No one can predict what the local church will look like in the year 2000—but a look at factors causing change today suggests some future trends.
The church appears in its most basic form as the local assembly of Christian believers. It is in this visible community of faith that the church shows itself either faithful or unfaithful to the gospel.
A wide range of significant developments has affected local church life in relation to the gospel over the past quarter-century. Even more changes are likely to occur in the next 25 years.
The following comments focus on the local community of faith, mainly Protestant and evangelical. Attention wall also be given to some broader currents that account partially for changes in the church.
Broader Trends Of The Past
Among the array of changes shaping Protestant church life since 1956, four stand especially prominent: suburbanization, the decline of mainstream denominations, the rise of the electronic church, and the breakdown of community.
1. The suburbanization of Protestantism. Thousands of young men went off to the war in the early forties, came home and went to college, and in the fifties, moved their growing families into the suburbs. People with roots in either the farm or city, uprooted by the war and the subsequent economic boom, founded the new suburban society. They built Protestant churches often more urbane but less urban than the churches of their fathers and mothers.
Suburbanization was largely a movement of white Protestants from city and farm to the suburb and into the middle class. Meanwhile, millions of black Protestants migrated to the industrial cities of the North. New York City is one example: from 1940 to 1970 one million whites, mainly Protestants, moved out of New York while one million blacks moved in.
This highly significant shift lies behind the rise of today’s suburban white middle-class evangelical movement. The picture is one not just of WASPS—White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—but of PEWS—Protestant Evangelical White Suburbanites.
The suburbanization of Protestantism has affected first of all the local church. Families moved, sold their church edifices in the city, and built new worship centers in the suburbs. White Protestantism became suburban; city Protestantism became increasingly black.
This shift was significant for several reasons. It meant that Protestant church growth rode the crest of a demographic shift, giving a somewhat exaggerated sense of success and prosperity. At the same time, often imperceptibly, church life was molded by emerging suburban patterns. This meant, for some of the more sectarian, countercultural congregations, the eroding of denominational distinctives and disciplines, leading in time to ecclesiastical identity crises as these groups blended into an increasingly homogeneous PEWS subculture. The suburbanizing trend also fortified the long-standing Protestant distaste for cities in general and further segregated the church along racial and socioeconomic lines.
2. The decline of mainstream denominations. Studies document not only the suburbanization of Protestantism since the fifties, but also the decline in the older, mainstream denominations. To some extent, the two were no doubt related. Suburban evangelical churches picked up members from more liberal congregations still in the city, greatly weakened by doctrinal confusion or indifference as well as by suburbanization. These factors, coupled with the higher personal commitment and greater evangelistic zeal of evangelical churches, produced rather dramatic evangelical growth even as mainstream churches declined.
This related growth and decline had its impact on church life. With growing membership and affluence, evangelical churches invested heavily in buildings, Christian literature, and education. Christian education itself (a special suburban concern) became something of a movement, both within local churches and on the broader church scene. It sparked dramatic growth in evangelical publishing, schools, and a wide assortment of seminars and institutes.
3. The rise of the electronic church. This has obviously been one of the more visible and pervasive developments in the past two decades.
The major significance of this trend, aside from giving greater visibility to evangelicals and charismatics, has been the inherent competition with the local church for funds and loyalty that it engenders. The electronic church also has accelerated the tendency toward a largely passive, vicarious religious life—a Christianity, as Martin Marty suggests, not of congregations but of clienteles.
4. The breakdown in primary communities of meaning. With the decline of family life, the massive entrance of women into the labor force, large-scale suburbanization, and the disintegration of neighborhood cohesiveness in the cities, fewer and fewer Americans are part of intimate, meaningful communities. We are increasingly a nation of fragmented individuals. One-fourth of all American households are now reportedly single-person households.
Some church trends have tended to support, rather than check, this atomization of society. Many suburban churches over the past 25 years have been long on program and short on community, and have often fragmented rather than strengthened family life. The electronic church and the heavy use of television by Christians have further tended to weaken meaningful communities in the church in both the sociological and the religious sense.
One consequence has been to raise questions of lifestyle and discipleship. Evangelicals continue to give intellectual assent to biblical doctrines, but some pastors and other leaders are growing uneasy over a perceived discrepancy between doctrinal orthodoxy and personal lifestyle. They observe, “Our people are good, Bible-believing Christians, but they’re awfully caught up in the materialistic rat race.”
Changes In Local Church Life
The trends discussed above, combined with other factors, have brought significant changes in local church life since the mid-fifties. Some are just now becoming visible.
1. The rediscovery of small groups. That small groups have been rediscovered in the church’s life in recent decades is widely attested in the literature of church renewal and in the experience of thousands of churches. Such groups have been used extensively—though sometimes erratically and unwisely—in evangelical and other Protestant churches. Some of the most effective evangelism, church planting, and discipling efforts have relied heavily on small groups. On the other hand, small-group experimentation became something of a fad producing what some feel is the disease of “koinonitis.”
In some churches, small groups died out or became disruptive. They were either too exclusively feeling-oriented, or they were insufficiently integrated into the life and structure of the church. Often, however, small groups became a key aspect in producing new strength, vitality, and outreach for the church.
2. The rediscovery of the laity and spiritual gifts. I put these two together because they are tied together in Scripture. In addition, a growing number of churches have found that a practical emphasis on spiritual gifts is logically tied to the affirmation of the ministry of the whole people (laos) of God.
Two decades ago, Elton Trueblood, Hendrik Kraemer, and a few others were calling for the restoration of ministry to the laity. Such appeals were based on the biblical conviction that all Christians are ministers and witnesses.
The church heard the call, but didn’t know what to do with it. Here and there, however, pastors began to take this scriptural injunction seriously, and churches experimented with broader definitions and patterns of ministry. With this has come a more accurate understanding of Ephesians 4:11–12 as bidding pastors to be equippers and disciplers.
Parallel to the rediscovery of the laity, and now intertwined with it, has been the rediscovery of the New Testament emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit. This has been one “leavening” aspect of the impact on Protestantism by the charismatic movement and resurgent Pentecostalism. Though Protestants differ widely in their understanding of particular gifts (especially tongues), they increasingly affirm the existence and practical usefulness of the gifts of the Spirit. A growing number of congregations are finding ways to integrate this teaching into their church life.
3. The rise of church growth. Twenty-five years ago church growth was a special concern of only a few missiologists. Donald McGavran, whose seminal book The Bridges of God was published in 1955, stood virtually unknown among American evangelicals.
The surge of church growth seems to have been sparked both by deepening concern for evangelism and by uneasiness over slackening membership increase. Church growth seemed especially adapted to the American scene with its emphasis on statistical analysis, strategy, and quasi-scientific approach. The thinking of men like McGavran has indeed cleared away much of the fog as to why churches do or don’t enlarge, and has helped identify a range of evangelistic weaknesses. Whether it has contributed significantly to actual increase so far seems unclear. Perhaps the greatest impact of church growth will be the impetus given to the planting of new churches. Its greatest influence on existing local churches seems to have been in creating a heightened sensitivity toward evangelism.
4. The heightened concern with discipleship. Though defined in different and sometimes conflicting ways, discipleship is gaining prominence in many local churches. They are adapting discipling methods pioneered by the Navigators and others. A growing number of congregations now have discipleship courses or programs, often combined with a network of small groups. Here and there churches are employing a director or pastor of discipleship.
5. The new interest in community. Most of the changes and broader trends discussed above intersect at the point of community. The suburbanization of the church and the decline of primary communities present the churches with the new challenge of having to be a distinct community. The growth of small groups and discipleship programs are attempts by the churches to come to grips with the community issue.
Younger Christians are especially alert to the problem of relationships (in part, no doubt, because of the collapse of family life) and in a fundamental way are raising the question of the church as community. While definitions of Christian community vary widely, in almost every Protestant tradition one can find young people who are experimenting with or modeling some form or expression of group relationship. Such efforts are significant not only in their own right, but they are also having a reflex impact upon the larger church as well.
Broad Currents Affecting The Future
With this basis, some projections into the future may be attempted. These projections will divide into broader trends and local changes. The major currents that seem likely to affect church life may be grouped under five heads.
1. A shift in the church’s center of gravity to the Third World. Third World church growth has outstripped that of North America for some time. Many mission-minded denominations now find they have significantly more members overseas than at home.
Coupled with this numerical difference is the general decline of the United States, the greater vigor of newer overseas churches, and the re-emergence of the Chinese church. These and other related factors are producing a major shift in the church’s center of gravity from Europe and North America to the Third World. Numerical growth will be followed by a burst of Third World Christian institutions and a broadening economic basis under the influence of the gospel. The dramatic increase of Third World mission societies has already been well documented.
This shift will touch North American church life at several points. Among other things it will probably mean greater diversity as patterns, styles, and methodologies from Third World churches infiltrate the American scene.
2. The mounting pressure of environmental and ecological concerns. The most prominent such concern currently is energy. The inescapable limits of natural resources and the environment already affect church life and architecture. They seem certain to bring other ecological concerns increasingly to the fore. As the implications of the law of entropy become clearer, major economic and lifestyle changes will make an impact on North America. Ecology and conservation will become primary concerns.
These developments may undermine much of evangelicalism’s economic prosperity, bring a renewed emphasis on stewardship, and give impetus to the house-church movement.
3. The emergence of technological materialism. Many evangelicals speak of secular humanism as the great foe of the church today. In an increasingly materialistic society governed more and more by technology, however, it may be more to the point to speak of “technological materialism.” This view holds that all value and meaning are limited to this life and that the solution to all problems lies in the application of sophisticated technology. It is probably at this point where the world’s hostility to God’s ways will especially be felt.
Technological materialism will influence the church at several levels. The ethics of using ever-more sophisticated and manipulative techniques in Christian broadcasting and in local churches may emerge as an acute issue. Technological materialism will continue to undermine secular and religious forms of community, keeping the issue of community before the church. Finally, possible government harassment of religious institutions and the increasing hostility of the world to the church may significantly affect church life by the year 2006. One direction such hostility could take would be the taxation of church property.
4. The impact of urbanization, internationalization, and mass migration. Earthquakes, famines, wars and rumors of wars, political repression, and other factors have dislocated millions of people on several continents. As the refugee problem reaches flood proportions and urbanization continues, great cities are becoming increasingly diverse and internationalized.
These developments, coupled with the trends previously discussed, will probably produce increasing heterogeneity in membership, methods, and styles of the American church. As never before, Protestant evangelicals will have to deal with the issue of diversity.
5. The resurgence of Roman Catholicism. The Roman Catholic scene is currently too diverse and volatile to permit firm projections. However, the shakeup produced by Vatican II and the subsequent substantial Catholic membership losses may have paved the way for a rebirth of Roman Catholic vigor.
In their recent book, The Search for America’s Faith, George Gallup and David Poling speak of “a new flowering of the faith and a new confidence about being a Catholic Christian in America” and project “a golden era of growth and power ahead” for U.S. Catholics. They note that Catholics have moved from 25 to 28 percent of the nation’s population in the past decade (largely through Hispanic immigration) and that Catholic church attendance has now begun to rise.
The combined impact of the charismatic renewal, the base-church movement, and a vigorous, activist Pope who is theologically conservative but socially progressive may make Roman Catholicism an increasingly vital force on the American scene. This could significantly affect Protestant church life and growth, because Catholicism’s seemingly greater ability to handle diversity may give it an evangelistic edge in the future.
Local Church Life
How will these changes affect the local church? Several seem likely in the coming years.
1. A declining emphasis on church growth. Despite the current surge of interest, many evangelicals have underlying misgivings about the whole church growth approach. While the movement will doubtless continue, it may be nearing the high-water mark. The lessons learned will continue to influence the church for many years. But a shift from concern with church growth to concern with church vitality may soon become apparent. Methodologically, the focus could shift from measuring church growth to developing indexes of church vitality.
Such a shift would mean, among other things, additional stress on the healthy internal functioning of the church, and a vision of evangelism and social ministry as integral expressions of the Christian community.
2. A mixture of two church models. In many evangelical churches, one senses a subterranean struggle between two fundamentally different models of the church. One model is essentially institutional and organizational. It is most at home with programs, committees, modern management techniques, and elaborate physical facilities. It seems fascinated with sophisticated technology and mass communications. Partly because of its institutional investment in the economic status quo, this type of church tends to be politically and economically conservative.
The contrasting church model sees the church as a community and is essentially organic and person-centered. It harbors a deep distrust of technology, mass communications, and institutional structures. While these contrasting models lead to fundamentally different patterns of local church life, many churches today are a mixture of the two both conceptually and structurally.
The major tensions and cleavages in the evangelical church over the next quarter-century may develop more along these lines than along strictly doctrinal or church polity issues. The strains could produce tensions and splits in denominations and local churches, some strange new alliances, and two distinctly different forms of local church life. There will more likely be innovative attempts to combine the two contrasting models.
3. The growth of house churches and intentional communities. The multiplication of new Christian communities, though not highly visible since the decline of the Jesus Movement of the early seventies, goes on apace and could assume major significance. These intentional communities are bound together not only by a common faith, but also through an explicit covenant that details their relationship. At least three things are happening in this area: (1) a wide variety of new house churches and intentional communities continue to be formed; (2) many of these communities are linking up in wide-ranging networks; and (3) there is increasing contact among several of these networks.
Fellowships of this type correspond to the second of the two models discussed above. Their style emphasizes community, interdependence, personal relationships, family life, discipleship, and the use of spiritual gifts. In many ways, the model is that of an extended family. Such groups are consciously countercultural, particularly at the point of materialism and technology, but often also on issues of militarism, politics, and economic questions. Many communities actually constitute an alternative economic system.
Several of the trends and currents discussed here may give considerable impetus to house church and intentional community forms of evangelical Protestantism. They include the breakdown of community in society, increasing internationalization and heterogeneity, environmental and ecological factors. If so, the evangelical church of the next generation might resemble the church of first-century Rome or present-day China more than the American Protestantism of the fifties and sixties.
4. Significant changes in leadership and ministry styles. Pastors as equippers and disciplers could provide the dominant pattern for local churches, with a corresponding broadening and softening of categories of ministry and leadership. Seminaries will either gradually shift in the same direction from the current professional school model or else will be supplemented by more informal and broader-based training programs in local churches. More and more “lay people” will be perceived as ministers in their own light, including women who will move into pastoral and other leadership roles. Spiritual gifts and the priesthood of believers will increasingly be seen as fundamental considerations.
A contrasting style will probably prevail and be refined in institution-and organization-oriented churches. It will feature the professional church leader in more pronounced roles as manager, technician, and motivator.
5. A growing concern with the question of Christian lifestyle. What it really means to be a Christian in an increasingly hostile technological, materialistic, and probably militarist world will become a foundational question for the church. These factors will affect patterns of education and discipleship in local churches; they will probably give impetus to more widespread use of small groups, house fellowships, or other forms of face-to-face community.
No one can accurately predict what the church of the year 2006 will be—if, indeed, it is still on earth. But the currents and trends surveyed above seem certain to shape the life of the church in fundamental ways. These changes may give the church an unprecedented opportunity to change the world for Christ.
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