The glum cacophony of voices bemoaning the state of the church in North America presents a bleak deconstructionist’s portrait of the future. It does not look good. With the diagnosis come heaps of questions clamoring for immediate answers:
- How does the rise of the “nones” and “dones” influence our missiology?
- How does the pervasive nature of racism and associations within evangelicalism influence our posture toward the marginalized, particularly in urban centers?
- How have the lingering implications of our unwavering embrace of church growth paradigms neutered the mission of the church?
These are important and necessary questions that are, unfortunately, often met with more hand wringing than thoughtful solutions. When authentic attempts are made at devising answers for the future, they often presuppose our current sociological and ecclesiological realities as the starting point for envisioning the future.
Perhaps this is the wrong place to start.
Maybe we need to look a little further into the past. Maybe a lot further.
This isn’t the first time the church has faced a hostile culture, lost its voice in a secularized world, or cowered in the face of political foes from every side. Many of us have never been here before, but God’s people certainly have seen worse days.
Before we propose any future strategy, we must first root our activity in the history of God’s kingdom work throughout redemptive history. After all, history is his story.
Which forces us to ask the big question: “What does God want?” Not, what does God want to do with the challenges facing the church in North America? We will get there in time.
But, what has God always wanted for his people?
There are those in our day who are basing their missionary strategy around just such a question. Christ Together, a unified collective of like-minded churches and leaders have rallied around this central question. They believe God wants every man, woman, and child in their cities to have repeated opportunities to see, hear, and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ through the witness of God’s people in the places they each live, learn, work, and play.
In short, they believe that God’s desire is for the gospel to saturate a place. This answer, they suggest, is rooted in the Missio Dei as revealed throughout the Scriptures.
This holistic vision provides far-reaching implications for leaders of the church. Gospel saturation compels the churches of a place to work together to see every man, woman, and child engaged with the gospel. Church collaboration moves from a nicety to a necessity. Anthropocentric scorecards of success must be overhauled.
Uniqueness must be embraced.
Competition must be put to death.
Jesus must be the center.
Compelled by this vision, pastors and leaders from various denominations and networks across Western New York have strategized as to how they might mobilize all of God’s church to take ownership of their places in order to leverage the collective strength of the respective churches.
After a decade of collaborative activity—including passionate prayer for a movement of God in the city, shared residency training, partnership in various missionary objectives designed to target pockets of lostness— these churches are now positioned to be able to answer the question: How is the Church in Western New York doing at moving the needle on lostness in their city?
Rather than blind guesses or anecdotal evidence, Christian leaders are seeking to measure the evangelistic effectiveness in mobilizing all of the Church in order to give the people of Buffalo greater access to the gospel.
After surveying 90 churches across Western New York that are connected to this vision, they found that, while the population of Buffalo has been decreasing by 0.4% over 10 years, the Church has increased attendance by 28%, with roughly 90% of the growth coming from the unchurched population of the region. 57% of the church growth came from shared church planting endeavors with various styles and models being embraced.
Thus far, the Christ Together collective in Western New York has been able to plant one church for every 50,000 people in the city, and now they are working together to plant one church for every 25,000 by the close of 2021.
While not the only success story, Christ Together shows what can happen when a group adjusts their starting point and asks monumental questions about the mission of God, and then takes the radical steps necessary to align themselves with his purpose. To these openhanded kingdom leaders, theological orthodoxy seems like darkness unless it is indivisibly linked to the obedience of orthopraxy.
The future of the church in North America may seem bleak to those whose imagination is reduced to an imported European expression of ecclesiology, but not for those who can dream of a future rooted more in our distant past.
These days of disorientation can, if leveraged effectively, cause Christian leaders to ask different questions and propose different solutions. Questions and solutions that are not minor modifications of current methodologies that, in some cases, have long outlived their expiry date. These bigger questions always seem to find bigger answers. And these answers, throughout church history, have provoked leaders to experimentation and creativity that lead to breakthrough.
Perhaps the same will be said of our day.
Maybe historians will look back at our era and point to many courageous leaders and countless unnamed believers who were willing to ask the central questions that redirect the church back to her mission.
“What does God want?”
Jeff Christopherson is Vice President of the Send Networkof the North American Mission Board. He is also on the leadership of the Send Institute, located at the Billy Graham Centerat Wheaton College and in partnership with NAMB.