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Cutting-edge 21st-century church: Topic draws 3,000 to conference

HOUSTON (BP)–What does it take to experience breakthrough in Christian ministry in the 21st century? The answers came in varied forms and for varied styles of churches during a “Church on the Cutting Edge: A 21st Century Legacy” conference at Second Baptist Church in Houston Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

The event — sponsored jointly by the North American Mission Board and Second Baptist — drew more than 3,000 participants for general sessions and small-group workshops led by more than 100 speakers and presenters.

In a first for such a conference, many sessions also are being opened up to those who were not able to attend in person through streaming video on the Internet. The broadcast is available through a link from www.namb.net.

One of the most pressing issues on the cutting edge of ministry is how churches should address the growing postmodern culture — a culture that North Carolina pastor James Emery White said is far more complex than simple generational differences can explain.

“We took this massive cultural change that was sweeping our nation and our world, and we reduced it to a generational grouping,” said White, pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte. “We didn’t know what else to do … but postmodernity is bigger than that. It cuts across all ages.”

The cultural shift has resulted in people who are deeply spiritual but with no perceived need for traditional Christianity or any other particular faith.

“It’s not just that people are far away from Christ and his church in their life and knowledge,” White said. “They no longer see their spiritual search even involving the discovery of any faith or religion.”

He also described a shift in how cutting-edge churches operate. In the 1980s many of the nation’s largest churches grew on what he called the three “R”s of reason, relevance and a need to be real and authentic. Those are still essential, he said. But he also shared three “E”s of reaching postmoderns that have helped Mecklenburg gain 80 percent of its members from among the unchurched since it began 10 years ago:

Explanation: It is no longer sufficient to convince people that the resurrection occurred, for instance. “They say, ‘resurrection, smessurection — who cares? What does it have to do with my life,'” White said. The Bible is a complete unknown. “In the ’80s and early ’90s, they only needed the facts and the relevance of it. Today, they need to be introduced to it.”

Experience: Worship must strike a deeper chord, and merely changing the style to reflect popular culture is no longer sufficient, White said. “They need to feel like they’re getting something experiential that they cannot get out in the world,” he said. “So it would be the greatest of ironies if they came to church wanting to touch the transcendent and got only the world.”

Example: “At no time in recent history have models and mentors meant more,” White said. “[The] churches of the ’80s worked hard in terms of appearing to be real and authentic. Today we’ve got to go beyond that and present actual examples of a transformed life.”

Ed Young Jr., pastor of the Dallas-area Fellowship Church in Grapevine, shared how expanded creativity in worship — with a liberal dose of humor — can help churches be more effective with whatever styles and cultures they happen to favor.

“We should never give a half-baked presentation of the bread of life,” he said. “We should serve the food in the most compelling and creative way as possible. … We’ve got to get out into the sunlight and hand out samples to the people who are passing by.”

For a sermon series on spiritual warfare, for instance, he opened by emerging from an actual U.S. Army surplus tank — complete with helmet. For a Christmas message, he illustrated the key text of “Behold I stand at the door and knock” with a video of himself showing up unannounced at member’s homes — asking them to sing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with him. More than 27,000 people attended services that weekend, up from the 16,000 who attend on a regular basis.

And in another analogy, a sermon on baptism focused on the apostle Paul’s baptism of a man named Crispus — leaving an opening for a video on “Crispus Kremus” at a local Krispy Kreme store. The donuts are “baptized” in the sugar, carefully placed in the box like members in a church, ready to feed others. Like most of his messages, the idea was developed as a team effort of the entire staff.

For best-selling author and Bible teacher Bruce Wilkinson, living on the cutting edge of church leadership involves being willing to lead boldly.

“All growth is past the cutting edge,” Wilkinson said. “The reason so few of us get out of the boat is we face no burden for anything but our own comfort.”

As in his wildly successful book on the prayer of Jabez found in 1 Chronicles 4:10, Wilkinson challenged leaders to be bold in asking God for great things — and following through on the vision even when it means not being sure how it’s going to be accomplished.

“If I know how to get there, it’s too small,” he said.

He told of several times in his own ministry when he followed through on seemingly impossible visions, only to see God come through — including a current effort to place Bible teachers across the world through “Walk Thru the Bible Ministries.”

“Jesus lives outside the cutting edge,” he said, “and we’re the one who bind his hands.”

Precept Ministries founder Kay Arthur challenged leaders during a women’s conference track to emulate the boldness of the hero of the movie “Braveheart” — to be equipped through Bible study to have brave hearts in confronting a sinful culture.

“It is your job and my job to take that wellspring of water that wells up to give eternal life, and to offer it to a world that is thirsty for the thing that will satisfy them deeply,” she said.

It is only through becoming intimate with Scripture, she said, that churches can effectively confront the culture.

“The Word of God is the foundation for all that we are,” she said. “But the problem is that in the churches of the United States collectively and even on the mission fields … we don’t have people in the Word of God so that they know truth for themselves.”

She also told the story of martyrs in North Korea who first watched as their children were hanged, knowing that they could have prevented it if they only would deny Christ. Then as their captors announced that a steamroller would crush the life out of their own body unless they relented, they voluntarily lay on the ground, sang a hymn of devotion to God and gave their lives.

“When we go out into that world, God expects you and me to lay down our life, to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow him,” she said. “He expects us to die to our comfort, to our pleasure.”

North American Mission Board President Robert E. Reccord closed out the conference with a challenge for churches to be ready to adapt their methods constantly in order to effectively reach the changing world around them. In one point he noted that God calls everyone to serve, not just those who happen to be called to vocational ministry.

“There is not a significant distinction between being called to vocational ministry and being called to be on-mission,” he said. “We want people to see that God has a plan for them, whether it is in here or out there.”

He also noted the difference among those called to Christian ministry in unhealthy ambition — where power, prestige and influence can take root — and the biblical ambition expressed in verses like 2 Corinthians 5:9: “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.”

In his own life, Reccord said, he had faced struggles that almost resulted in his leaving the ministry until he realized a key distinction.

“The greatest thing that ever happened in those tough times,” he said, was not whether his career remained intact but that the challenges “renewed my calling.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: JAMES EMERY WHITE, ED YOUNG JR., KAY ARTHUR and BOB RECCORD.

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  • James Dotson