There's no central switchboard for North American evangelicals. Despite the old joke, there is no evangelical Vatican in Wheaton, Illinois. If you want to know what evangelicals think (or should think) about an issue, you need to talk to a lot of people and try to discern an emerging consensus.
In good Tocquevillian fashion, evangelicals have organized themselves through voluntary associations and agencies. We hope such organizations can give us greater impact, efficiency, expertise, and scope.
Some of our evangelical organizations have grown large enough to have global reach. Some have become brain trusts in their specialized fields. Still others have become a source of encouragement and counsel for fledgling ministries. These ministry networks are a treasury of wisdom and experience. It's natural we should engage people in these networks in order to get oriented for the next 50 years.
Our question: In a variety of ministry spheres, what challenges will we face and what should our priorities be?
This highly unscientific survey finds pastors eager to think 50 years into the future, with consensus on only the broadest issues.
"As in every age," says John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, "the greatest challenge will be to treasure above all goods and kindred and this mortal life that Jesus revealed with infallibility, perspicuity, and sufficiency in the propositions of the written Word of God, the Bible." Few evangelicals would quibble with that.
Will Willimon, United Methodist bishop of North Alabama, sees a similar timeless need: "The greatest challenge facing the local church in the next 50 years is the same one that we've never quite met in our last 50 (or 2,000) years: To enable our congregation to be half as interesting as Jesus!"
Many pastors focus, though, on the particular challenges of our time. Joshua Harris, the young pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, notes that he preaches to people who "are influenced by [pluralism] more than they realize." Similarly, Dale Burke, pastor of First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California, believes that "a shrinking percentage of the culture even cares about what we have to say." The challenge is to engage them without compromising the core message and its power. He believes the church must "lead with love," "not with the slickness of the presentation but with the sweetness of acts of grace and kindness." Mark Dever, pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., believes a pluralistic culture will turn increasingly intolerant of Christian faith. Our challenge will be faithfulness to the gospel "when it is seen as anywhere from criminally intolerant hate speech to [merely] unpopular." But John Sommerville of City Church in Minneapolis is anxious for churches to engage the culture in ministries of mercy as well as proclamation.
John Huffman from St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California, notes that consumerism affects not only the people we try to reach, but also the very nature of what we consider a "successful" churchwhich he's not sure is really so successful. He worries about how to build intergenerational community in a society that splits people into demographic segments. Many of Huffman's concerns are shared by Michael Horton, a minister with the United Reform Churches who teaches at Westminster Seminary California. He wonders whether churches can regain their confidence in the "ordinary ministry of Word and sacrament."
Few pastors mention gender, but Robert Lewis of Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle both see ministry to men as the future's key challenge. Lewis considers men "the lost gender," while Driscoll highlights a crying need for proclaiming a manly Jesus, lest "increasingly impotent churches [become] filled with mere handfuls of nice church boys standing around drinking decaf while the world goes to hell."
If there is a consensus, it is this: The church needs a fresh infusion of that which has made it traditionally strong. But in the current context, back-to-the-basics feel counter-cultural: Exalt the uniqueness of Christ in a pluralistic culture, reach out to men in an era of feminism, and celebrate the timelessness of Word and sacrament in a market-driven culture obsessed with relevance.
Tim Stafford | Consulted: Dale Burke, John Huffman, John Sommerville, Joshua Harris, Mark Driscoll, Michael Horton, Robert Lewis, Will Willimon, Mark Dever, John Piper.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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In the next two weeks, we'll be looking at what evangelical leaders think are the priorities for the next 50 years in 11 categories: youth, missions, politics, publishing/broadcasting, theology, culture, evangelism, higher education, international justice and relief and development.
Christianity Today's other articles on its 50th anniversary include:
Where We Are and How We Got Here | 50 years ago, evangelicals were a sideshow of American culture. Since then, it's been a long, strange trip. Here's a look at the influences that shaped the movement. By Mark A. Noll (Sept. 29, 2006)
Sidebar: 'Truth from the Evangelical Viewpoint' | What Christianity Today meant to the movement 50 years ago. (Sept. 29, 2006)
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