In the Spring of 2047, it will have been 50 years since I preached my first sermon.
I can remember the day vividly that I “surrendered to the ministry.” After I walked the aisle to answer the call, my pastor told me at the end of the service that “if I was called to ministry, I was called to preach, so next Sunday night you are up!” I looked up and said “Next week?” to which he replied, “The only way you learn to preach is by preaching!”
I didn’t know it at the time, but I stepped into the world of ministry at a moment that I would now describe as the finale of the church in the era of Christendom in the US. When I first went to school to study pastoral ministry later that year, it hadn’t been very long since The Purpose-Driven Church was initially published, one of the most popular periodicals for ministry leaders at the time was “Church Growth Magazine”, the conversation about future generations and church participation was aimed squarely at Gen X, and that was only in the tiniest corner of the smallest room, in the basement of the church complex in North America. In other words, to most pastoral leaders, church participation was largely stable and even growing. The surrounding culture of the common American city or town was either supportive or at least neutral to the values and worldview of the Christian Church. Further, most pastoral leaders were still respected and met with a common embrace and gratitude, even among those who did not faithfully attend.
By the time I reach my 50th year of ministry, the landscape that I entered into will have so vastly changed that I know it would be unrecognizable to the world of the 1990s. Like many of those who will be reading this article, I’m a “bridge leader” in ministry in the year 2023. I entered into ministry on the end side of Christendom and I will finish ministry when I expect that Post-Christendom will be so underway that nobody will even recall that there once was another side to the bridge. My ministry will have been summarized by a season that only a small portion of pastors since the Protestant Reformation will share in that, throughout our career, we will have crossed the bridge from one epoch of the church into another.
Not long ago it dawned on me that I am halfway across the bridge. I have been in ministry for about as long as I have left in ministry and now I am working on the back half of that bridge.
As many of us are somewhere in the same vicinity, it’s a good time to ask ourselves:
- What do we feel called to during our remaining years?
- With more maturity, wisdom – and hopefully humility – than we started out , what mark do we want to leave on the world when we are done?
What echoes deep in my own spirit is that I want to do all I can to ensure that there is a faithful, vibrant, and flourishing church that is fully equipped for what we might now call a Post-Church era.
I want to do all I can to ensure that there is a faithful, vibrant, and flourishing church that is fully equipped for what we might now call a Post-Church era.”
Ecclesia as a whole has always been on the same journey – and those of us who are a part of this family have been drawn together for this shared purpose. Although we might articulate it with different nuance, it is my conviction that the churches and leaders in our family have always been characterized by a heart to bear witness to the gospel among generations of people for whom standard approaches to church were ineffective. We certainly don’t know all that we need to know in order to carry out the Great Commission for the next 25 years – and we need to continue to learn from one another (and from others) – but we do have within our DNA several of the key essentials to fulfill the mission before us. More, we know that we are not alone.
 One constant theme in the life of Ecclesia over the last 15 years has been the number of leaders from outside Ecclesia who feel at home among us, but are constrained from having their church join us for one legitimate reason or another. Perhaps they share an understanding of the gospel with Ecclesia, sense a common approach to ministry, or perhaps most of all an affection for our relational posture. But, whatever the case, they have had the desire to come more closely into life with Ecclesia. This is why we beta-tested an Individual Membership option in 2022. Having found initial fruitfulness among a handful of friends, we are excited to share that we are now planning to make the Individual Membership option a formal part of our future plans.
 In like manner, we have also seen the rise of congregations within Ecclesia sensing the need to start local networks of churches within their city or region. These are popping up in all four corners of the country and run the gamut from city-wide networks cooperating around church planting to collaborative approaches to youth ministry across a town. Given that these networks are the outgrowth of the character and nature of leaders within Ecclesia, we believe there is a “tissue match” between Ecclesia as a whole and these emerging local relationships. For that reason, another growth step we have decided to take in 2023 is to become more proactive in encouraging the formation of local networks through Ecclesia churches as well as exploring how Ecclesia can serve these local networks through our churches..
As we move into the future then, we see the ministry of Ecclesia being centered around leaders, churches, and local church networks. While we do not expect to diminish our focus on the three important phases of healthy local congregations – Starting (years 1-3), Strengthening (years 4-8), and Sending (years 9+) – we do believe that now is the time to formally create paths that allow individual leaders and local networks connected to our churches to benefit from the ministry of Ecclesia.
As I stand now in the center of the bridge, these steps for Ecclesia resonate as the kind of actions that strengthen our capacity to be more faithful and fruitful in the unique time that we have been called to steward together (with others) on behalf of the gospel.
Does your own calling, wherever you are on the bridge, resonate with this? If so, we would like you to take a further step with us in 2023 in these ways:
- First, if you are a leader, not officially connected to Ecclesia, consider joining our family on this mission as an individual leader.
- Second, if you are a church, or aspire to plant a church and know that you need a company of friends to be in ministry alongside, but without the trappings of a hierarchical denomination-type structure, then consider joining with us or planting with us in 2023.
- Third, if you are an Ecclesia Church already, why not consider how the gospel might multiply more fully if you created a network of like-hearted and common-minded churches within your city or town? If so, we would love to help.
And lastly, if you are a leader of another ministry that would be a “peer” to Ecclesia and happen to be reading this, and are wondering how we might team up our common efforts, then drop us a line because we are exploring that too in this season.
We are in a unique season as ministry leaders in 2023. The challenges in front of us are greater than those behind us – and yet, so is the kingdom opportunity! Let’s not lose heart as we emerge from these last few years of immense challenge and let us recommit ourselves to the cause of the gospel in our time and let us do it together.