Future Faith (Wesley Granberg-Michaelson) -- A Review

FUTURE FAITH: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century (Word & Word Books: Theology for Christian Ministry). By Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. Foreword by Soong-Chan Rah. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018. Xiii + 261 pages.  

                The churches in the Global North are struggling, while growth is happening at almost exponential rates in the Global South. Lands that were once “missionary-recipients” are now “missionary-senders.” There is a vitality in places Africa and Asia that is not found in places like Europe, the United States, or Canada. The challenges are many, as a growing number of congregations are shadows of their former selves. I know this from personal experience, as I serve as pastor of a congregation that in its heyday was one of the largest and most influential churches in the denomination. That is no longer true, and we’re not alone. So, does the future hold for the churches, whether in the Unites States or in South America?

                Many have attempted to formulate answers to this question. I’ve read many of them. It’s a vocational hazard, though having read the books I do have a few answers to give when the question is raised as to what happened to the church, too often this looks like an excuse. Perhaps it is, but maybe there are some possibilities of hope, but it won’t be easy to get there.  Among those who have attempted to offer some insights about the future is Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, a former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America and former director of Church and Society for the World Council of Churches. In other words, he has some experience with the challenges facing congregations and denominations, as well as having experience on the global scene. And the experiences help him formulate responses to then challenges that he names as being central to the realities the churches face now and into the future.

                Much of what is shared in Future Faith  is not new information. But the author has done an excellent job of bringing together key challenges, without falling into the usual habit of some to blame decline on liberal theology. It is true that Mainline church-goers have lost some of their evangelical zeal, in part due to the feeling that other groups have been a bit over-zealous. So, the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction. We may have embraced the idea that religion is private, and therefore is not to be shared publicly. That doesn’t bode well for church growth! On the other hand, there is a lot of hand-wringing in evangelical circles about bad reputations. So, all of our houses seem to be suffering at this moment in time. But all is not lost.

               So, what of the ten challenges? The first has to do with the challenge of revitalizing withering congregations. I've been trying to do this for the past twenty years, but without much success. There are, however, signs that new kinds of congregations are being planted within existing congregations that seem promising. The second challenge is titled "Embracing the Color of the Future." The suggestion here is that our future is diverse, though not all of my fellow citizens are excited about this prospect. I found interesting his reference to the prevalence of so-called "nones" in Portland, Oregon, noting that this phenomenon that has gotten a lot of press of late, is largely found among young whites. As for persons of color, they're more likely to embrace religious life, which suggests that diverse congregations may be the wave of the future (and the present if we allow it to happen). I do know, at least in my denomination, that most of our growth is to be found among non-white and multi-ethnic congregations. The third challenge is titled "Seeing through Non-Western Eyes." When I look at my book shelves, most of my books were written by European and North American scholars, mostly of whom are male. I was introduced to Liberation Theology a long time ago, and have tried to open myself to other visions, but still it's easy to look at faith through Western Eyes. Nevertheless, with the dynamic nature of the Global South, it's time to pay attention to other vantage points.

Another challenge is the de-sacralizing of the world, that is a by-product of the Enlightenment project, which, among other things, has contributed to global warming and climate change. We benefit from technological advancement, but perhaps viewing the world in this way has had a significant downside. So maybe it's time for a change. It's time to again perceive this world as sacred, as created by God, and therefore good. From the sacredness of our world, Granberg-Michaelson moves to an affirmation of "spirit-filled communities." Here again, he points out a significant contributor to growth here in the United States, but more impressively in regions outside North America, where communities that are Pentecostal and Charismatic in orientation can be found with greater frequency. Modern Pentecostalism is largely traced to the Azusa Street Revival in 1906, which means it’s rather young, and yet this revival gave birth to a diverse movement of the Spirit that is expanding exponentially across the globe. Granberg-Michaelson notes that there are now six hundred million Pentecostals around the world, which is ten times the number as in 1970, making this one of the fastest growing Christian movement in history. So, what does this movement have to say to us?

Challenge six is truly challenging: "Rejecting the Heresy of Individualism." This is one of the bedrocks of our culture, and yet it may have to go. We're not islands. We're created for community. So, how are we going to embrace this? Again, he invites us to look to global Christianity, which is much less affected by Enlightenment individualism. With chapter seven, he really starts meddling, when he gives attention to the challenge of "De-Americanizing the Gospel." Here he takes note of the danger of Trumpism, and the way in which international evangelical leaders are concerned about its effect on the churches of this nation. "De-Americanizing the gospel requires listening intently to Christian voices that are not simply shaped by the American Church" (p. 152). It also requires greater grounding in the biblical faith. There is much truth to be found here, which leads to challenge 8. That challenge is the culture wars that continue to rage, and which undermine the gospel. What issue more than any other divides us? It is the question of same-sex relationships. While a growing number of Mainline Protestant churches and a growing number of Catholics and Evangelicals have become open and affirming, the war is not anywhere close to being ended. In fact, these wars have become globalized.

Challenge nine has to do with the relationship of community and belief. It’s titled, fittingly enough, "Belonging before Believing." Here is another challenge to our tendency toward individualism. Faith is something more often than not that is developed as we become part of a community, rather than something we first embrace and then join in. The future belongs to those who discern how to do this well. He makes use here of the idea of bounded versus centered sets, so that communities that are centered set focus less on boundaries than on the center, which for Christians should be Jesus, but the focus is one of relationship rather than doctrine. That’s not easy to say for those like me who have pursued the study of theology at an advanced level. Doctrine has its place, but it’s not ultimate.

Challenge ten is titled "Saving This World." There has long been a debate within the Christian community as to whether we have any responsibility for saving this world. Aren't we supposed to separate ourselves? We can be light to the world, but saving the world isn't our job. Or is it? Perhaps our calling is to a holistic vision that is rooted both in our relationship with God and in engaging in work that touches the world. In other words, saving the world. It is a vision to which I am committed, and which I believe is rooted in the Gospel. His suggestion is that this is also central to living out of our faith. But what will this look like? That is always the challenge!

Yes, the information here isn’t altogether new, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another telling of the story. Granberg-Michaelson has done an excellent job of drawing together in a compact and readable/accessible way the key challenges facing us. If we’re willing to take them to heart, then perhaps there is a future for us, even in the Global North. Moving toward that future requires that we recognize that the future will look a lot different from what we know today. But then this news. I have church members who remember the Model-T. I have a member who is working on autonomous vehicles. Yes, from the Model T to the Moon and on to autonomous vehicles. Who knows for sure what the future holds? Change isn't easy, but it will be necessary. Not all congregations will survive, but Christianity won’t disappear anytime soon. In fact, the Western World might be the next mission field, as folks from across the globe bring the faith to the Global North in new forms and voices.  So, let us be attentive to the voices that speak to Future Faith.


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