Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Semi-Random Musings (23)

I have seen the future of the church. It is non-institutional, non-sectarian, untraditional, discreet, highly portable and deadly serious. These are all good things.

That’s my conclusion after a week away up north with a group of 11 Christians of varied backgrounds, denominations and convictions from all over our province. What drew us together was a pair of mutual friends and our love of Christ, not any particular theological compatibility or shared history.

Here is my concern, and it’s a big one: in our movement toward what sure looks like the inevitable next phase of church life in North America, we are in danger of leaving our leadership behind.

Where the Church is Headed

These folks with whom I gathered were not pew-sitters, extremists, grumblers or malcontents. There were no career pastors or recognized elders among us, but I counted three platform speakers, three former youth group leaders, a full-time parachurch worker, seven former or current summer camp directors and/or staff, and some of the most hospitable and gracious Christian servants whose company I have ever had the privilege to enjoy. In other words, people who have made it their goal over the last 20-40 years to dedicate themselves to the service of the people and churches of God in every possible way, among whom I am the least — and I can say that without beating myself up or flirting with false modesty. In short, the people who pay the bulk of pastors’ salaries, who point out the elders before they are officially recognized, and who enable the machinery of church life to keep running.

Nearly everyone is fed up with the current direction our churches are taking, and is looking for answers.

I am happy to say we celebrated the first “proper” Lord’s Supper I’ve enjoyed in a year and a half. No masks, no distancing, no plexiglass shields, no Zoom, no nonsense. The premier of Ontario was notably absent, both physically and in spirit.

This is where the church is headed, with or without its leadership.

Theology vs. Facts

The really sad thing is that we are not having a theological disagreement with the present leaders of God’s people. We simply cannot come to a shared understanding about the facts on the ground. Doug Wilson put it this way recently:

“I would argue that our differences are not over the ethics of the thing but rather are differences over a question of fact — just how diseased has our culture gotten? These evangelicals don’t have any qualms about Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the plot against Hitler, or over Anne Frank’s refusal to turn herself in, or Brother Andrew smuggling Bibles into closed countries. They wouldn’t object if a man used fake papers to get his family out of Afghanistan right now. But this is America, they think, land of the free and home of the brave.”

In short, our leadership is convinced everything will eventually return to business as usual, and that if we just hang on a bit longer, keep a stiff upper lip and keep quoting Romans 13 to anyone dissenting from our present course (which is not actually a course at all, but more like treading water in a deep current moving in the wrong direction), we will shortly be back gathering together by the hundreds in our luxurious, mortgaged-to-the-hilt buildings with minimal or no interference from local, provincial, state or federal regulatory authorities.

Disappointment, Not Anger

This seems a remarkably rosy and unlikely view. I am not angry with those who hold it, and I do not blame them for hanging on to the hope of what, in their minds, surely constitutes a best-case outcome. They are, almost to a man, godly, sincere folks who genuinely love the people of God and have served them as faithfully, and sometimes longer, than most of us. They make every effort to think the best of people, Christians and unsaved alike, and to give the benefit of the doubt wherever possible. These are useful qualities, and commendable when combined with spiritual discernment and the ability to draw a line in the sand when necessary. But in most cases, they prevent our leaders from seeing that we are where we are, and that something needs to be done about it.

I am disappointed so many of our leaders appear to conflate planning for the inevitable with giving up hope for a return to the status quo, in which many of them are deeply invested, for both good and bad reasons. But drastic change is inevitable, whatever the time frame may be. Society is convulsing around us and morphing into some new and poorly-understood shape. If the North American churches are graciously granted a reprieve from the ongoing intrusion of the state into the affairs of Christ by an unlikely and (comparatively) salutary election outcome in Canada, or by the U.S. founders’ enviable foresight in granting immense power to individual states at the expense of the Republic, that reprieve will only be a brief one. The end of our present way of meeting — publicly, institutionally, en masse and in corporately-owned buildings — is upon us, not in decades but in single digits.

Rejecting Binary Thinking

What I am saying is this: we are not in a binary situation. To milk a wildly-overused and ancient cliché, we need to think outside the box. It should be possible to hold on to what we have for as long as we are able, avoiding unnecessary and unprofitable confrontations with the powers-that-be, while simultaneously planning how to efficiently gather under the radar in small, legal (or illegal) groups for fellowship, prayer, teaching and breaking bread when we are hit with the next lockdown or new mode of state interference in the churches of God.

Some in our churches are wholly convinced by the popular narrative and think we are already doing the best possible thing under the circumstances. Some are in the process of drifting away, having gotten out of the routine of regular attendance that was the only thing keeping them around. Some are on the fence. Some are clueless about what the future looks like, and looking to their shepherds to provide direction, while others already have strong ideas about what comes next, and will be looking to their leaders to join them, help facilitate their plans and, above all, maintain the ties we have to one another even if we are never again able to meet under the same roof without ceding the headship of our churches to the whims of bureaucrats, politicians, propagandists and medical professionals.

An Exhortation to Elders

Elders, you probably have some idea how many in each group you will find if you start asking what the Christians in your congregation are thinking and feeling. Perhaps your personal estimation is right on the nose, or perhaps you will find yourself profoundly surprised. My suspicion is that you will find many with one foot out the door, deeply in prayer and very concerned about pleasing the Lord with the next step they take. But of course you will only know what the numbers in each of these categories look like in your church if you start drinking a lot of coffee with individuals and letting them talk to you. And I do mean right now.

Please, please, please ... listen to your people and respond with prayer, biblical counsel, discernment and foresight. Start planning for the worst-case scenario while hoping for the best. Apply the spiritual authority and experience the Lord has given you in ways you might never have imagined when you first agreed to do the job of serving God’s people. Then, get out in front of this thing, and lead.

Otherwise, I sincerely believe the churches are in danger of leaving their (human) leadership behind. That would be a most undesirable final chapter to the Age of Evangelicalism, both for our leaders and for us.

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