Lehr, J. Fred. Becoming a 21st-Century Church: A Transformational Manual. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017. 88 pages, paperback.
Richard K. Klafehn
Writers such as Phyllis Tickle identified the need for the church to adapt to the significant cultural shifts of this era. However, congregations and their leaders often do not acknowledge, understand, or accept them. Consequently 80% of the congregations across mainline Christianity are stagnant or dying.
J. Fred Lehr wrote this clear and helpful guide to illumine the cultural shifts and how the emerging 21st century church may respond and yet be faithful to the Gospel. Based on personal research and 45 years of ordained ministry, including 5 interim pastor positions, Lehr seeks to help leaders find real and practical applications for their setting.
The 11 chapters have discussion questions at the end, so that adult study groups, congregation councils, or vision and strategic mission planning teams may read it together and find directions suitable for their mission context.
After “500 years of a sola Scriptura church,” Lehr writes, “the new authority of the church is now the Holy Spirit. The key question now is not what is in the book, but where is the Holy Spirit leading the church?” (pp. 5-6) Lehr names the shift as from sola Scriptura to sola Spiritus.
The 21st century church will be more relational and less didactic: focused on knowing Jesus and one another on our faith journeys, rather than about Jesus, the Bible, or catechism.
The 21st century church will be flexible rather than uniform, provide experiences of the Holy through worship, community service, and outreach, open ended, and responsive to the needs of the community and beyond.
The role of clergy shifts from resident theologian or expert to companion on the spiritual journey.
The 21st century church will see itself less as “institution” with a focus on policies, constitution, bylaws, and the like. The church will seek to be more a “movement”, people in action together, alive, driven to make a difference for the cause of Jesus. “Orthodoxy”, knowing and believing the right stuff, is not as important as “orthopraxy”, living rightly what is said to be believed.
Lehr’s third chapter offers a “Spiritual Life Survey” for congregation members to assess their own spiritual maturity. Lehr charts four levels of spiritual maturity based on the New Testament. The first level is “crowd religion”. The 21st century church, Lehr says, will challenge individuals to step out of the crowd and become disciples. Discipleship, however, is only the beginning of the journey to spiritual maturity.
The final chapter offers a practical step-by-step process for implementation. Given the state of unrelenting violence and tragic mass shootings in our country, the title of step 6, “Ready-Fire-Aim” is regrettable and poorly chosen. Lehr’s worthy goal, though, is for congregations to be willing to make changes, experiment with new ministries, and even fail.
How is the 21st century church faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? The church will continue to offer the good news that we are already saved by Jesus, hope, conditional love, and an open future that does not depend on one’s past. The church will continue to keep the main thing the main thing (Steven Covey) and be excited and faithful to the gospel of Jesus.