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I know this question has been on the minds of a lot of us. Mine as well. I’ve seen such a dramatic change in the climate of our culture during my own short years on this earth. At the beginning of my ministry most people in our neighbourhoods went to church, 75% in fact, and 25% didn’t attend. Now those stats have flipped. In less than a half a century! Will the trend continue? If so, what does that mean for the Church, our denomination, and even our own congregation?
It seems like we are in the middle of a radical change in history. That still remains to be seen, but whenever an event happened on a global scale in the past, the church has always felt the impact and met the challenge. It will in the present with this pandemic, and in the future with this cultural shift away from Christianity. But the Church may look a lot different. While no one really knows what lies ahead, at least thinking about it can help us position ourselves for impact in a changing world.
So let me share some things the experts in
cultural and society trends are saying about the future Church, and then I will
1. The potential to gain is still greater than the potential to lose. The Church, the big Church, will survive. It will survive our missteps and whatever cultural trends happen around us. We don’t always get things right, but God does, and He will pull Christians together to share His love with a broken world. Jesus promised, and we must remember: Matt. 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The foundation the Church is built on is Jesus Christ and who He is. As a result, any reports of the death of the Christian faith or the Church, will be greatly exaggerated.
2. Churches that love their model more than the mission will die. Many congregations, and even some denominations won’t make it. The difference will be between those who cling to the mission and those who cling to their model. We all would agree that sometimes Christians and even churches get away from what they are supposed to be doing. A correction is needed. During a time of incredible persecution in the early church Peter wrote: I Peter 4:17 “For it is a time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” We could be living in such a time.
When the car was invented, it quickly took over from the horse and buggy. Horse and buggy manufacturers soon went under, but human transportation actually exploded. Suddenly average people could travel like never before. The mission is travel. The model is a buggy, or car, or motorcycle, or jet. Change. Look at the whole publishing industry. Look at the changes in the music industry. 8 tracks, cassettes, CDs, MP3s, and now streaming video and audio. Look at the whole photography industry? From dark rooms to smart phones. Companies that show innovation around the mission (Apple, Samsung) will always beat companies that remain devoted to the method. Who remembers Kodak and Polaroid?
Churches need to stay focused on the mission. Matthew 28:19-20 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . .how?. . .baptize and teach. That’s the mission. We can tweak the model of how we do that. The pandemic forced us into online worship. It has its pros and cons, but one thing for sure is it opened a huge front door into our church, if we will take advantage of that online presence. More about this later.
3. The gathered Church is here to stay. The church will always gather because the church by its very nature and definition is inherently communal. Communion of the saints, right? Also, we can do gathered together far more than what we can do alone. Which is why there will always be an organized church of some form. So maybe in the future our gatherings might look a little different than they did in the past. Christians will always gather together to do more than we could on our own. This will be a great challenge in a society that is increasingly individualistic and at a time when traditional institutions are less trusted. Even among Christians, many are listening to their Christian music, their Christian sermons on podcasts, while they workout or take a walk. This is great, as long as it doesn’t substitute for the gathered church. We are called to gather together to encourage one another and build up each other’s faith. It’s not an option. We can do way more gathered, as we pull our resources together, than we can when we are apart. This too is not an option.
4. Consumer Christianity will die. Consumer Christianity asks “What can I get from God? What’s in it for me? Now, that’s a very natural attitude, and one that is promoted in our society for almost everything. So we come by it naturally. The trouble is when it is applied to faith. It leads us to evaluate our church, our doctrine, our experiences and even each other, according to our preferences and whims. This kind of attitude has crept into churches and many have left, sighting the church no longer meets their needs.
This kind of attitude is, of course, opposite to the Gospel, which calls us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus. So the hope is that a new more selfless church will emerge, where individuals and congregations will be less focused on themselves and more focused on others.
This will mean that when we gather to hear God’s Word and receive His forgiveness and encouragement, we will also respond in word and deed. So not only will we worship with our words but also with our deeds, our actions. This is the kind of outward expression of the faith that led the historians to record about the early church “see how they love one another.” And this in turn led to the rapid expansion of the early church. Their incredible self-sacrificing love for others. Will we return to those roots in a more purposeful way?
5. Attendance will no longer drive engagement; engagement will drive attendance. Currently, many churches try to get people to attend, hoping it drives engagement. It is hoped that in the future, that will flip. The engaged will attend, in large part because only the engaged will remain. Everyone who attends will not only want to be there but they will want to be involved in some kind of serving. This will be an exciting shift. Start thinking about all the things we can do together to help those in need, and to help them hear the Gospel.
6. Church activities and ministries will compliment rather than compete with people’s lives. For years the assumption had been to have an activity for every demographic, a group for everyone as the church grew. The trouble is the church can easily end up burning people out. Churches that focus their energy on the few things that it does well will likely be most effective, allowing their members to be witnesses in their lives apart from church. Striking a good balance between serving as the gathered church, and serving as the scattered church.
7. Online Church will supplement the journey but not become the journey. There is a big debate right now what to do with online church as things begin to open up again. Some see online church as a threat to their in person services. And probably for some, online worship has become so convenient that they like it that way. The trouble with only online is it lacks the important participation and service part of the faith. It basically becomes consumer or spectator Christianity. Soon that disconnect from the gathered church will lead to online worship becoming like an off ramp on the highway. A way in which those who are drifting in their faith, with no communion with other believers, and thus no encouragement and no accountability, will eventually leave the church and the faith. The devil would like nothing better than to get us alone, then isolated in our own little reality and world asking “What have you done for me lately God?”
Now online services will be very important for those who simply have no other access to church. It will serve those well. They may live in a fairly remote area, or in the part of the country where there just isn’t the population base to afford a local pastor and church building. So hearing the Word and the Gospel preached will be so important for them.
There is something about human relationships that requires presence though. The Church will always gather, online church will supplement the journey. Online relationships are real relationships and they need to be pursued, but they are not the greatest relationships. People who meet online, and want to pursue the relationship soon want to meet in person. It’s a journey, not an end in itself. So it is with Jesus and His people. People learn about Jesus and His Church online will want to meet and spend life together.
Online Church will become more of a front door than a back door. So while some may use online church as a way to become less engage, less active, less visible, and ultimately an off ramp, or back door out of the church, online Church will offer for the curious, the unconvinced, and those who want to know more about Christianity a massive front door into the Church. Just like we all research and read online reviews about almost everything and every service we purchase today, from restaurants to mattresses, a church’s online presence will be a first home for people which for many, will lead to a personal connection with Christ and ultimately the gathered church. How can the church take advantage of its online presence to connect with the unchurched? Any ideas? We’d love to hear from you.
So what will the church look like in the future? Always remembering that the Church is the people of God gathered around word and sacrament called to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world and make disciples of all nations, the healthy church will adapt to changing times. Adapt in its methods while remaining focused on its mission. Stand faithful even in the face of mounting opposition. Respond to a hurting and imploding world with much grace and love and kindness, less worried about its own survival and more worried about those who do not yet know Christ and His saving love. Mission.
We live in interesting times. How shall we respond as a congregation? What needs to stay the same and what needs to change? Maybe its time to do a little bit a brain storming and evaluation. We could look at all aspects of our ministry and ask is it effective? But effective is not the only goal. A better question “is this part of our mission?” “Is this the best way to carry out our mission?” “Is this the best method to use according to our time, talent, and treasure?” There is lots to think about, and then talk about. Join the conversation “Let’s Talk Church.” After you have done some deep thinking, formulate your ideas and share them. We would love to hear from all of you who are committed to the ministry of Peace, present and future.