I’ve been caught up with this question… What does the church of the future look like? The question has challenged and convicted me. It’s caused me to think deeper and wider than I ever have before. It’s forced me to reflect and given me the permission to imagine a different future.
The question itself requires self-awareness and self-criticism. The church of the future really should look a lot like the church of the past, and that’s true and right. But my motivation in asking the question has more to do with the moment we find ourselves in history and place. It is a specifically North American question that relates to a society that is leaning over the edge of post-Christianity. With growing numbers of the up and coming generation not connecting to traditional models of church, the question is more important than ever.
I am not alone in asking this question as well. Many have written books and given talks as they’ve explored these ideas. I simply am adding my voice to the countless other voices who are proposing solutions to the problems we see in the modern day church. I am not after the messiness and frustration of deconstruction, but the hopefulness and imagination of construction.
I believe Jesus loves his church and cares deeply about where we are headed. We are a part of a large family of brothers and sisters, through history, culture, nationalities, and backgrounds. Our future is directly connected to God’s heart for all creation. We are a part of God’s redemptive reclamation project, working models of new creation possibilities on display. That’s my heart as I ask this question and explore what’s possible.
An Honest Assessment Of Our Past
Before we can look to what’s possible in the future, we have to be aware of what has brought us to the predicament we find ourselves in. Through our collective church history, we haven’t always looked like Jesus. We’re guilty of colluding with the powers that be and co-opting Jesus to sanction and support the worst parts of our history: the colonization of native peoples, the staunch support of slavery and dehumanization, the oppression of women and minorities, the desire to steal lands and accumulate possessions, the indifference to societal atrocities, and the general disregard for our planet.
In most of our history we’ve looked more like the culture we’re a part of, than the Jesus we claim to follow. We’ve been late to apologize or make amends, and slow to humble ourselves. We pat ourselves on the back for the little progress we do make, and ignore the glaring issues we’re completely blind to, but everyone else readily sees.
It’s important to look carefully at our history, to look back to the revolutionary, enemy-loving, cross-accepting, resurrection-revealing Savior we worship. We have to take Jesus at his word. We have to go back to the person of Jesus and how the Holy Spirit wants us to reveal Jesus in our expression of community. This requires a deeper humility and self-awareness. We have to join Jesus in leaving our comfortable places of blessing and privilege, and follow his lead into the favelas and slums of brokenness, sorrow, and evil. We need a return to that Jesus, and not settle for a co-opted Jesus who gives us what we want, thinks like us, and supports what we support.
A Wider Awareness Of Our World
The church of the future does not look like the church of our recent past. Specifically in North America, it is much more multi-cultural, includes people from all kinds of backgrounds and world views. A majority of pastors and leaders have no idea how to relate to the world around them, because it doesn’t look like what they’re used to. This leads to a general fear of how things are changing, and steely defense of ways of thinking or doing that don’t need to be defended.
Something that’s always bothered me about the North American church and our general direction in theology, is that how we think and do can’t often be applied in other parts of the world. That never sat well with me. Why was it that what we think and do here, not apply elsewhere? This kind of Western narrow-mindedness also leads to false solutions, that are then exported to other parts of the world. These primarily Western adaptations of theology, philosophy and practice, are attempted in communities and contexts where they don’t work and at times hurt more than help.
The church of the future has to ask baseline questions about itself and its place in the wider world. It has to be able to work in any context, culture, and community. It will be applied differently in those respective spaces, but the heart and spirit of the future church needs to come back to Jesus and his vision for us. We need to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, and not just in name only or as far as we’re comfortable with.
We need a wider awareness of the world around us. Knowing our place in the wider story of God at work in all of humanity in all the world is important. Our lives as Christians in the US are no more valuable than the life of a Christian in Iraq, or a Hindu in India, a Muslim in Libya, or a Buddhist who lives down the street. We are all a part of God’s wide world of all kinds of people. If we can’t get to the place of Jesus’ desire for all humanity, then we will construct theologies and churches that are like us ethnically or philosophically, but miss out on the wider mission of God for all people.
A Radical Commitment To Disciple-Making
Nowhere in the New Testament, does Jesus ask us to build churches. He never told his followers to construct cathedrals, create programs, plan services, or garner decisions. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do those things. Jesus specifically asks us to make disciples. That’s the primary missional mandate he calls us into. We are tasked with taking the Good News of his kingdom and inviting people into a journey of following his lead.
Discipleship includes teaching, application, and shared observance. It is truth lived out in community, and Jesus is that truth. Discipleship implies a journey forward on a path God has already walked out ahead of us on. It is a journeying together with a community of like-minded individuals who are heading in the same direction.
Western Christianity has reduced discipleship to decisions and programs. We’ve constructed classes that teach, without the responsibility of application, or the accountability of community. Discipleship according to Jesus wasn’t just a decision made or a response card turned in. It was truth worked out personally and in community.
The problem with the current state of church, is that success for a church organizationally, isn’t success for a church according to Jesus. Butts in seats, money in a budget, people in programs, or ever-expanding ministry sprawl, don’t equate to growing disciples or the advancing of Jesus’ kingdom. It always makes that particular church look good, but it doesn’t necessarily make Jesus look good. Ambition, expansion and abuse are baptized and made to look like Jesus and his kingdom.
You can tell when discipleship in a church context isn’t working. It’s pretty easy to point out. Just ask, “Do the people in our church look more and more like Jesus every day? Are they growing in their journey and walking in the fruit of the spirit?” Unhealthy spiritual formation leads to sickly disciples. If you just feed your child marshmallows, chocolates, and candy and nothing healthy, they will become malnourished and sickly. Our churches are filled with malformed disciples who look nothing like Jesus.
It’s easy to think church attendance or ministry involvement is all that’s necessary to make disciples. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of the time, this only ever creates church-addicts not Jesus-followers. Jesus doesn’t keep you confined to the four walls of the church, but encourages you to step out and find him in the pervasive brokenness of the world around you. Jesus empowers us to be in community, working together, loving the world together, embodying the Spirit’s work of new creation together… that’s what discipleship is supposed to look like.
A New Neighborliness
In a self-focused and self-oriented world, faith becomes a means to feel good about yourself, accumulate more stuff, and get God to be about what you’re about. More than that ever, it gets us to think only about what matters to us. Jesus asks us to be good neighbors, not aloof, religious, indifferent, or selfish.
The truth about the average church attender, is that we don’t even know our neighbors. We’ve never taken the time to slow down, be present, and get to know the people that live around us. We are often too caught up in some kind of rat race, pursuing something so we can find some kind of fulfillment, and we miss out the very people God has brought into our world.
Jesus asks us to notice and slow down and be present. The story of the Good Samaritan is really a spiritual slap in the face to religious folks who are too busy to notice pain and suffering. The Good Samaritan is the unlikely hero, not just because of what he does, but also because of who he is. If Jesus was talking to us today, it’d be the equivalent of him saying an Islamic terrorist decided to help the poor, beaten, naked man on the side of the road, but that pastor or church leader just walked by. That would have offended us modern Western church-folk, but that’s the heart of what Jesus is saying.
Jesus encourages us to stop asking, “Who is my neighbor?” and start asking, “Am I being a good neighbor?” Jesus wants us to represent his love, his kindness, his compassion, his grace, his provision, and his sacrifice. Are we willing to love the people God brings to our world? Are we ready to let God make a mess of our schedules, and adjust our lives, so more people can experience his love? That’s what Jesus calls us into.
Being a good neighbor isn’t just about reaching into brokenness, but it’s more about being available to those around you. Jesus encourages us to relate well to the world around us, so when times of pain or suffering surface, we have the relationship to reach in provide something of value.
The reality is that most of us live such compartmentalized lives. We commute to and from work, go to churches that are far away from where we live, and generally have no desire to relate to those who live right around us. This is where soul-searching is necessary. Sometimes our church activity as Jesus-followers, disconnect us from the world around us. If I may be so bold, I think it often perpetuates fragmentation in society. We take people out of their neighborhood and create a separate church community that has no connection to where we live or work. We then wonder why it’s so hard to tell our neighbors about Jesus, when how we do church is a part of the problem itself.
I believe the church, if it is to survive and move into a better future, needs to be rooted in a Jesus-oriented neighborliness. A commitment to human flourishing in the communities we find ourselves in, is necessary and imperative. We need to learn about the communities we live in, read about the history, find out why things are the way they are. We won’t ever know the idols of communities, unless we know what drives the people who live there. When you truly become a neighbor, you get to know people for who they are, and what they’re about. You begin to see how the Good News of Jesus can be applied in a way that relates to their core experiences.
Imagination & Hope
I believe God’s future for his church is bright. While it may seem bleak at times, I have hope that as the Western church, we can begin asking deeper questions and exploring better-thought-out answers. I know there is a collective movement forward beginning to rise up in the church. The more I talk to other Jesus-followers, I’m seeing that we don’t want business as usual. We’re tired of status quo and how things have been for so long. There is a desire to imagine and persevere towards a different kind of future for the church in North America.
Further Study & Research
The Church As Movement: Starting and Sustaining Missional-Incarnational Communities (JR Woodward / Dan White Jr.)
A Creative Minority: Influencing Culture Through Redemptive Participation (Jon Tyson / Heather Grizzle)