10 Paradigm Shifts for Mission Renewal

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Tim Snyder and Paul Erickson say that congregational renewal involves a new way of being church and new approaches to our foundational callings. They outline 10 new ways of thinking essential to reimagining the church and its mission.


Congregational renewal requires more than figuring out a better way to do what we’ve always done. Instead, we need to figure out a new way to be who and what God is calling us to be. The biggest challenges we face are adaptive, not technical, requiring not just new practices, but a new mindset.

This is especially the case as we begin to imagine what life and ministry will look like in the wake of the pandemic and its impact on our common life. Even though there may be a strong desire to simply return to how we did things before, the world has changed, and new opportunities exist.

These 10 shifts express the breadth and depth of mission renewal as a series of paradigm shifts. Together they amount to a reimagining of the church and its mission.

Church as a way of life

The first three shifts are foundational. If a church’s leadership can’t get on the same page here, it’s unlikely they will be able to move forward. Collectively, they constitute the first steps on the new way of renewal.

1. Church as a verb

In the old paradigm, the church is assumed to be an important part of people’s lives and the world. Conversations about the church focused on how to strengthen the church, how to grow the church, and how to attract new people to join the church. But what if we understood the church as an instrument of God’s mission in the world, a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. And what if our conversations focused on how the church can better prepare people to engage in God’s work of love and reconciliation. Or in other words, the church is less a noun, more a verb; less a place, more a way of life.

2. Congregation as mission outpost

In the old paradigm, the congregation is an organization focused on serving its members. Membership is how one belongs to the congregation and how it belongs to you. We need to think instead of the congregation as a mission outpost focused on serving its mission field (i.e., the neighborhood, city, and world), rather than merely serving its members.

3. Ministry as vocation

In the old paradigm, ministry is done through programs. Programs address perceived problems (e.g., “We don’t have youth; we need youth ministry.”) and are directed by staff. We need to think instead of ministry as vocation. Vocation is living out the spiritual gifts given to us in baptism. Vocation happens in relationships. We are a priesthood of all believers.

Pathways to renewal

Once these foundations are in place, however, there are nearly endless paths to renewal. Some churches might begin with hospitality, while others begin with stewardship. Knowing where to start and what to take on next requires discernment grounded in the history of a congregation, the gifts of God’s people there, and the movement of the Spirit. Let’s take a look at these subsequent paradigm shifts.

4. Evangelism as building relationships

In the old paradigm, outreach is about doing nice things for others. Evangelism is about getting new members, because more members means more money, and more money means we can keep doing what we’ve always done. We need to instead think of outreach as a combination of service, advocacy, and relationship building. Evangelism is about sharing our faith stories in spiritual friendships.

5. Worship imagines a world

In the old paradigm, worship is about expressing praise to God in a comfortable setting; it’s also about fulfilling a religious obligation. We need to ask instead: What kind of world does our worship imagine? Worship shapes us into the kind of people God is calling us to become. Liturgy is the “work of the people” and so it is diverse and contextual.

6. Formation and education for daily discipleship

In the old paradigm, Christian education is about learning the Bible and passing on denominational traditions. But it’s optional. We need to think instead of Christian education as making disciples of Jesus. It is centered on faith practices in the home, workplace, and together at church.

7. Congregational life as our collective spirituality

In the old paradigm, when we speak of congregational life or fellowship, we really mean “social committee.” It’s about coffee hour and potluck dinners. We need to think instead of congregational life creating a culture of hospitality, service, discipleship, and prayer within the congregation. It’s our collective spirituality.

8. Stewardship as aligning resources with mission

In the old paradigm, stewardship and finance are essentially the same thing. It’s about how the church will keep the lights on. We need to think instead of stewardship as how we are using all the resources God has given us. Finance is about aligning our money with our mission priorities.

9. Leadership as partnership

In the old paradigm, lay leaders serve out of duty. It’s about whose turn it is to serve on council. Pastors work hard, trying to give people what they want. They are busy meeting needs, solving problems, and answering questions. It’s exhausting, especially in a pandemic. We need to think instead of congregational leadership as a dynamic partnership between clergy and lay leaders that cultivates a new environment that fosters missional creativity. Leaders work together to ask the right questions, invite others to serve, and love people into a new way of being church. The flames of Spirit-led innovation and imagination can fall on anyone, lay and ordained alike.

10. Decision-making as discernment

In the old paradigm, decisions are made by the leaders. Council delegates day-to-day tasks and programs to staff. The congregation votes on major things once or twice per year. We need to think instead of making decisions through spiritual discernment. The more participants in a decision-making process, the wiser it will be. Council and staff are lead-learners.

At one point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus concludes a string of parables by saying, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” We are living in a time when the U.S. religious landscape is changing at a remarkable pace. No doubt, some are grieving what may be lost. Others wonder, “What will come next?” We suspect church leaders today are being called to be kingdom scribes who bring out of their congregations what is new and what is old, inviting others into the way of Jesus, ever faithful, ever new.


Idea light bulbDownload a one-page handout that presents these 10 paradigm shifts in a table comparing the old and new ways of thinking about church.

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About Author

Tim Snyder

Timothy Snyder is a senior researcher for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and visiting assistant professor of practical theology at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the principal investigator of the Religious Workforce Project, a national study funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.

Paul Erickson is Bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Previously, he served as Assistant to the Bishop for Evangelical Mission in the Saint Paul Area Synod of the ELCA and director of Agora, a ministry that works to develop lay leaders for immigrant and multicultural congregations.


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