“Shifting Trends in Ministry in the 21st Century,” an invigorating day-long conference, sponsored by the Unification Theological Seminary and the American Clergy Leadership Conference, took place on Saturday, April 28th in the heart of mid-town Manhattan. The conference featured Dr. Harold Dean Trulear as its keynote speaker. Dr. Trulear is the Director of the Doctor of Ministry degree program as well as an assistant professor at Howard Divinity School in Washington, D.C. Trulear is also the President of G.L.O.B.E. Ministries and a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Taking his lead from the two recent books by Fuller Theological Seminary professor Eddie Gibbs, Church Next and Leadership Next, Trulear focused his remarks on the issues and challenges to ministry as presented by our postmodern culture together with effective ways to respond to such challenges. According to Trulear, the main challenges of postmodernism is its emphasis on efficiency and efficacy over the truth of the Gospel, fostering a therapeutic culture rather than encouraging empowerment as God’s sons and daughters, encouraging personal fulfillment and self-actualization over and against discipleship, and focusing on success to the exclusion of encouraging godly relationships of trust.

Resisting a simple “how-to” quick fix type of talk in the afternoon plenary, Dr. Trulear raised several points that effectively challenged the participants to look deeply at the guidance offered by the word of God through the Gospel. While stating that there is nothing wrong with success or being therapeutic, Trulear went on to explain that the problem begins when our ministries end at those points. Instead, he challenged, our ministries need to encourage strong relationships. For Trulear, there are four levels of relationships needed in response to postmodernism. These relationships include: relationship with ourselves, where we take responsibility for our actions. (Strong and loving relationships between husband and wife.) An effective stewardship relationship between ourselves and the rest of the created world. And finally, the most important relationship of all – that between ourselves and God.

One of the greatest problems that we face as a postmodern culture is that the paradigm described in I Samuel 8 is still alive and well. “We don’t realize that the paradigm of power, greed, and alienation that was described in I Samuel, chapter 8 is still present today.” Trulear continued, “The real problem with our culture is that postmodernism is gradually teaching us to remove the locus of moral decision-making from oneself and projecting it elsewhere.” Ultimately, Trulear noted, we need an “incarnational-focused ministry” if we are to reverse these trends. What is the basis of such an incarnational ministry? As the speaker concluded, the basis of a strong incarnational ministry requires that we study the scripture to become people of the word and so have a different view of the world, the we build healthy and appropriate relationships and, most important of all, that we serve.

In addition to the energizing remarks of the keynote speaker, participants at the conference were also able to gather in smaller discussion groups to look more deeply at the issues that confront our diverse ministries. The two topics discussed by the participants were: “Commuters and Community: Ministry in a Changing Urban Demographic” and “Idol or Idle Speculation: Leading an Irrelevant Church to Relevancy.”

As the third conference in the UTS series entitled “Conversations in Ministry,” participants remarked that it was a most stimulating program that challenged each and every person to reflect on their ministries in the metropolitan setting in light of the issues and challenges presented by postmodernism. As one participant noted: “I had been feeling these things for quite some time now, but I was not able to put my finger on what the real issue was until today. The speaker really crystallized for me what the real problem is in our communities. In seeking to fix our problems and each other, we have left God out of the picture.” Another participant remarked that, “Relationships, discipleship and service to others – that is so true. Certainly the next generation in our church is hungry for those things.” As one discussion group summarized, “We need to ask ourselves this question: If my church closed down, who would miss it more – the people in the church or the people outside the church, the people in the community?”

Certainly the participants were treated to a full day by the time the conference ended. But, it was a day well-spent as each one returned to their homes and churches with a clearer understanding of the "shifting trends in ministry in the 21st century" as as what they can do to meet those trends and challenges.

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