Today’s Church must “morph.” It must transition to a new identity as a missional presence in the West.
Leaders committed to mission realize the challenges facing the Church will not be adequately met by adding new programs. These leaders are talking about a reimagining of the Church, resulting in a comprehensive change in its self-understanding and its configuration.
The term “deconstruction” is frequently used by voices within the emergent church. But this technical term is often misunderstood, being perceived as too threatening and confrontational. It is heard to imply demolition and destruction, which is not what is intended.
Deconstruction instead describes a particular method of literary criticism that seeks to get behind the text to reveal the embedded assumptions. Among emerging church leaders, deconstruction signifies not destruction but a breakthrough. It means to undo or take apart in order to arrive at a deeper understanding, allowing for a creative rereading. However, in order to avoid the negative implications of the term and its highly technical explanation, I prefer to speak of the “reimagining” of the Church, and of the transformation process as the “morphing” of the Church.
Wikipedia defines “morphing” as a special effect in motion pictures that changes (or morphs) one image into another through a seamless transition. The term has a much more ancient usage, however. It is derived from the Greek word morphe, which appears in the New Testament in a significant context. The apostle Paul writes to the Philippians:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, / who, though he was in the form [morphe] of God, / did not regard equality with God / as something to be exploited, / but emptied himself, / taking the form [morphe] of a slave, / being born in human likeness. / And being found in human form, / he humbled himself / and became obedient to the point of death— / even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV).
Gordon Fee explains the meaning of morphe: “Since morphe can denote ‘form’ or ‘shape’ in terms of both the external features by which something is recognized and the characteristics and qualities that are essential to it, it was precisely the right word to characterize both the reality (His being God) and the metaphor (His taking on the role of a slave).” The mission on which Jesus embarked necessitated a radical transition from sovereign Lord to humble servant. It entailed His abandoning of heaven to live among sinful humankind, with all the limitations of a bodily existence. While the morphing of the Church is of a different order, it must be prepared to undergo costly, radical and comprehensive changes in the process of dying to itself, in submission to Christ’s will.
What does such a transition signify for the Church, and why is it necessary? For one, the inherited denominations are all in serious decline. Growing churches, whether denominational or independent, are bucking the trend largely as a result of transfer growth or, to a lesser extent, through the renewed participation of the lapsed. The widespread nature of decline across the ecclesial and theological spectrum and over the same time span indicates the root causes of the slump are not primarily within the life of religious institutions. Rather, they relate to broader issues arising from their cultural context. Such changes are not restricted to local circumstances, but arise from the cultural turbulence that is convulsing the entire Western world. The morphing of the Church describes the process of transformation of the Church as it was, or as it exists today, to the Church as it needs to become in order to engage appropriately and significantly in God’s mission in the context of the 21st century.
Some argue reimagination is not the problem and churches should instead focus on a wholehearted application of the scriptural understanding of the Church as the people of God gathered, preaching the Word, sharing the Gospel, making disciples of all peoples and otherwise fulfilling its intended purpose in the world. Application is precisely the issue, but this has to be undertaken in changing contexts, which present unfamiliar challenges to most Western churches. In a post-Christendom and pluralist environment, the Christian church is no longer in a privileged position, but is one of a number of competing entities. It is operating among people who, for the most part, do not have a biblical awareness of the story of redemption, the life and mission of Jesus Christ, or the nature and scope of the Good News Christ proclaimed.
This lack of awareness is prevalent among the churchgoing population, many of whom fail to grasp the risen Lord commissioned His followers to share His message of Good News throughout the world. We cannot do so on the basis of assumptions from previous experience, but rather through a prayerful reimagination. Only then will people we seek to communicate with hear the timeless message of the Gospel in a timely manner. They need to encounter God addressing them in the here and now, rather than in some remote time and place.
This article originally appeared in Neue magazine.