What does church look like in the 21st century?
Paul Nixon is at it again...thank God. Following his best-selling book, "I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church," he's back with another look at the possibilities for starting and reviving congregations in the 21st century.
"Finding Jesus on the Metro: And Other Surprises Doing Church in a New Day" is the recently released follow-on to "I Refuse" that delves more deeply into new church development ideas rather than the revitalization focus of the previous volume.
Nixon is a hyper-kinetic thinker — full of well-formed ideas. Having experienced him on a personal level and in a seminar setting, it is easy to see how his never-ending stream of suggestions and belief in the possibilities faith communities have for transformation propelled "I Refuse" to its acclaimed status.
But Nixon isn't just a church strategist. True, he does consult with many congregations and denominations on their vitality and development projects, but his advice comes out of real-life experience.
After reading scores of church development books, it's easy to spot those written by theorists and those which evolved from the reflections of practitioners. "Finding Jesus on the Metro" is the latter, and Nixon doesn't spare his readers the sometimes painful reality of church planting: It is often lonely, thankless, spiritually draining, and frustrating work.
Yet, not to be discouraged, Nixon relays the great rewards of church planting. How small gains, affirmations, revelations and spiritual renewal are coupled with disappointments— all at the same time.
The first half of "Finding Jesus on the Metro" is dedicated to the realities of developing new faith communities in the 21st century. The post-modern era in which we find ourselves is increasingly isolated, non-Christian (or at the very least non-institutionally so), diverse, overly busy and consumer driven.
Many before Nixon have made similar observations about our age. What differs is his reflection on these topics in the midst of developing a new faith community within Washington, D.C.'s, center city.
What Nixon does with these details is different. Rather than lament the fact that people no longer seek out our institutional churches and denominations, he asks the church to rethink itself in the context of those who still seek community and a spiritual connection.
Nixon calls upon his experience as a pastor in more established (settler) communities to challenge how he would live and minister among a non-established (pilgrim) population — finding community in coffee shops, small gatherings and on the rapid transit system.
"The work of the spiritual pioneer is hard," he says. "The work of the missionary is usually painful. The work of the prophet is often deadly. There is no way around it. Anyone who thinks that a project will be easy simply because God is in it has not accounted for the biblical model. From Moses to Elijah to Jesus to the apostles — their work was ridiculously difficult. Why should it be different for us today? Christian ministry is rarely ever a cakewalk."
He claims that the founding spirit of many churches wanes after its first decade of existence. "Many churches eventually get so settled and comfortable that they forget about the world outside their doors almost entirely," he says. "…except as a venue for token acts of mercy and the collection of special offerings."
Only desperation, crisis, rising up a visionary leader or the infusion of new people can alter the slow deceleration that occurs as churches become more concerned with "doing church" than acting on their original evangelical impulses.
Nixon argues that the church is doomed if it doesn't continually see itself in a desperate place – seeking to expand God's realm; in crisis – of knowing the "lost" and the "other" often don't find a welcome in the church; raising up leaders to carry on the next vision revealed by the Spirit; and intentionally seeking the infusion of new and diverse people.
These aren't impediments for Nixon, though – they are opportunities. He draws inspiration from the Underground Railroad, saying the church can follow its model of prophetic courage to say and do the right thing, and to know when to wait; of cooperation with other denominations and faith movements to achieve the end goal; and of freedom — in offering good news, welcome and justice to wanderers in an uncertain spiritual landscape.
"What matters most in a season such as this is our persistence on the journey: showing up with God, morning by morning, ready to travel another day," says Nixon. "We show up. We keep catching the train. And along the way, we do what we can to be faithful."
Finding Jesus on the Metro: And Other Surprises Doing Church in a New Day
By Paul Nixon
The Pilgrim Press, 2009