A MESSAGE FROM PASTOR J.C. AUSTIN: The Future of the Christian Church

This past week, I was in Atlanta for two days to meet with the board of Macedonian Ministry –  a clergy development organization that was founded by Tom Tewell, one-time associate pastor here at First Presbyterian of Bethlehem, whom some of you remember.

Before I ever came to Bethlehem, Tom recruited me to serve as a Mentor/Facilitator for a Macedonian clergy group in New York City. The new Executive Director (Tom retired last year) asked me and several other facilitators from across the country to come to Atlanta and meet with their board and some key donors to discuss “the future of the Christian Church in North America” to help them with their strategic visioning work for the organization.

As I said at the Annual Meeting last Sunday, this past year here at FPCB has been an extraordinary one as we have entered a new and exciting era of ministry together. It is sometimes tempting, because of the difficult history of the past few years here during the schism, to think that FPCB is unique in both the challenges and opportunities that face us. But while some of the particularities are unusual, our overall situation is not.

Over and over, the conversation in Atlanta affirmed that across the country, churches of every size, theological orientation, denomination, and geographic location are asking the same basic questions: how do we meet people where they are in the 21st century? How do we share the good news of Jesus Christ in a culture that is suspicious of institutions in general and churches in particular? What do we need to do differently than previous generations, and what do we need to keep?

And over and over, the conversation affirmed that across the country, the healthiest churches are striving to answer those questions in similar ways: adopting an attitude of intentional experimentation in what the church does; cultivating community in a way that is intentionally welcoming to people of many different backgrounds and perspectives, in both small groups and large gatherings; emphasizing the importance of active and loving service in the larger community; shifting the use of their buildings from what often amounts to a congregational “clubhouse” to a dynamic resource for both church ministries and community partnerships.

I want you to know that people were eager to hear our story, to celebrate our journey over the last year, and to learn from us as a model of a congregation that is already both asking and beginning to answer these crucial questions facing the ecumenical Christian church these days. I found it very inspiring to receive that feedback, and I hope you will, too. And I hope that it will energize you as much as I am for this new year of ministry together!