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Friday, November 17, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: The Future Church

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

We’ve written here on many occasions about current trends within Christendom and what they say about North American Christians. Last week, for instance, we did a piece on giving by millennials. But I wouldn’t say we do an inordinate amount of speculating about the future, because while we can see from scripture where both the world and the people of God are ultimately headed, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to plot exactly where we are on that timeline.

Tom: Still, Carey Nieuwhof is willing to go out on a limb and tell us where he thinks the Church is headed in the next few years in his article “10 Predictions About The Future Church”.

What did you think of Carey’s musings, Immanuel Can?

Modern Prophecy

Immanuel Can: Well, I’m not much for modern “prophets”, and so I have my doubts he’s doing more than guessing. But some of his suggestions seem plausible and even desirable, while some others strike me as really loopy.

Tom: Let’s do loopy first, and save the praise for the end so we leave on a high note. What’s the worst predictive offender, do you think?

IC: I’m thinking he’s tremendously naive about technology … but then, a lot of people are. They think that what is new and technological is automatically better and more advanced. Thus I’m not surprised to see him perceiving no problem in it becoming a “front door” to the church, and imagining it will naturally supplement the functioning of the local church in an unproblematic kind of way. But I think that’s bound to prove untrue. In the past, those sorts of technological changes have done a lot more than simply supplement or provide a natural integration point for people … instead, they’ve changed the basic nature of what is happening. And we need to be aware of that.

Off Ramps for Christians

Tom: Yes. I liked the bit where he says online churches are “off ramps for Christians whose commitment to faith is perhaps less than it might have been at an earlier point.” In my experience that’s a polite euphemism for “divorcees”. Christian couples break up, or are broken up with, and stay away from church for a while out of guilt or embarrassment, then wind up never really going back. That’s a very common occurrence, and divorce isn’t the only reason, of course. But I fail to see how online church holds the potential to be a “front door for the curious”. More like a revolving door for the dilettante …

IC: Well put. I’ve met quite a few people who have decided that dealing with real people and human problems is just too hard, and have decided to live their “spiritual lives” online instead. I would love to hear what the Lord thinks of the practice of substituting cyber-presence for embodied involvement, given that incarnation is so essential to God’s plan for us; but I can suspect what he’d say.

What about you, Tom? Does anything put sand in your gears?

Consumer Christianity

Tom: Well, his fourth point is that “Consumer Christianity Will Die And A More Selfless Discipleship Will Emerge”. How I wish that were true!

But as Carey goes on to suppose that churches will in the future “reformat and repent”, I begin to wonder if he’s a postmillennialist, in which case his baseless optimism might make some sense.

I don’t like to make predictions either, but if I had to, I’d estimate Consumer Christianity will characterize many or most churches in the years ahead, sorry to say.

IC: Yes. I do think that one’s more a combination of bad eschatology and wildly wishful thinking than any sound exegesis or empirical data. Like you, I wish I were to be proved wrong about that; but I really think he’s speculating wildly there.

Anything else interesting to you, Tom?

Outsider Focus

Tom: This is an intriguing statement: “Rather than a gathering of the already-convinced, the churches that remain will be decidedly outsider-focused.”

I come from a tradition in which at least half the churches have been NOTHING BUT outsider-focused for the last hundred years or so, and to no visible effect. Part of that, I’ll concede, is that they did it badly … awfully, even. At times it was mortally embarrassing to sit in a crowd of true believers and hear the preacher predictably rev himself up to single out the only sort of individual who wasn’t anywhere to be seen in the building.

He might have tried the mall.

Anyway, what I mean to say is that if by “outsider-focused”, Nieuwhof means “active in witnessing during the week as individual Christians”, then … bravo. If he means that the church itself should switch its corporate, Sunday emphasis from worship and teaching to community service and social justice, then a plague on that sort of nonsense. He’s lost the plot.

So I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and not presume what he intends with that one.

Seeker-Sensitivity

IC: It reminds me of the very ill-advised 1980s foray into creating “seeker-sensitive” churches, in which things like worship, fellowship, doctrine and discipleship got sold downriver in favor of creating safe spaces for unbelievers to hang out without feeling offended.

Tom: Uh … the whole world is a safe space for unbelievers to hang out without feeling offended. When Christians don’t make that particular factoid plain, we’re inarguably shirking our primary responsibility.

IC: I really hope that’s not what he has in mind. But that’s a natural point of confusion among those who mistake evangelism for a whole-church activity, rather than what it is … the responsibility of each believer individually, just as you say.

Next?

Simplified Ministries

Tom: I’m going to switch to something I actually like here: “Simplified Ministries Will Complement People’s Lives, Not Compete With People’s Lives”. By “simplified”, he appears to mean “fewer programs”. I agree with him in this respect: you have to be IN the world to influence the world. That takes hours of your life, and there’s no way around it. So four to five nights a week spent safe in your church filling out your role in the expected programs simply does not get the job done of reaching out to a lost world.

I’m not suggesting Christians skip prayer meeting to watch Housewives of Beverly Hills, or whatever. I hope that’s obvious.

IC: Yep. But there are people around who imagine that if a local church invents a program for you, you owe it to them to be there. I’ve never thought that way, but some do.

Unlike prayer, most programs are not centered on an essential function mandated by the Lord for the church. Instead, they’re somebody’s idea of something they think you should do, and no more.

Tom: That’s me done. What did you find in Nieuwhof’s predictions that didn’t totally annoy you?

Model and Mission

IC: I’d say I can go with him on numbers 2 and 3. His exhortation that churches would be unwise to love their model more than their mission is good. I think we see the consequences in the so-called “mainline” churches: those that abandon their doctrine but retain their forms lose out in the long run. That’s one of the findings of Rodney Stark’s latest book on worldwide Christian demographics. But all I would have to do is to look around me to know that’s how it plays out: those churches quickly becoming are ghost towns.

Tom: That’s certainly true, and with good reason. Few Christians see the point of church without the Bible, Christ, sin, obedience, heaven and hell and so on. We get enough lectures in the media about civic responsibility, multiculturalism, the oppression of women and the glories of diversity already without going to church to get another round from the platform.

Hey, did you notice one interesting thing about Nieuwhof’s vision of the future? The environment in which his future church exists — including megachurches — is wholly unaffected by politics, cultural changes such as the mainstreaming of homosexual and transsexual rights, and persecution. That seems to me a glaring omission. If there is anything more likely to determine the size and nature of communal Christianity in the next twenty years or so, I can’t think what it might be.

IC: Wow. Right. I hadn’t thought of that.

The Progressive Doomsday Clock

Tom: Now, I’m not going to fall into the trap of prognosticating. Perhaps President Trump will turn back the hands on the Progressive Doomsday Clock, or at least hold them at bay for a few years. Certainly we see examples in scripture of God’s judgment delayed because of a change of heart from an otherwise-profligate ruler. Or perhaps The Donald will push the U.S. into the abyss, as many panicked Lefties insist; I really don’t know. But what I DO think is that you cannot usefully speculate about what trends may characterize churches in the next few decades without first considering the question of whether we Christians continue to enjoy our current freedoms. Things like megachurches simply cannot exist absent a favorable political climate.

IC: Right. One change to the tax laws, and goodbye to all the buildings we think we own. Goodbye to a living wage for clergy. And probably goodbye to many donations to missions and service — at least from those who value a tax refund for charitable contributions. It would be a new world for us all right away. When the clampdown comes, I would expect it to start with the government, and probably with the withdrawal of the privileges and benefits we’ve formerly enjoyed.

One thing for sure, Tom: things are going to go sour on the public front one day. It may not be today, or tomorrow. But one day soon it’s going to become a lot harder to be a real Christian. And I’m not sure that’s entirely bad. It may be just the thing we need to set apart those who really love the Lord and his people from those who are just playing the game.

And though I certainly agree with it, that’s not a prediction that is just coming from me.

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