Thursday, June 09, 2005

transitional church

I am in transition, working among a 95 year old church. The story of this church in transition seems to strike a chord with people, at seminars and by email. It suggests a new term, not emerging church but transitional church.

Transitional church suggests that the culture is in transition. The post-modern is a signifier of flux, rather than fixidity. The culture has still not found what it’s looking for. Transition honours this.

Transitional church recognizes that the past is important. Future is important. That we still have not found what we’re looking for, but that we have paths and traditions and wayfarers that have walked with us until now.

Transitional church stands against the anarchical, arrogant disrespect potential in the nu and the neo.

Transitional church honours the now of the in-between. It welcomes metaphors of wilderness, dessert and exile. It will not rush for quick how-to’s, simple solutions, revival prayers,

Anyhow, yesterday I got this email (part of being a virtual pastor?) asking me some questions about the transitions at Opawa. Some of you might be interested in the questions and the answers.

1. Why did you go into this process?

Firstly, the church had lost 450 people in 10 years, 250 in the last 5 years. So there was a certain level of desparation. Secondly, I’m a missional leader and came on the mutual understanding that my ministry would be about change for missions sake. I tried to make it very clear that I did not come as a bulldozer with an agenda, but that my drive was missionary. Three, I’ve increasingly realised that both the above are not good reasons to change.

They are pragmatic and they are leader driven. I’ve begun to realise that if in nature, all organisms grow and change and adapt, then we must expect people and church’s to grow and change. I gave out sunflower seeds to plant last spring, as a prayer for hope, change, renewal. That’s organic change. That was a good thing. I needed to articulate a theology that affirms the future of God among the people of God as a reason for change.

2. What did you hope would be the result?

A new mission future for the church. The call of God to Opawa started for me with a Psalm – honour the faithful people of God and the day they called me the Scripture was the mission manifesto of Luke 4:17. So the call/hope is to find a new mission future for a very faithful people of God.

Early on I showed the church the 1st minute of Romeo and Juliet – Zaffareli and then Luhrmann. Some people love one, some love the other. And the point is that our our mission future is to both.

3. What was the most helpful part of the process for your church?

Asking the simple question “who will be our leaders in 5 years?” That question was then asked by others and it cleared a lot of space for new leadership development.

4. What was the most rewarding outcome/result of the whole exercise?

Asking our leaders to draw pictures of the church in 5 years, and then to share them. We then had to articulate what we had heard from each other. (This forced us to listen to each other. This listening part was intuitive but in hindsight it was a brilliant move because it avoided hobby horses, it affirmed that the future of God was indeed among the people of God and it got us listening ).

From this listening to each other has emerged some “values” and we have then been able to prioritise.

Also videoing newcomers and showing these videos at our AGM. We had 60 new people join us last year and to see new face after new face saying why they had come to the church was just like a huge celebration/reward.

5. If you were to do it again, what would you do differently?

I’m not sure I would do it again. Its really, really hard work.

Posted by steve at 09:57 AM


  1. Steve –

    Thank you for your reflections. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years. I’m currently just getting started in professional ministry (just out of sem., just out of college), and I’m currently working with a 200-year-old congregation that sounds like a very similar situation to what you describe.

    I think in “emergent” terms and struggle with how to help the congregation make the transition. Thank you for sharing your experience. I look forward to reading more!

    I’ve been blogging on my experience at You would be welcome to comment on my experience there!

    Comment by Matt — June 9, 2005 @ 11:28 am

  2. Thank you for those observations which strike a chord with what I have experienced in most churches that have been serious about getting to grips with mission. I am sure that many will be able to identify the transitional observations that you make within their own communities.

    I am not to sure that the term “Trasitional Church” a new term though. Your observations probably reflect most churches that are trasitioning. I was in a church that was transitioning to the cell model (it didn’t work of course, it was to prescriptive). Rick Warren mentions trasitioning to the principles of purpose he has outlined in the purpose driven church. Not that I would advocate either of those models as being the only way to become missional in outlook, but it does reflect that the idea of trasitional church has been arround for some time.

    Comment by Graham Doel — June 9, 2005 @ 8:23 pm

  3. not bad. we should all be transitioning if we are in a changing world. What i like about the word “emerging” is that is signifies not only the idea of transition or progression from one stage to another, but also the way of doing so, ie, emergent behaviour and all that entails.

    hope your winter is kicking in down there are you are feeling the frosty lick of Jack on your toes this morning.

    Comment by andrew jones — June 10, 2005 @ 4:58 pm

  4. Thanks for these thoughts – there has been a lot of talk about church planting, new kinds of churches and even new denominations (like the jesusfreak movement here in germany), but so little about transitioning. I left a baptist church in order to seek new ways of cultural relevance and a new missional stance/mode, but I keep on remembering the good folk there. A lot of emergent churches strike me as being incompatible with traditional churches and leaders of emergent tell me that it’s not possible to make a transition. But your post suggests otherwise. Right at the moment I try to find out, being in a transition here at my local YMCA, building a third place, deperatly searching for ways to be missional in my community.
    Thank you for your honesty – “5. If you were to do it again, what would you do differently?
    I’m not sure I would do it again. Its really, really hard work.” I’m just at the beginning and I get a glimpse of what you mean.

    Comment by Björn Wagner — June 10, 2005 @ 9:31 pm

  5. from a poem I wrote

    Does our value of the ‘test of time’
    blind us to moments in lives onward rush
    the smile that lifts or affirming touch;
    the human art of living in the now.

    we value what will stand the ‘test of time’
    structures, strictures, standards
    and in so doing, give no worth
    to the transitory art of becoming.

    I ‘teach’ management and I find myself constantly trying to encourage managers to pay less attention to strategies and definitions and focus their attention on the moment-by-moment transitoryness of getting there.

    might the same apply to church?

    Comment by Caroline — June 11, 2005 @ 2:29 am

  6. church in transition – sounds good, but is so painful.

    I loved your question though who will be our leaders in five years time. I’m pretty frustrated in ministry right now, we make the right noises (youth are the present and future) but at a recent conference the youth were always given the 10pm. Not once were we encouraged to receive from them.

    My honest fear is that the leaders in 5 years will be the same men of today – five years older, even more burnt out than today. Sorry. 🙁

    Comment by Lorna — June 14, 2005 @ 9:12 am

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