Truth be told, over the last several years, my feelings toward the church have eroded. What once to me was a flawed but useful, necessary body, slowly became completely useless in terms of rehearsing the Kingdom of God.
The reasons for this disillusionment were myriad: First, I saw church after church make moves and decisions based on any reason you can imagine except for spiritual and theological ones. Effective, anointed, and gifted ministers were fired and/or otherwise replaced with cheap suited M.Divs with nothing to say, no vision for the future, and hungry bank accounts (this was the case with a friend of mine ministering north of Houston and another in San Antonio). Second, as is so often the case, power players with money and an affinity for the status quo, pressed their preferences into policies that ultimately made their churches less a reflection of Jesus than more of one. Third, though I had always suspected it, it was made clear to me that many of the church are more concerned with comfort and maintaining their spiritual country club than with ministering to the world and loving and accepting the irreducible other. Fourth, I continued to see churches — particularly large ones — mistreat their ministry staff, somehow expecting that they and their families could subsists on far less money than the average member of the community. Fifth, I witnessed some ministers and church leaders actively resist new ideas, emerging voices and fresh winds of the Spirit. Sixth, it began to dawn on me that my own spiritual growth was happening outside of the church. I don’t simply mean outside of church services, but rather outside and away from the folks I worshiped with (the definition of church) on a weekly basis. Not only that, my friends at other churches were having the same experiences and thinking the same things. Something strange was happening.
It was during this time that I began to examine what was going on in the church. The period of searching led me to literature with fancy sounding words like “Missional Ecclesiology,” “discontinuous change,” “liminality,” “post-modernity,” “post-liberal,” “post-Christianity,” “post-colonialism,” and others. It was almost enough to make me go postal. It was an education in itself just to understand the terminology. Because I was so desperately seeking, I suppose I never really gave up on the church, though. Rather, I had come to believe that many of us charged with her leadership were groping in the dark, yet because we were charged with leadership we had to act like we knew what we were doing.
It’s not working though. We know it’s not working. Those within and without our congregations know it’s not working, yet because we have so long confused faith with certainty, church leaders frequently have to act like we are certain with this precious jewel which is the church lest we think it become faithless. Frequently my heart echoed the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “So often it (the church) is an archdefender of the status quo…If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned to outright disgust.”
I confessed to a friend last week that I was deeply distressed about the future of the church. Ironically, I received an e-mail from my friend Mark Love at Abilene Christian University asking me to be a part of a panel at this year’s Annual Lectureship about “The Future Church.” Now you should know that I trust Jesus’ words when he says that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church He built, but when I first received his e-mail about “The Future Church,” my heart cynically asked, “Will there be one?”
I do not say these things about the church as some kind of agitator that is secretly hoping to see her fail. I’m a son of the church, a lover of who she is. I’m not one of those folks who can look around any church and undercut her good by pointing to what’s wrong. Truthfully, I’m not even negative about the church. I’m optimistic about what the church can and should be and do, and therein lies my holy discontent.
I’m not too negative, I’m too positive!
I believe that faith-filled, God-centered, neighbor-loving people can actually change the world. I believe that folks like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Shane Claiborne, St. Paul and others who gave their lives for grand, beautiful pursuits in the name of Jesus are not the exceptions. They are snapshots of what God can do with any and all of us who are willing to give ourselves to Him. I believe that the folks in our pews who want to simply check in and check out of the local church to consume their religious goods and services were sold a lie by a church that promised them stability instead of adventure. And because of that, we’ve got a lot of work to do and undo!
It’s hard for me to talk about the future church, because I don’t know what it will look like, and I think that’s a good thing. The church is God’s, not ours, and He’s under no obligation to consult us about her. But if I were to guess about the church’s future, I would say that there are three primary options:
(1) More and more Christians will try the escapists’ model. We will fortify ourselves in our own schools, churches and sub-culture, becoming evermore irrelevant to the world. This is one way the church can survive in the future. We will simply stand as a anachronism to the larger culture, accepting our new place in public life. Like the Amish, the evangelical church can pick a moment in time and say, “We will go no further.”
(2) Churches will continue to simply try to do the same things we’ve always done, thinking we can be successful if we simply do what we do better. We will fail to see that some of the problem in the church is in the church. We will say the problem is that people don’t want “The Truth” anymore and stand in rabid, blind opposition to the culture. The church will become judge and jury over the world, begging it to come back to the dominant days of Christendom and the culture-privileged church. Here, nearly nothing inside the church will change and our proclivities will become unquestioned and unquestionable gospel as the actual gospel goes unheard and unspoken.
(3) The church, as it slowly and reluctantly has in the past, will change! It will take a rethinking of our assumptions about Scripture, people and culture. It will mean learning to re-imagine church, spiritual formation, and faith development. It will mean seeking God rather than political power, influence, image and ego. It will mean engaging the irreducible other — the people that are not like us — with a love and acceptance of them that seeks God’s purposes in their lives more than their easy transformation into people who look, talk and act like we do. It will mean reconverting — which will be painfully hard — ourselves and others into people on a spiritual quest instead of folks who want a serving of Yahweh on the side. It will mean that the church as we know it must die, so that God can once again demonstrate the power of resurrection.
I, for one, think #3 is the church’s best option. And I, for one, think language like “missional,” “liminality” and “post-whatever” are useful for church leaders, but are not the point. The point is that the church — the people of God — are called to be God’s Kingdom representatives on earth and what that looks like changes and adapts in time and through culture. Being Kingdom representatives is our primary vocation. Whether we are teachers, lawyers, accountants, maintenance personnel, administrators, students or whatever, we ARE called to enter into the Kingdom of God, to call others into it, and love the world as Jesus did. And each day, as more and more of us do this, the church has a future. And each day, as more and more of us do this, the future has a church.