Stop. Ask. Repeat.

by Christopher H. Edmonton

Last August I was able to go on a much-longed-for trip to Scotland. I was there studying with a group of pastors from North Carolina and together we talked about the nature of church and the evolution of the church in North America. We traveled and studied alongside a group of Church of Scotland pastors. Together we had many moments of clarity and discovery. One such moment for me happened when Doug Gay, a Chuck Taylor wearing theologian and pastor from the University of Glasgow, shared an insight as he lectured, “Too often we ask this question: Does the church have a future?”

When he said this, I looked up from my notes. I had asked that question in my thinking, in my praying and in my preaching more times than I have fingers and toes to count.

“That is an institutional question,” somebody said. Yes, it is. It implies that the church we know now can or will be future-ready. Taken to its fullest iteration, it could imply to some that we should preserve to persevere.

Institutional questions fail us as Christians because if we are to follow Jesus we need to note that Jesus never asks any institutional questions. And while I love my institutions and I am an “institutional guy,” Doug Gay’s direct questioning of the very question I had been asking exposed the limits of my own thinking. The longer he spoke, the more completely I discovered that I have not been called to preserve an institution for the institution’s sake. I have been called to serve a church, to follow the Lord and to shepherd her people.

Doug then said, “What if we asked an altogether different question. Does the future have a church?”

Think about it: Does the church have a future… or does the future have a church? Talk about the power of word order! The same words in a different sentence construction change everything.

I thought back to a lesson I had learned over the years in leadership seminars and fellowships. If the answer to a question is repeatedly disappointing, we must stop to consider whether or not we are asking the best questions. More creative questions lead to more creative answers. In seminar after seminar, in conversation after conversation since my meeting in Scotland, innovative leaders have helped me articulate the words to further innovative questions.

It is time the church ceased to ask the institutional question: How do we get people in? Instead, let the deeper and more vocational questions lead our thinking and our vision for life in church together: How do we empower people to do what they are called and gifted to do alongside us in the church?

We so often think about and ask about what it is that leads to congregational death.  Let’s stop. Just stop. Instead ask: What is it that leads to congregational life? We know the church is in decline relative to the memories of the 1950s and 1960s. Let’s stop trying to understand why, stop diagnosing the ecclesiastical patient as a means of keeping our old mother church on life-support.

Instead, let’s commit to asking better, life-breathing, innovative questions. And then keep asking them. Ask, ask, ask, ask and then let’s ask some more. Church life like this – with an eye focused on the potential of life in the future, the future with a church – refocuses our vision beyond seeing the poverty of our influence, our resources or our communities. We can see beyond what we don’t have and begin to dream dreams about the gifts we might share.

Any church willing to share its gifts with others in need sounds like a church I’d like to be part of. That sounds like a church asking the best types of questions. Sounds like a church for the future.

Christopher Edmonston photoCHRISTOPHER EDMONTON
 is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.