Church Chairs and the Shape of Things to Come – Three Essential Commitments

I was thinking about the future. What is the shape of the church tomorrow? What is important to remember every day when taking single steps into the future? There is, I am sure, more than one answer to these questions. The variety of cultural and geographic situations of the local church guarantees an assortment of answers. One thing seems persistently true in every culture – thinking about the future has a dual character of release (freedom from the ineffective and imprisoning) and rebirth (an entrance into trauma that makes new). Release and rebirth reflect the nature of God’s promise and leads me to think about the future in two ways.

First, I think about the local church. I have served in the church as a campus pastor, pastor, church planting supervisor, executive pastor, missions director, board member, and 2 and 3 year old teacher for over forty years…it does not seem that long! Time has reinforced my appreciation for the fact that new generations must wrestle with how to be the authentic and vibrant church. New insights and forms consistently disrupt and encourage how I think about faith.

Second, I think about the business stewardship with which I am entrusted i.e., how Bertolini Sanctuary® Seating creates, communicates and delivers value to churches through the church chairs we design and manufacture. We can not ignore the social changes facing the local church and our own business any more than other leaders can. The reality is that the church by nature is a catalyst to change (transformation) and not just a victim of social change. We have to embrace the disruption of our thinking because the promise of God woos and summons us to a new future. I like the way Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer put it in their new book:

The alternative to this biblically-mandated transformation is to pick a rut and make it deeper. And this is just what many churches have done, preferring, even if not consciously, repetition or even stagnation. As leaders we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that just managing the status quo is good enough…Rather than missionary disciples for Christ going out into the world, we have a group of people content to go in circles. Some manufacturers of church chairs have dug a rut that looks too much like a grave – they have either gone out of business or gone bankrupt. The only way I see to avoid following in a similar path is to engage the sometimes uncomfortable and always exciting vision about what the future holds. Isn’t it strange that the promise of God is both so comforting and so disconcerting? In my experience facing an unknown yet promising future requires three basic commitments.

Commitment 1: Conversation about how the church relates to the culture around us is perennial, and it needs to be.

Paul S. Minear in his book on the images of the church reinforces the necessity of thinking about how to reach the world in which we live. Conversations about how to relate to the culture we live in necessarily start with a commitment to Jesus as Lord. Minear’s insight is sobering:

Yet we know enough concerning God’s design for the church to be haunted by the accusation of the church’s lord: “I never knew you.” So there is much about the character of the church to which the church itself is blind. Our self-understanding is never complete, never uncorrupted, never deep enough, never wholly transparent. In every generation the use and reuse of the Biblical images has been one path by which the church has tried to learn what the church truly is….

Commitment to Jesus as Lord results in a devotion to learning that is characteristic of a close friendship. Friends become attentive to each other, discover preferences and share dreams and fears. It is disappointing to find church leaders who are more self-assured than humble learner – who sometimes act like they don’t know Christ. By learning I don’t mean academic learning. In stead I mean a willingness to face themselves and their context with the realization that what they know they know only in part. The most effective leaders I know live transparently as learners – they constantly work on relating to their world authentically. Their congregations don’t run into ruts but race toward a powerful vision. In our world of manufacturing this means we constantly look and listen for what the church needs to fulfill its vision – we are still learning.

Commitment 2: Conviction that is undiluted and transparent is essential to saying anything important. In a day when pluralism is emphasized as a social necessity (respect for people who hold opposing views or differing cultural perspectives is essential for a civil society) it also unfortunately acts as a barrier to real communication.

Pluralism can mean several different things. In common terms it describes the reality that ethnic, religious, political differences identify groups of people as distinct from one another. Sociologically it defines a policy or theory that minority groups within a society should maintain their cultural differences and share overall political and economic power. Philosophically the term describes the theory that reality is made up of many kinds of being or substance and (1) may not be definable or (2) that a plurality of realities actually exists. Each of these nuances is used in various ways when people talk about pluralism.

For this discussion pluralism can be categorized in two schools of thought identist (all religions are oriented toward the same religious object) and differential (religions promote different ends – different salvations). In this definition it is safe to say that evangelicals generally define pluralism differentially i.e., we recognize that different ideas of salvation or the need of salvation exist but that Jesus claimed a unique status and a single reality in the midst of these differences.

Here is the challenge. There are those who consider any unique conviction to be a denial of pluralism (a loss of respect for any other view). My contention is that without clear convictions communication cannot take place because without clearly stated convictions there is no opportunity to agree or disagree there is simply an artificial truce that goes nowhere. Luther, who was not known to hold back on his convictions and opinions, describes a Christian’s basic conviction this way:

The chief article and foundation of the gospel is given you …when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you. On this you may depend…to have a proper grasp of the gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God….This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content. This is what preaching the Christian faith means. This is why such preaching is called gospel, which in German means a joyful, good, and comforting “message”…. The good news of God’s great love and goodness as revealed in Jesus Christ is at odds with certain religious and social views. This does not reduce its universal application – it affirms humankind’s universal dilemma i.e., the quest for meaning and the diagnosis that the lack of meaning stems from separation from God. In the biblical view there is no exception to this diagnosis (Rom. 3:23 and 6:23).

This clear conviction does not need to be reduced to unbending bias, cultural/ethnic hegemony or squashy acquiescence of one’s deep convictions. If the church is going to say anything important today it has to be honest and transparent about its assumptions and beliefs and to allow for the scrutiny of its convictions with the confidence that God really is at work in the world around us. An example of this kind of conviction occurs in Paul’s defense before Festus and Agrippa in Acts 26 (see vs. 24-28).

Hans Küng carries the idea of conviction further. The way the church lives out its attributes determines its credibility and authenticity. There is a point at which the clarity of difference summons a decision to believe or disbelieve.

“That the world may believe” (Jn. 17:21) depends entirely upon whether the Church presents her unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity credibly in accordance with this prayer of our Lord. Credible here does not mean without any shadows; this is impossible in the Church composed of human beings and indeed sinful human beings. Credible does mean, however, that the light must be so bright and strong that darkness appears as something secondary, inessential, not as the authentic nature….

One implication I find in Küng’s statement is that authentic living does not need “spin”. If being credible means that the light need to be stronger than the darkness then I understand this to mean that being credible is not only living out one’s conviction but admitting when one’s behavior does not align with one’s convictions. In our experience in business admitting mistakes or errors and working with our customers to find a solution creates far more credibility and customer loyalty than trying to cover things up. Isn’t the same true for the church?

Commitment 3: Contribution to the world around us in measurable meaningful actions is the earmark of grace.

The church father Cyprian summarized what is sometimes missing in more esoteric theological reflection on the nature of the church. The third commitment may be framed as a question, how does the behavior of a congregation impact its neighbors?

In conclusion, my dear brothers, the divine admonition never rests, is never silent; in the holy Scriptures both old and new, the people of God at all times and in all place are stirred up to works of mercy…’Share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house. When you see the naked, clothe him; and do not neglect the household of your own family. Then shall your light break forth in due season and…the glory of God will encompass you.

I love Cyprian’s insistence that the impulse to contribute to the world around us is divinely motivated and never at rest. When I look at the unknown future I find courage in the fact that if our company continues to be stirred up to works of mercy i.e., to contribute to real needs we will never end up in ruts that look like graves and lead to demise. The same is true for the church.

There may well be other important aspects of facing the future but it seems to me that if we engage in conversation with those around us and do it with honest convictions with the goal to make a real contribution then the future does not present itself as a threat but as an opportunity. Will there be such a thing as church chairs in 20 years? Perhaps – I am more confident to assert that if we maintain a commitment to conversation, conviction and contribution we will be here in 20 years and we will offer just as quality and vital a product as we do today.

Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.