarily inform or drive what the church is called to be in the 21st Century. In fact, it may look like something entirely different than its historical narrative.
Similarly, the work and role of the local church pastor! The definition of Christian leadership is changing rapidly, and moving in many new directions. When I retired after 27 years in one large local church, one of the most interesting comments offered was this: “You reinvented yourself three or four times over these 27 years.” I may not have been aware of such reinvention, but—looking back—I see the truth of that observation.
This is a different (and often difficult) time for ministry in the local church. But we serve the same God Who has shown the Divine Self in Jesus of Nazareth. God is still the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. And local church leaders—lay and clergy—are on a new kind of adventure which points to a somewhat mysterious but solid future.
August 12, 2014