The Future of the Church

Perhaps only in my fevered brain does all of this make sense, but this is how the dots are connecting for me.

In spite of The Coming Evangelical Collapse, I feel hopeful about the church.  It may not be an easy time for denominations and institutions because survival will require many changes to the typical way of doing business as church.

As to the hand-wringing (or rejoicing) over the collapse of evangelicalism, I agree with Brother Maynard that this represents a narrow perspective of the church in general.

In point of fact, it is the USA which is perhaps the last Western nation to become, and come to grips with a post-Christendom reality. On this basis, the more global our culture becomes, the less relevant evangelicals will appear, coming across instead as a North American and especially US-American expression of faith. Moreover, the subtle suggestion that evangelical=Christian (with a North American bias) is no longer inclusive enough even for most North Americans.

However, the backlash against evangelicalism extends to the overall perception of Christians, and I would suggest the impact is beyond the USA.

Fueled by the Christian Right’s political meddling, the Catholic sex abuse scandals, violent expressions of Islamic fundamentalism, and George W. Bush’s unpopular “faith-based” presidency, anti-religious sentiment is on the rise in America. –  Godless America?

In the midst of this shift, the rising trend of New Calvinism creates a home for those who desire the conformity and control of traditional religious frameworks.

Being forced to the margins will give the church an opportunity to redefine itself and its message to something that more accurately reflects the heart of the gospel.

In a recent Shapevine video, Darrell Guder explained that by the fourth century there was no more preaching that centered on the kingdom of God.  The message and practice of the church became more focused on structures and systems to manage salvation.  (Brother Maynard has transcribed the full quote here.)

This, my friends, is where we lost our way.  And this will be the key to survival for future expressions of church.  I am firmly convinced that discussions of ecclesiology must be centered on the kingdom of God rather than on structures, models, and methods.

In the future landscape of the church, those churches that survive will be the ones that reprioritize their existence to the building of the kingdom of God rather than their own kingdoms.  We will see this expressed through a variety of structures and models.  However the common factor will be an understanding of their identity as the people of God and their raison d’etre to express the kingdom.

As I’ve said all along, I believe that the emerging and missional movements are both spirit-led responses to the needed reformation of the church.  Whether one ever joins the movement or uses the terminology, the essence of emerging and missional will be a part of the future of the church.

Emerging

Richard Rohr listed this as one of the characteristics of the emerging movement.

“a conclusion that many of the major concerns of Jesus are at major variance with what most of our churches have emphasized”

In a post entitled, The Emerging Kingdom, this is what I said about the emerging movement…

I believe that the emerging movement, knowingly or unknowingly, has been a part of a transformation that God desires in the church. Many have followed in obedience to an intentional shift that they perceive in what God is doing.

One aspect of this transformation is a greater understanding and revelation of the kingdom of God and our identity as the people of God in relation to His kingdom.

There are aspects of the emerging movement that may fall short of fully emerging, and aspects of the movement may systemize…However, possibly under the radar, there will also continue to be a movement of God’s people living into the prophetic imagination of expressing His kingdom on earth.

Missional

It doesn’t matter what you call it, but there is no doubt in my mind that the future of the church must be truly missional and incarnational, not missional as an add-on program. The point is not whether we adopt the labels, but that we rediscover who we are as the people of God, that we learn what it means to be agents of His kingdom.

The entire concept of being missional flows out of an understanding of the kingdom of God and knowing our role and place within the kingdom. From the post, What I See

Like the church and christians of the early days, these believers, with a renewed understanding of their identity as the church, have begun to spread the message of the gospel of the kingdom in a more grassroots and organic way.

They have been released to demonstrate the kingdom. They have taken the message of redemption and reconciliation out of the church building and into the streets and avenues of the world, bringing the kingdom into the lives of those who are outside the church.

This humble style of ministry has the potential for viral multiplication and expanding the peace of the kingdom in a much greater way. Millions of average believers are taking responsibility for their role in ministry, realizing that they are released to be an incarnational presence in their spheres of influence.

The following are what I see as key markers, characteristics, and points of emphasis that we will see in the continued conversation about the reshaping of church. These are areas that must be addressed by churches in order to be a part of the future of the church rather than the prophesied decline.

Challenges for the Future Church

1.  Redefining the gospel

In the future of the church, we will see both the understanding and the expression of the gospel expanded from the gospel of salvation and rightly reinterpreted as the gospel of the kingdom.

As explained previously in my post What I See

I see that the understanding and definition of the gospel is returning to the holistic message of the kingdom that Jesus gave us. Many have begun to question the gospel message that is limited to personal salvation only, viewed solely as an escape from eternal damnation.

We realize that salvation and the gospel of the kingdom is a message of redemption that includes but also surpasses a one-time decision. There is a greater revelation of God’s heart and desire to see the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

2.  Redefining church

The future definition of church will be expanded to acknowledge and include forms outside of traditional institutions as legitimate and valid expressions of the Body of Christ.  There will hopefully be a greater appreciation and support for one another as we learn to properly discern the Body and co-labor in the work of the kingdom in every way that it manifests.

It is vital that we grasp our calling as an alternative society within the culture.  This is a portion of a statement from Hal Miller quoted on the Reimagining Church blog:

Christianity is culturally relevant when it offers a qualitatively different society. Jesus called it “the kingdom of God.” Paul saw its first outlines in the gathered disciples of Jesus, and so he called them ekklesia – we translate it “church”…

Imagine a group of people gathering to help each other in the common task of seeing God’s kingdom incarnated in their work, in their families, in their towns, in their world, in their midst, and (rather than only) in their individual lives. This gathering is ekklesia. It will be relevant to its world because it lives the life of the kingdom in the world, not apart from it.

Can we realize our role to be a true embodiment of the kingdom here and now?
From the post Stolen Identity – Or Maybe Just Misplaced

There is, however, a deeper underlying question…

“As the people of God, who are we?”

Herein lies the importance of rediscovering a theology of the kingdom of God, of awakening to an understanding of who we are as God’s people. The present reality and nature of the kingdom of God has mostly not been understood.

However, if the very gospel that Jesus gave us is the gospel of the kingdom of God, and the church has not understood the kingdom, then what the heck have we been doing for all these years?!

Instead our identity has been shaped by organizations and denominations, and we have become much more comfortable with the question, “what church do you go to?” than the question, “what is the kingdom of God?”

It is because of a lack of understanding of the kingdom that we have not understood our identity as a people. We do not know where to place ourselves in God’s story.

3.  Redefining structures

The defining question in regard to church structures will shift from “how to do church” to “how to participate in the kingdom.”   A kingdom perspective will change our view of the role and purpose of the organized things we are involved in.

A relevant question from Jason Clark

The question is not whether you can avoid being an institution; the question is what kind of institution can we imagine that will support the purposes of who and what we are trying to bring to others?

The success of institutional forms of church will depend on their adaptability to change and upon resisting the institutional instinct toward self-preservation.

Will churches be able to restructure in a way that releases rather than collects and consumes resources? In the future church, the net flow of time, money, and other resources will be outward rather than inward.  This may prove to be the greatest hurdle for established institutional churches.

Churches who are willing to adapt will find themselves fully involved in what the Spirit is doing. There is great potential for institutional churches to equip, facilitate, and release their members into missional expressions of participation in the kingdom of God.  The question is whether that potential will be realized.

4.  Redefining eschatology

It is important to move the discussion of eschatology from the realm of end-time events and reframe it in the context of God’s intended plan for creation.  This will be vital in reframing our identity and theology in order to begin living the eschaton.  In Surprised by Hope and From Eternity to Here, both Wright and Viola challenge us to understand the bigger picture of God’s intent for creation.

NT Wright is correct in saying that our eschatology – our understanding of God’s future plan – is necessary for shaping our missiology and ecclesiology.

Where does God intend this entire project to go? How do we shape the church to be the people of God’s mission for the world?

As we understand where the creation project was always designed to go, that in turn gives us a sense of what the mission should be, in order that then the mission can give us the shape of what the church should be.

If we have a mission-shaped church, we must have an eschatologically-shaped mission.

My thoughts in this post, The Good News of the End Times

When we misunderstand the story, we don’t live rightly within the story, and we certainly don’t communicate the right message about our King and His Kingdom. In reading different endtime scenarios, I couldn’t shake the feeling that so much of it is based on a distorted view of both the existing and future nature of the kingdom of God and rulership of Christ.

Surely Jesus Christ is and will be Lord over all. Yet we can see throughout scripture that His is an alternative kingdom, a kingdom of love, restoration, and wholeness.

Maybe we have been reading through the wrong lens, and the fullness of the kingdom really is everything Jesus said it would be, and the end times are the fulfillment of all that He promised, life on earth as it is in heaven.

5.  Redefining the approach to Scripture

Tailing on those thoughts, a narrative view of Scripture must be embraced.  Propositional approaches to Scripture and doctrine based upon proof-texting divorced from the wider context of God’s story will be inadequate for the theology of the future.

There will be many battles waged over this point in regard to modernity/postmodernity, truth, inerrancy, and the authority of Scripture. The point where the narrative of the kingdom challenges tradition or fundamentalism will be insurmountable for some.

Let me add that the authority of Scripture must remain in the Word of Truth Himself.

Alongside the importance of understanding God’s big story will be the conviction that faith extends beyond mere belief and that the practical expression of our faith is the demonstration and embodiment of the Scriptures we espouse.

6.  Redefining unity

The future of the church will not be found where artificial barriers to the kingdom still exist.  A defining characteristic of  life in the kingdom will be the manifested reality of Galatians 3:28, where there is no longer distinction between jew or greek, slave or free, male or female.

Unless we truly realize our need for the voice of “the other” we will not be motivated to move beyond existing cultural or doctrinal boundaries.  The future church will include the voices of those who have not typically been heard from in theological circles.  It will reflect diversity with an emphasis on shared allegiance to the Lordship of Christ.

The church will be a reflection of the unity and diversity modeled by the trinity.

The church is the community of believers who possess divine life, that lives under the kingship of Christ, that is living by the life of God’s kingdom and expressing it together…the family of god, the visible image of the triune god, his family on earth in reality. – Frank Viola, From Eternity to Here

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21 thoughts on “The Future of the Church

  1. An excellent, excellent post! Yes, the church overshadowed and subdued the ekklesia a very long time ago. That experiment with joining ranks with the empire has had its problems. So has that little American experiment with controlling empire. Of course, if one sees the Kingdom of God as after-life, then what remains after saying the prayer except running the empire?

    God is calling His people to live in His Kingdom today. Now we just need to rediscover what Kingdom living looks like. In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the mighty giant has been sleeping. Is he starting to stir? Some of us are trying to rouse him from his slumber, are we not? The prophets of old say he will awaken. Is that day at hand?

  2. Good post – and (6) the redefinition has to be experiential – not cerebral. It seems that everything is in the “proof of concept” mode right now. So many of our concepts are still a mixture of the old and the new.

    Anyway – so much of our hopes and efforts in the past have been put into trying to turn Babylon into something else – something relevant – something vibrant – something more like Jesus. We know the end result of Babylon – whether it be called “evangelical” or “Catholic”. The end result is Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great …. All of man’s great efforts to build “something” will be hurled into the sea.

  3. Brilliant post. I’ve been working on a few articles and another book to boot that wander in similar territory. The more I think about the future of Christianity, the more I’m convinced that rediscovering the Gospel, the Kingdom, and the two greatest commands will show us the way forward. This is an exciting time to follow Jesus!

  4. A lot of this post give me hope because although the church/cultural landscape is a bit different here in south Germany we still need the same sort of reformation that you describe, not least because the more progressive churches tend to look to the US for ideas.

    On the other hand, I’m wondering what this means for ‘Mission Organisations’ The big organisations have a huge financial turnover and often a fairly US-Centric theology. At the other end of the scale our tiny (two adults and anyone else who turns up) community/arts/environment ‘ministry’ depends on donations, and if your view of the future is correct, this sort of thing will be going out of fashion very fast, which is giving me food for thought.

    I didn’t intend my first comment on your blog to be so rambling and inconclusive, I’m just thinking aloud as a response to what you said and what this (and other things like the global recession) mean for people like us, and what God may be up to.

    BTW, you may find a lot of encouragement from looking at the Celtic Church: They were preaching and living God’s Kingdom long after the other churches had become structures. When we started to look for an alternative to ‘Converting people’ that was where we found a lot of kingdom theology.

  5. The funny thing from a euro perspective is all the hollering from Imonk about the coming evangelical collapse is so US centric its laugh able. In reality globably evangelicallism is no longer a western movement, Africa, South America and China are now the hot spots of evangelical church activity, growth and people power.

    Any really future of the church is surely going to have to start seriously think about whats going to happen as these growth continues or slows in these continents and as more and more begin to realise that both evangelical christianity as well as the catholic, anglican churches will surely have to give some power away to these continents or actually more realistically it maybe that they come over here to take it seeing themselves as the dominant or Heathier church.

    Also what will the credit crunch and possible re moulding of the global ecconomies do to the church of the future espeically with the moderating communisim in china and it’s booming church what will the effect of christanity have on China as a nation and on the Globe.

  6. Thanks for synthesizing all of that, Grace! It was like reading all the best bits from your blog and watching you put all those pieces together for a better view of the big-picture.

    Also, reading everyone’s comments here have been very, very encouraging! Good insights on empire, and I also really appreciate the global perspective in many of the comments.

    When “the conversation” goes global, there’s a whole ‘nother dynamic at play, and I think we can grow even further, and be stretched even more when all voices in the Body are heard (not just the ones in our particular cultural context). He is Lord of the ethnos, after all! :)

    Thanks for the good read! I feel very encouraged and excited about the future!

  7. sam and jerry,
    I hope you’re right. We don’t need any more “new moves”, but rather an awakening to who and what we’ve always been intended to be.

    Thank you randi, brambonius, and ute.

    ed,
    Amazingly the “new” discovery is of the simple truth that has been there all along.

    andy and maty,
    Thanks for sharing your perspective. While the US might be big on church growth ideas, other parts of the world are far ahead in church multiplication. I agree that the economy may play a significant role in the changes we see.

    sarah,
    I know it’s too long, but it was a bit of a brain dump. Between the fever and the cough medicine, everything seemed so profound. ;)

    It is good to see a bigger picture. The decline of denominations or USAmerican evangelicalism will be barely a blip on the radar of what is happening with the church on a global scale. Right now, evangelicals have the opportunity to wake up and decide if they will be a part of the future church.

  8. Maty:

    I liked what Wolfgang Simson said – about 1942 – the 4 leading Christian nations in the world were blowing each other’s brains out (U.S., England, Germany, Italy) – and the leading edge of Christianity shifted out of those nations. We have a whole lot of money (less and less every day though) – but not much move of God.

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