Dr. James Emery White Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
I was recently asked four compelling questions by Outreach magazine related to the future of the church. They were specific, and as a result, forced me to galvanize quite a bit of “wide” thinking into a concise format.
I am curious to hear your thoughts once you read the questions and my answers. Specifically:
*Did you agree with my answers?
*What would you have answered differently, or added to the answer(s)?
*What questions were raised, to your thinking, as a result of my answers?
I think we will all be served by this conversation. So post, and read the other posts, with a keen mind and open heart.
Here are the questions/answers:
What changes should the church anticipate in the next ten years?
The headline is that the unchurched will be increasingly made up of the “nones”: those who believe nothing in particular, are antagonistic toward religion in general, and are not engaged in any kind of “seeking.” As a result, evangelism will need to make the same transformation as modern military combat: less large-scale, mass invasions and aerial assaults and more house-to-house, hand-to-hand engagement. Further, Christians in America will find themselves in an increasingly hostile environment due to the dynamics of a post-Christian culture. This will be a defining era as churches will have to choose between wider cultural acceptance through cultural compromise or growing animosity and even persecution through continuing orthodoxy. Finally, the technological revolution will only continue in terms of new mediums of communication and interaction. The pace churches keep with technology will prove to be as decisive in the next ten years as the pace churches kept with, say, music or dress in the last ten.
What obstacles do we need to overcome to be more effective in outreach in the next decade?
It is ironic that the very thing the world hates about the church is its worldliness. When churches and church leaders become entangled in the web of party politics, power, greed and sexual immorality, the world’s stomach turns in disgust. So that is first. Once the church purifies itself of such things, the second task is to fill itself with our great distinctive – grace. That things like judgmentalism and condemnation are so associated with the church is an affront to the gospel. Grace combined with truth is what sets us apart, and is the one thing we have to offer the world that it does not already have. Next, we will have to get our own house in order in terms of observable love toward one another. The bitter blogs and polarizations must end. The final ingredient will be the need to have an actual passion for those who are lost. There is much rhetoric in favor of evangelism, but little reality in terms of dying to ourselves to do what it takes to reach people. We are very much a consumer-driven church, giving in to a spiritual narcissism where the needs of the believer are paramount over the needs of those apart from Christ.
What cultural shifts are you observing now that the church should prepare for in the future?
Sociologically, the three great macro shifts have not changed: secularization, privatization, and pluralization. But let me offer three micro shifts that are immediate in their challenge: First, the movement toward becoming an increasingly post-Christian culture. Not an anti-Christian culture, or even a non-Christian culture, but a post-Christian culture. To be post-Christian means the very memory of the gospel is fading. The result is a culture that is more like Mars Hill than Jerusalem; openly pluralistic, spiritual but not religious, embracing agnosticism as a badge of pride. A second shift is the changing nature of thinking, relating and self-identifying as a result of the internet and social media, resulting in becoming more shallow, more isolated, and more tribal than ever before. Third, the increasingly truncated understanding of Christian life and thought within the Christian movement itself must not be ignored. Historic understandings on the atonement and revelation are suspect, issues related to humanity are being made up on the fly if even considered, and a robust ecclesiology is almost a matter of scorn. But it is not simply a new pseudo-orthodoxy that is creeping in, but a shallowness of thinking. We are increasingly in a battle of ideas, yet the Christian sub-culture is as anti-intellectual as I’ve ever seen it. Our thinking is very bad, when we are thinking at all. Much of our discipleship is hands and heart, which is all well and good, but we must not forget the discipleship of the mind. If we’re standing on Mars Hill, let’s not forget that contending for the faith in that context demands the mind of a Paul.
Do you foresee particular changes that will affect your local church and/or community?
Six changes come to mind: First, technology will increasingly become a necessary medium of discipleship due to the nature of how people receive and digest information. Second, in a post-Christian and spiritually illiterate world, visual elements (akin to the stained glass of the Middle Ages) will need to be more widely employed to convey biblical truth, particularly in regard to evangelism. Third, one-on-one evangelism must become more central (as opposed to a more general invitational approach to large-scale events). Fourth, leadership development and theological education will have to be increasingly shouldered by the local church. Fifth, we will have to take prayer much more seriously, and engage it much more intentionally. If culture progresses as it now portends, spiritual warfare will rear its head in ways that most of us have only read about in missionary biographies. Finally, we will need to prepare Christ followers for an ever-increasingly hostile environment where a vibrant faith brings persecution.