Five years ago when I left my previous call in Central Pennsylvania, a historian friend of mine pulled me aside to wish me well in my new pastorate, a congregation some 15 miles from Pittsburgh. He reminded me that, at one time, crossing the Alleghenies meant going into the mission field. He wanted me to know that I was venturing to a land unknown–as he called it, “the wilds of the Pittsburgh suburbs!”
In 2015, the reality is that all locations we serve in the Church are the mission field. This basic insight, that mission is no longer a luxury but rather is the reason and the context of today’s ministry, drives my desire to blog with Vital Signs and Statistics.
I have served in several different contexts in the United Church of Christ. I was a minister in a downtown congregation for 13 years. For one year, I was part of a pastoral exchange and served as a pastor in the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, Germany, which is a partner church with the United Church of Christ. My most recent call is a different setting yet again–a suburban area of fast growth, what some would call a “bedroom community” for the greater Pittsburgh area.
In each of these settings, I have discovered that a thorough knowledge of the community is vital to ministry. We often assume things about our locations that just aren’t true, finding that vibrant ministries in one area sometimes fail in a different context.
So the question has become for me (and for our current lay leadership), “Where is God guiding my feet?” What sort of race are we running? If we are being honest, it’s hard to keep up. Technology advances quickly. Mobility for educational or employment opportunities makes stability at the congregational level seem like a pipe dream. Musical tastes change.
Yet, the more we dig into ministry, the more God guides our feet. The church that I serve today will not look like the church I grew up in or that my grandparents grew up in. Globalization, multiculturalism, secularism and ecumenism have seen to that. And I know that change can be intimidating–it is hard to look at the future and predict what it will look like ten years or more from now. (If you doubt this, look up predictions that futurists made about today’s society. They were often wildly inaccurate!) However, we can’t be intimidated by what David Buttrick calls “the new and the now.” After all, now is the only time we have! We cannot alter the past, and the future will certainly bring more change. Instead, we look to God to “guide our feet” across the paths of ministry in the now.
It is here–in the new and the now–that I look to global trends of the Church. I am particularly interested in research about the Millennial generation and the rise in the United States of those who report that they identify with no religion, commonly labeled the nones. Another research interest of mine is the rise of the Emergent Movement and the renaissance of ancient Christian practices in the Church. My hope is that we can share our learning and research interests as a kind of dialogue. I look forward to the conversation!