It was a slick PowerPoint—presented by a (self-described) cutting-edge ministry practitioner—that sent me over the edge. Carefully presenting cherry-picked research, this ministry leader offered a doomsday scenario for the American church: heresy is rising. Millennials are fleeing. Culture is changing.
Of course, this inevitable slouch toward Gomorrah could be prevented, we were told, if we purchased this organization’s brand-new curriculum.
If I sound cynical about the demise of the church, it’s because I am. I read Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:18 and I believe them: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” I’m bullish about the future of the church because Jesus is bullish about the future of the church.
And not only “the church” as we think of the worldwide communion of saints, but your church, my church, and every local expression of Christ’s body. Healthy churches are not formed simply through handwringing, navel-gazing, or trend-setting, but through an appreciation for the past, a clear-eyed view of the present, and a fixated march toward the future—and not just any future, but the approaching kingdom of God.
Past: An Unchanging Problem
Every few years, well-meaning church practitioners urge the church to shed what is perceived to be “cultural baggage,” to let go of the past. In some ways, this is important for life-giving congregations. A crippling deadness can set upon a successful church when it continues to rest on a previous generation’s successes and cling to that generation’s methods and styles.
When churches act as if one time period in church history—the 1950s, for example—is the golden paradigm for ministry, they are effectively contextualizing their congregations for a certain demographic. In doing this, they worship a model instead of proclaiming a message. Change is good for a church.
Yet some of the most popular practitioners of change aim not at the peeling paint and the threadbare pews, but at the timeless body of truth passed down from generation to generation. Orthodoxy, they say, must change to fit a changing world.
Ironically, this is not a new argument, but an old canard, long disproven. Every generation since Pentecost has seen challenges to what we know is true. And every generation proves that it is fresh commitment to old paths that sustains God’s people.
The Christian story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation—this story is vibrant and new for every generation. Only the gospel thread that runs through Scripture answers today’s pressing questions. Only a sinless, crucified, and risen Christ can offer hope for a world in turmoil.
Culture changes and people shift, but the problems remain the same: the curse of sin weaving its destructive path through the human heart and through the cosmos.
Present: An Answer to Injustice
Can we faithfully answer the questions of the hour—the real questions our people in our congregations are asking—with the old, old story?
It’s not enough to simply know theology and Scripture in the abstract if we are unfaithful shepherds to the people God called us to serve. Do we know their unique needs and problems? Are we listening to the soundtrack of our age: the longings, the hurts, the aspirations? And are we communicating in mediums and platforms where the questions are actually being asked?
We can, however, be so laser-focused on the culture that we hold theology too loosely. We can so identify with the people around us that we forget we are ambassadors of Christ’s kingdom. When we do this, we not only fail our mission as Christ’s followers, but we fail the people we are called to serve. Only the story of Christianity answers the deepest human longings.
Are we both “in the books” and “in the community”? Are we steeped in Christian theology and ethics and also deeply engaged with the people we serve? Are we ever-learning, winsome, teachable?
Applying trite phrases and yesterday’s talking points to new and dangerous assaults on human dignity will not equip our people for living on mission for God. In our congregations, the people who come on Sunday are facing temptations wildly different from those of our grandparents’ generation—technologies and trends that are all new and varied versions of the Fall. But amazingly, Christian theology is not surprised by today’s corruptions. It is instead able to meet them.
We must also be present—to inspire our churches to live out the gospel in fresh ways in the communities we serve. Where are the vulnerable, and how can we serve them? Where is justice being denied, and where can our influence make a difference?
People today are inundated with injustice: it’s on their social media timelines, on television, at the water cooler. But the ancient concept of the church—the gathered, Spirit-led people of God—is uniquely equipped to meet today’s challenges and offer a signpost to the kingdom of God.
Future: An Outpost for a Radical Kingdom
Most of the time, expert musings about what the worldwide church will look like involve demographic surveys, technological advancements, and philosophical reflections. Bestselling authors and popular conferences focus on future trends.
It’s important for churches to be part of this discussion so they can freshly apply the gospel to the moment and help their people think through inevitable ethical challenges.
Yet, when future-casting, leaders can often be ironically shortsighted. Our strategizing thinks in terms of 15, 20, and 30 years down the road. We worry about the church we will leave our children and grandchildren. We talk about investing in the next generation.
But is our vision sufficiently large? What if we dreamt about the next 10,000 years? What if we prepared our people for living as citizens of God’s future kingdom?
Sometimes, in our quest to create cutting-edge churches, we sacrifice our long-term futures for short-term benefits. I’ve often felt this way as I’ve walked into vibrant, well-known churches or as I attend popular evangelical conferences. It seems that we are often creating a church for the young, hip, and sexy. It’s as if we want our message to the world to be something like, “See, church is the place where the cool people gather on Sunday.”
But the kingdom of God takes the opposite approach.
Jesus said it is the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalized who have a prominent place in the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:3, 20:16). Paul reminded his churches of the shocking ordinariness of God’s people (1 Cor. 1:26). James scolded those in the church of Jerusalem for their tendency to favor the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor (James 2:1-13).
Do our congregations look like outposts of this radical kingdom? Do people enter our congregations and wonder to themselves, How did these disparate people get here? What possible thread unites people so vastly separated by age, race, political affiliation, and class? Why is it that old and young, black and white, disabled and able-bodied, rich and poor, prominent and anonymous gather together every Sunday?
Imagine what the church would look like if we thought more about the future—our future as resurrected kings and queens in Christ’s new kingdom. What would it look like if we intentionally worked to image that kingdom here in the present, fallen world? What if we allowed the Spirit of God to shape us into a body that looks strange in a world of tribes, divisions, and class systems?
We might pray that God would not bring more people into our congregations who look just like us, but that God would bring people into our midst who have no business being there—people like us, who, though once far from God, are made near by the blood of Jesus’ cross.
This is the future we might hold in our sights, a future Jesus says can be experienced—in small part—right now.