What Will the Future Church Look Like?
by Craig L. Nessan (January / February 2002 • Volume 18 • Number 1)
The church will continue to gather for worship and go out to serve, but it may look very different from the one we have grown up with.
To write about the shape of the future church is a presumptuous undertaking. To begin with, none of us has been there. I have no crystal ball with which to prognosticate what is about to unfold. One thing about which we can be certain is that the future will bring novelty — innovations none of us can now even begin to imagine.
Martin Marty has recently spoken about the billions of neurons that compose the human brain. When one calculates the number of ways these neurons can be connected into new thought patterns, the figure reaches toward infinity. There is an extraordinarily huge number of ideas that have not yet been imagined. We can be sure of the power of human creativity to shape new possibilities in the future.
Add to the factor of human innovation the reality of divine creativity — that is, God's ability to create a new thing — and we can be certain about the occurrence of novelty in the years that lie ahead.
As we reflect backward over the course of human history, however, and especially as we examine the history of the church, we discover that what emerges in the future is always in some fashion configured out of the fragments of the past. As one era gives way to the next, there is not only change but also elements of continuity. The present circumstances always provide the raw material from which the future is constructed. Sometimes what emerges is based on a stiff reaction to what has preceded it, for example, the Reformation. More often, what we see emerging is a new arrangement of already-existing pieces of culture and tradition.
I organize my thoughts into two parts. First, we consider those elements that belong to the core of what it means to be the church in every generation. Second, we note some significant trends that we can anticipate continuing into the foreseeable future. We conclude with a theological summation.
The Church in Every Age
We commence with a definition of the church. At its core the church ever consists of people who gather in faith around Word and sacrament and are sent from that gathering into service. This means that in the future as in the past, the church will continue to be a people who gather in faith around Word and sacrament to be sent forth from that gathering into service.
In the future the church will consist of people. A basic and most crucial need for those engaged in ministry is love for people. Ministers reflect God's love by listening to people's stories, remaining patient with their foibles, becoming excited by their gifts, forgiving their sins, and encouraging them in their own ministries. Because ministry involves working with people, it is extremely helpful to operate within a defined framework in interpreting interpersonal dynamics.
The most helpful hermeneutic that I have discovered is the one that family systems theory provides. Family systems theory teaches us some basic principles of human behavior that can insightfully inform our ministry. We learn to focus not just on the behavior of an individual but primarily on the dynamics of a group. We learn in situations of conflict to pay attention not only to the controversial issue but especially to the persons most intensely engaged in the debate. We learn not to take criticism so personally (a trap that easily undoes us) but to be aware that much of the criticism you receive derives from your role as leader of the group and as a representative of the things of God.
Most of all, we learn to become consciously aware of the powerful reality of transference, whereby others transfer to you the residue of their formative relationships (often the most unhealthy parts) as you do the same to them. Because in the future the church will still consist of people, we are wise to employ some theoretical framework to lend insight into how these people, including ourselves, are acting.
|The future of the church will be global in ways we have not yet begun to grasp. Indeed that future already dawns in our midst.|
In the future the church will consist of people who gather in faith around Word and sacrament. The gathering may take place in a variety of settings. Gatherings for worship, study, planning, prayer, and fellowship occur in different places. More and more of these settings in the future may not look like the church buildings with steeples to which we are accustomed. Jesus said: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them." He did not say the gathering must take place in designated buildings.
Whatever the location, however, this particular people needs to be mindful when it gathers, that what gives them their identity is the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
As called leaders of the church, one of our tasks is to articulate how each gathering is connected to our identity as the baptized people of God. We who are the church face the constant threat of amnesia about our core identity. We easily succumb to either busyness that lacks an organizing center or just plain apathy about what is most essential.
Leaders in the church must first remember that we ourselves have been justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. To believe that this message is true for us, even for us who are called to leadership in the church, is one of the most difficult of all assignments. Having received the gospel into our own hearts, we can then clearly proclaim this message of grace to others so they will remember whose they are.
In the future the church will consist of people who gather in faith around Word and sacrament and are sent from that gathering into service. Service involves not just what people do for their congregations, working on committees and congregational projects. That may not even be the most important part. Instead service involves a people who understand themselves as agents of the gospel and of God's kingdom in all their life's activities — at home and at school, at work and at leisure.
Finally, the mission is not ours but God's. We are summoned to participate in the mission of God in the world both through the auspices of the congregation and through all the things we do apart from our congregation. To instill such an identity remains a formidable task, even in a church that has always claimed to affirm the priesthood of all believers. There continues to exist an immense lack of coherence between Sunday morning and the remainder of the week that unfolds on Monday.
The Future Church
The church of the future will be more and more bereft of the cultural supports that once helped sustain it. Theologians like Douglas John Hall are correct in their analysis that we have entered into the time of post-Christendom.
We cannot assume that people read or know their Bibles anymore. We cannot assume that they comprehend even the most elementary Christian teachings. And we cannot assume that people have any notion of what once were called Christian values. Just consider how cohabitation before marriage has become normal. There is no longer any favored time of the week. Neither Wednesday evening nor even Sunday morning is spared from schedule conflicts with soccer games, school activities, or shopping trips.
Christian faith has become one religious option among many others, including the choice for no faith at all.
In this context the church of the future will need to be a discipleship church. It becomes increasingly urgent to be intentional about articulating the otherness of the Christian faith. Leaders in the church need to be posing two questions over and over again: "How does a Christian think otherwise about this issue?" and "How does a Christian respond differently to this situation?" Only by posing such questions can we as a church begin to comprehend that Christianity is a way of life that exists in tension with the prevalent cultural values that promote selfishness, violence, promiscuity, and profanity.
Worship needs to be understood as the occasion for fundamental Christian formation. We need to be able to explain how our identity is based upon and our very way of life is patterned after what we do at worship.
At worship we confess and forgive, something that belongs to the daily Christian life. At worship we praise God, that activity for which God created us in the first place. At worship we attend to God's Word as the most important word we need in all of life. At worship we pray for the needs of others and thereby learn compassion as a lifestyle. At worship we share a meal and thereby become people who know that their sustenance comes only from God, learning also to share our bread.
Priority in all our educational efforts must be given to Christ's command to make disciples. Christian education needs to focus first on learning the biblical story and catechism. As we become immersed in the Christian way, mentoring relationships between new or young Christians and those long experienced in the faith contribute much.
Leaders of congregations must emphasize what it means to be a Christian in daily life — in the family, at work, or at school. As we seek to become faithful disciples of Christ in everyday life, we can hold up the examples of the saints, those who sought to be faithful to Christ in other times and places.
The underlying concern is that Christianity be so integrated into one's identity that one operates habitually according to the teachings of Christ. This is what it would mean to be a discipleship church.
The church of the future will also be an ecumenical church. Brand loyalty to a denomination has dissolved. I have watched it disappear in my own lifetime. We must learn to focus on Christian identity rather than that of a particular denomination. When we teach the fundamentals of Lutheran doctrine (as we must!), these need to be articulated as "Christian" teachings rather than peculiarly "Lutheran" beliefs.
This, it seems to me, would be not only good strategy in a post-Christian context but also consistent with the Lutheran confessional movement's proposal that its doctrines are a generally valid interpretation of the Christian faith.
We need to strategize with other Christians about mission, especially on the local level. The greatest potential of recent ecumenical agreements is for encouraging local initiatives in mission and outreach. Leaders in local congregations need to be on the forefront of endorsing and receiving ecumenical agreements and employing them to forge new partnerships for the sake of mission. To work together with Christians of other traditions is not only an outworking of the Holy Spirit's influence but a matter of basic stewardship. Reduplication, whether in the form of buildings or denominational programs, is not good stewardship of what God has entrusted to us.
It is high time for ecumenical agreements to be something more to local congregations than theoretical understandings between church bodies. For the sake of God's mission, cooperative strategies with Christians of other church bodies need implementation in local communities.
Lastly, the church of the future will be a global church. What comes after the modern and postmodern eras? It is becoming clear that what follows is the global era. The emerging global era is being forged on the basis of global communication, media, the Internet, and a vast, interconnected economic system. We are experiencing an unprecedented cross-fertilization of cultures and religions. The majority of Christians now live not in Europe and the United States but in the Southern Hemisphere, with the largest number in Africa.
In the global era, the Christian faith will not be an export from Europe and the United States to the rest of the world. Rather, Christians in other parts of the globe will need to witness to us in order that we might be evangelized by them. We need to learn what Christians in other parts of the world have to teach us. We need to learn from Asian Christians how to relate and witness to those who belong to other world religions. We need to learn from South American Christians their courage and passion for justice. We need to learn from African Christians new approaches to evangelism and methods for reconciliation between people of different cultures and races.
Perhaps the time has long since arrived when we are the ones who most urgently need to be receiving missionaries from other parts of the world!
The United States itself is rapidly becoming a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Soon it will no longer have a majority who are of European ancestry. Already Spanish has become a language in which the church should be regularly engaging in mission. The church of the future will be enriched by the gifts of people from many languages, cultures, and races.
At the same time, the church in the United States has significant responsibility for sharing its wealth and material blessings with those who are poor, hungry, homeless, and diseased in other parts of the world. Our destiny is intricately intertwined with people around the world. The future of the church will be global in ways we have not yet begun to grasp. Indeed that future already dawns in our midst.
It is my profound hope that the church of the future will be a missionary church. We can be confident that in the future the Triune God will continue to be a missionary God. God the Father sent the Son into the world to make us children of God and friends of each other. The Holy Spirit is sent into the world to bring about the beloved community. Our missionary God encounters us still today as we gather in faith around Word and sacrament. And by the gospel we are set free, free to be the missionary people of God.
Resources for the Future Church
Try these resources as you yourself ponder what the future may hold for the church of Christ.
The Alban Institute: www.alban.org
The Emergent Village: www.emergentvillage.org
The Terra Nova Project: www.terranovaproject.org
Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (World Council of Churches, Faith and Order Paper No. 111, WCC, 1982.)
David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis, 1991).
Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry (Upper Room Books, 2000).
Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from Hispanic Perspective (Abingdon, 1990).
Darrell L. Guder, editor, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998).
Douglas John Hall, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity (Trinity Press International, 1997).
Loren B. Mead, Five Challenges for the Once and Future Church (The Alban Institute, 1996).
Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Westminster/John Knox, 1993).
Leonard Sweet, Post-Modern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century Church (Broadman and Holman, 2000).
Craig L. Nessan is dean and associate professor of contextual theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.