The Future of Our Church
I sat in a meeting with a group of pastors earlier this year discussing the future of their church. Throughout the conversation we talked about current ministry work, difficult obstacles, future opportunities, and amazing God-moments in the life of their church family.
It was a discussion that ebbed and flowed like the ocean waves along a shoreline. Both great excitement and deep heartache were revealed as the time of planning turned into a moment of introspection. Looking at the reality of the present - compared to the highlights of the past - presents a difficult picture of what the future will look like. In short? It ain’t like the good ol’ days.
The Church is in somewhat unchartered territory. Jesus’s Bride has not been in the position we are now in since before a guy named Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus (or Constantine for short) came onto the global stage around 300 A.D. and completely redirected the path of Christianity.
So what does the future look like for us?
In this pastor’s meeting, one leader made it very clear what her opinion was. Things have to change.
“We can do what we’ve always done. And die.”
There is no going back to the way things used to be. The days of power and prestige that the Church enjoyed throughout Christendom are not coming back anytime soon.
But maybe that is not all bad. We are now presented with the opportunity to re-evaluate how we have lived out and embodied the Good News of Jesus Christ for centuries. While we stick to the message (in short, the Apostle’s Creed), we are now in a time and space where we can reconsider our methods and practices. And perhaps we can learn from our Christian ancestors.
Because, as I sometimes need to be reminded myself, the Mission of God is - GOD’S mission. And God’s mission is a vibrant, dynamic work that is always changing and yet always centered on Jesus Christ. The early Church understood this well.
As Alan Kreider states it in his eye-opening, heart-challenging book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church:
Patience on God. Trust in the power of the Holy Spirit. Habits that were Christ-like and Christ-glorifying.
Those were some of the key markers of the early Church.
And maybe, just maybe, as we seek to avoid doing what has always been done - and dying in the process - we can recover that patient, trust-filled, Christ-like life as the followers of Jesus Christ.
Our world is changing and changing fast.
This requires change from us as well.
I was reminded of this church leaders’ conversation again recently as I have been reading through Thomas Friedman’s book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. In this latest work by an amazing journalist, Friedman looks at the rapid changes and interconnectedness in globalization, technology, and “Mother Nature” and how we can survive (and thrive) in an unprecedented period in human history. One of my favorite stories that he shares in the book gives a mental picture of the world we are living in now.
Besides being an anecdotal reminder that chess players are smarter than the rest of us, this myth exemplifies the power of exponential growth (multiplication over addition). And that the really large numbers of rice come in to play in the second half of the chessboard.
Well, says Friedman, in the areas of “the Market, Mother Nature, and Moore’s Law” - we are now in the second half of the chessboard.
(“Moore’s Law famously says that the power of microchips will double every two years.”)
The world is changing at unimaginable speeds and it requires innovative thinking like never before. And while this is especially true in our technology and economy, I believe that it is also true for the Church.
We now live in the time of Instagram, Youtube, banking via texting, Audible, 24/7 news, civil wars, and natural disasters. Life-changing events are happening at a quicker pace around the world - and the rest of the world is able to receive minute-by-minute updates as it happens (ex. Brexit votes, protests in Sudan, and rebellion in Libya…just to mention the last 10 days).
This is, and will, change the world we find ourselves in. It is changing us and everyone in our churches as well.
As we move into a new chapter of human history, we (as the Church) must humbly seek to adapt and unleash God’s Kingdom and will on this 21st century, hyper-globalized world as it is in heaven.
So where do we start?
Here are some recommendations I have as we move into this unchartered territory:
Celebrate the past. What’s gotten us here, has gotten us here. It may be imperfect and messy, but the history of the Church holds much beauty as well. We need to remember to hold our story with respect and gratitude. Do we need to leave several parts of what the Church has been in the past? Probably. But not everything must change. And we need to be thankful for the Church we have found ourselves a part of.
Discern the core biblical mandates for the Church. A good reminder I hear often from my mentors is that we need to make sure we don’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. Just because there are mistakes in a system doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the whole system needs to be burned down. I believe that a key to making sure we don’t throw out everything is to take intentional time to dive into Scripture and discern what Christ and the New Testament writers call us to believe and do. If we started the Church from scratch based off of what we read in Scripture, what do we see it looking like in today’s world? That vision can help us retain the non-negotiable parts of our faith, while also giving us a goal to work towards within our churches and faith communities.
Lean into the future with large amounts of creativity. After we discern the central parts of our faith and praxis as the Church, let’s move towards the future with an openness to trial and error. In the business world, it’s called having freedom to fail fast. We will not succeed at everything new we try, and we want to learn from those mistakes. When we give our church families freedom to be creative without fear of penalty for failing, we open up the possibilities for highly-innovative, wonderfully new concepts. And this requires empowering EVERYONE to be a part of this process in our churches.
Be cross-cultural in our innovation. One key to this is inviting in multiple cultures (ex. multiple ethnicities, urban, rural, different parts of the United States, and from different countries) to be a part of the dreaming and planning process in our efforts. Pull from the wisdom of our international Church (to find new ideas from other locations) and empower those from different cultures within your own congregation (for a variety of perspectives) as you address new needs and opportunities.
Be cross-generational in our innovation. Another part to this innovation process is to include people from a variety of ages in the process. As it has been said elsewhere, “it takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy.”
Be patient. Nothing meaningful can be microwaved. As we make important decisions for the future of our local churches (and thus the future of our Church), we need to be patient on God and others. Take small, slow wins as they come and continue the hard work of meeting the brokenness of our world with the love of Jesus Christ.
These are not fast-acting, one size fits all fixes, but rather they are recommendations to help you and your local church community to begin moving together into our future with a relevant Gospel and tangible life transformation.
Wanting to wrestle more with this concept of acceleration and what it means for our Church?
I’d recommend checking out these resources, keep praying, keep hoping, and keep dreaming:
Canoeing the Mountains. Using the story of Lewis & Clark, this leadership book talks about how we as the Church can move into unchartered territory.
The Forgotten Ways. Here’s an unique perspective about the core DNA of the Church (it’s called the APEST model) and how it can help reinvigorate the Church as we move to the margins of society.
The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. This is a deep dive into the life and legacy of the early Church and what we can learn about patience and trust from our Christian ancestors.
The End of White Christian America. The 20th Century was a high point for Mainstream and Evangelical Christianity in the United States. Here’s the story of the rise and fall of different parts of the Church family in America.
A Seat at the Table. This book speaks to how the Church can positively engage with emerging generations by diving into Scripture as well as real life stories from young adults in the Church.
Thank you for Being Late. Everything in the world is changing at an exponential rate. From the amazing author of The World is Flat, here’s a look at what is causing these changes and how we can survive - and thrive - in the world we find ourselves in.
I could sum up my thoughts on the future of the Church in a few different ways.
The Church is quickly moving from a place of power to a place on the margins. And the Good News is that, according to the Bible, that is where Jesus often is as well.
We are moving into a future of change. As it has been said elsewhere: “What got us here won’t get us there.” And, like riding a bike, in order to find stability, we have to be in motion. We have to actively engage in a changing world.
“We’re in a technological hurricane…and it just keeps doubling.” - Friedman
Or in the words of my pastor friend:
We can do what we've always done.
Where do you see the Church heading? What does the future hold for us?
Comment below and let me know your thoughts!
**Affiliate links are included in this article to highlight the amazing books I’ve read in the last 18 months.**