Thinking about the Future of the Church

I spent the day at a Western Theological Seminary sponsored continuing education event led by Diana Butler Bass. I must say that it was a most helpful session. Now, I've read most of Diana's material, had numerous conversations about these issues, and now the back story of some of her material (we both spent time in Santa Barbara). I won't give you a complete breakdown on things, but Diana opened by quoting from the galley proofs of a new book by Harvey Cox (due out this fall).

The question is: what does the future hold for religion and Christianity, and the answer may surprise you. While there is a greatly unanticipated resurgence in religion, and fundamentalism is in its death throes (doesn't mean its going away quickly, just that its impact and reach is contracting), the most important word is that we are entering a period of profound change in religion itself. While Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence) talks about every 500 year transition points, Cox talks here about an even more epochal change, the greatest in approximately 1600 years.

In this period we will see the rediscovery of the sacred in the midst of the immanent and the secular. We'll move from a focus on belief and afterlife, to a more this worldly, practical focus, one that moves from a focus on institution to practices that enable people to live effectively now, in this life. But, living in this important transitional point, we really don't know what the future looks like. In the 4th century Christianity went from outsider status to insider status. That changed everything -- we're in much the same place now. But like then, like in the 16th century we don't know what this will look like. Modernity may be ending but postmodernity is simply a place holder for what comes next.

So, what does this mean for us? Well, it means that its no longer business as usual. We can't go back to what was. Nostalgia will get us no where. We can't try to simply fix things, so that it will work a bit better, for a bit longer. We can't wish for a different age. We must deal with the age we're given. We talked a bit today about the attempts to be retro -- to go back to premodern days, when things were simpler, but you know, while there are great resources in the past, from every era, we can't simply stick our heads in the sand and think that the 18th and 19th centuries never happened. My own tradition has referred to itself as a Restoration Movement, and for some that has meant returning to an earlier, more pristine time (1st Century), but we can't (and I don't think that was a golden age either, at least not from what I read in Paul's letters). Yes, the world has moved on, and we must adapt or we'll die a death of irrelevancy. We need to step up, and take our place in history.

Now, this is my rambling reflection on some of the ideas that came streaming forth today. (and this just from the first 30 minutes or so this morning). Now, don't apply all of this back to Diana. These are my thoughts -- But I do think that this is a new day. It's scary and maybe at times dangerous, but, hey, we have an opportunity to do something important, to take our place in history. As Diana suggested, perhaps 500 years from now our descendants will look back and consider that we were brave souls, doing important things, and a most important point in history.

Are your ready for the ride?


Anonymous said…
I hear this alot..about the whole 500 year thing. On the surface.. it sounds like a very Y2K type of thing. Our fascination with numbers and that a new year or decade or flip of the calendar brings great change. My fear is that we try to see patterns that simply aren't there. Being an old stock guy.. I know how this feeling goes.

I will say the internet is probably the great game changer. Its not that hard to get a bunch of people together and come up with a very good sounding (but completely wrong) argument and start a movement. Frankly, I see that as the great threat and perhaps opportunity for Christians. An ability to stand up to crazy thoughts and religion and find a way to interact with the culture.. like Paul in Athens as he reference the "unknown God" while testifying to the one true God.
Sorry.. this is a bit rambling. My simple point is I keep hearing "watch out" or "are you ready?", but should we be the vehicle of change rather than waiting or looking for it?


I think we're in a moment of change/transition. It's there, we can't do anything about the cultural changes afoot. What we can do is decide how to respond. It won't do us any good to try to return to some safe place in the 1950s.

At the same time, the question is, how do we respond? Do we give ourselves completely over to culture? Or do we participate in framing and shaping this era of change? If we do the latter, we must beware of triumphalism and coercion.

I'm not sure how this fits into this question, but in many ways conservative evangelicals have been a head of the cultural curve. Last week's Time ran an article on twittering in church. Not sure what to make of that. Is it capitulation to culture or using culture?

Part of what I think Cox is saying is that the era of Christendom is over. And thus we must engage the world from a different stand point. But then we have to await the book!
John said…
I hear what Chuck is saying. What is the role of the institutional church(es) and the congregation in this time of perceived dislocation and transition?

Academics can ponder the future and do trend analyses of the past, but as a contemporary Christian, what is God calling me to do at this time?

I think that the Church and its congregations and congregants are not called to be in the business of envisioning the future but instead we are called to be engaged in serving the will of the Lord and the needs of the children of God in the present.

The age of reason, the industrial revolution, the exponential expansion of knowledge on micro- and macro-scopic levels, the integration of media and instant communications throughout civilization, the world-wide cross cultural integration of humanity - these are merely the backdrop on which our relationship with God plays out. The created universe is a dynamic place - it always has been and always will be - humans just don't always perceive the movement and the changes.

So I ask again: What are we called to be and to do?

John said…
The spiritual needs of the average human being, Christian or not, continue unabated in times of overt dislocation and transition. We remain fundamentally the same on a spiritual level and so does God, on all levels.

One thing that does change over time is that our ideas about God become less about superstitions and generally more sophisticated, and, it seems to me, more relational and less about power.

In our relationship with God we claim our dignity as children of the Most High and we stave off the threat of loss of meaningful identity - we avoid becoming just another indistinct face among six billion others.

So, at the risk of sounding extreme, I will suggest what I see for the church.

It seems to me now more than ever, that the church is called to be an effective advocate for the work of the Holy Spirit in the individual lives of God's people. The church is called to lift up the dignity of individuals as empowered participants in their relationship with their creator. I think that the church is called to promote and be a vehicle and a temple for the growth of the universal priesthood of all believers. It is in our priesthood that we approach the Holy of Holies, and engage our God heart to heart. That is true worship, and there we will find genuine Shalom.

While we live and work in the present, the future always has an influence on the present, even as the past does.

If we're unable to discern the trajectory that the future heading, we'll likely miss what God is doing in the present. Remember that the future is just a minute a head. The present is transitory.

As a preacher I have to plan ahead so that the musicians and other know what to expect. If I were to come on Sunday, open the hymnal and say, well, let's sing #65, I think Pat would be a bit perturbed with me. Oh, he could pull it off, but I'd hear.

So at a larger level, we must look ahead, because God is, in my view, out front of us, inviting us to join in the work of God already underway.
Anonymous said…
First, thank you guys for understanding the point of my post. I worried after submitting it could be viewed as a simple rant vs an opinion on the idea. I favor John, in that today has enough worries of its own and to be anxious about the future doesn't help the believer. Bob, I do see your points and agree we must be observant and wise in what is going on around us. We don't want to be using out 1950's model for teaching in the year 2009. I heard the other day the Baptist quote "a million more in '54" when the push was to bring your neighbors to church and Sunday school.

While the world changes.. I am mid 30s and I am blown away by what high school kids have access to. Take this blog.. we are having a conversation from various parts of the US. My response as a Christian though is to be that lighthouse that warns of the rocks in this world. I could go on and on.. but many of today's advances still haven't improved people's lives. There is still massive guilt, anxiety, worry, etc... As a Christian, I can offer peace and contentment in the world. An alternative kingdom to the one of this world. My great fear of the church is that we become to "relevant" or too cool.. where people have a hard time telling us from the world.
This is a great topic and one that is fun to wrestle with.
Anonymous said…

I got back from 3 days with the State Summer Special Olympics this evening. If you ever want to be inspired in the "here and now" be open to becoming a part of this group somehow, sometime.

Anyway, I didn't want to check in here until I finished my homework...John. See you tomorrow.

I think I resemble a lot of what you describe here Bob (recent unanticipated reconversion and a new, but effectively subtle, witness to the practical, fact-based world).

I didn't think I was part of any kind of "trend" though. If it's true, I'm grateful to be part of it. And Chuck, of course by "it" I mean a totally new individual, vehicle of change, as you describe.

The best trends set themselves, but the best course can be forecast. That's Bob's vocation. I do agree that in the light of history the spirit moves and you'll not need to light any additional 'fire" but just be there to tend those that spontaneously form. Anything more may seem less miraculous.

I really do feel the peace and contentment of your (our) world Chuck. There's really no other way to experience it, is there?

David Mc

Popular posts from this blog

Chosen Ones -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6B

Is Jesus Crazy? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2B

God the Creator - A Lectionary Reflection for Trinity Sunday A (Genesis)