Some time ago, I was asked to be the guest speaker at the annual gathering of a local chapter of a national Christian organization. I was asked to speak on Christianity and the Church in the Twenty-First Century. As I prepared my presentation, I realized this subject was not as easy as it first sounded.
For example, it struck me early that the title assigned to me implies several assumptions that should not be taken for granted. To begin with, now that we are well into the new millennium I guess I can accept the assumption that we will have at least part of a twenty-first century!
The second and third implied assumptions, however were not as easily dismissed: that Christianity has a future and that the Church is also assured another century. It is these two assumptions that, of course, underlie the thrust of any discussion of the future of the “Christian” “Church.”
So, does Christianity and the Church have a future in twenty-first century? To such a question many would ask “Aren’t Christianity and the Church one and the same? For some these two entities may be interchangeable. I, however, do not believe they are.
Although both the word “Christianity” and the word “Church” have a particular history, the word Christianity as used today simply refers to a system of faith grounded among those who are adherents of Jesus Christ.(1) The Church, on the other hand, is a word which refers to people gathered together, particularly in Jesus’ name, an assembly.
Do both Christianity and the Church have a future? The answer, in both cases is “Yes,” though that “Yes” must be qualified. Let me deal with Christianity first because it is, I think, the easier one. And it is easy for the believer, at least, because Jesus basically answers it for us.
Consider, for example, the parables taught by Jesus which have to do specifically with the Kingdom of God. The collection of parables that appear in Matthew 13 are typical. There is the parable of the good seed and bad seed (verses 24-30), the mustard seed (verses 31, 32), the yeast (verse 33), the treasure, once hidden but then found (44), a pearl of great value (45, 46) and of a net bringing in all kinds of fish (47-50). Then in chapter 23 there is the parable of the wedding banquet (22:2-14).
The thrust of each and all of these parables clearly suggests the conclusion that in Christianity, we have God’s permanent reign breaking in and continuing to expand until one day it takes over everything. So, according to Jesus, it is certain that Christianity has a future. Of course, many dominant world powers over the centuries have done their best to disprove Jesus’ words. Along with this, many of these same powers have given the persuasive appearance of outdoing and even destroying God’s Kingdom. A mere 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Roman emperor Nero initiated the first intentional Christian persecution which, although limited to Rome, resulted in a vast number of Christians experiencing unspeakable cruelty and death.(2) In the midst of this and other persecutions it has seemed, sometimes for extended periods, that Christianity would fade away.
One hundred fifty years after this, the Roman emperor Decius put to death yet more Christians; and a few decades later Diocletian initiated the most severe of persecutions with possibly thousands of believers perishing, churches being razed, Bible Scriptures being destroyed, and Christians losing all civil rights.(3) Despite or perhaps because of this, Christianity continued to grow and spread.
Aside from the pressures that came from outside the Church, there were those that came from within, threatening the survival of Christianity even more seriously. The emperor Constantine, for example, blurred whatever distinction existed between Church and State, which resulted in an arrogance not found in Christianity until that time. Both the moral and spiritual quality of the Christian community suffered. Charlemagne, the first emperor of what became known as the Holy Roman Empire actually forced people to profess Christianity or face the consequences. His motto of “converting the Saxons by the Word and the sword” is surely a corrupted blot on the history of Christianity. Serious as these blots were, we can hardly begin to enumerate all the other internally corruptive influences that Christianity has survived across the centuries of its existence. Despite this, Christianity has survived and even thrived. Thus, it is by all means reasonable and persuasive to project that Christianity does have a future.
What of the future of the Church?
But what about the Church? Does what we have just seen of the survival of Christianity necessarily imply that the future of the Church itself is likewise assured? Does the survival of the teachings automatically imply the survival of the congregation of the taught? I don’t believe it does, yet at the same time I believe the Church has a triumphant future, and again I believe that because I believe Jesus saw it to be true.
Jesus Himself made a stupendous claim for His Church, which was in itself a far-reaching prophecy: “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase translation of Jesus’ proclamation says: “This is the rock on which I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.”(4) Jesus described what, or upon whom the Church was built and that there was nothing that could extinguish such a light.
What forms will the Church take?
But there is an even larger question; a practical one: What will be the form or forms of the Church? In what types of ministry will it (we) be involved? What will the Church (we) look like? What will church leadership look like?
These are fascinating questions which we must, and will continually have to answer. God ensures the future but we, under Him, are called to flesh out the specific forms of His church’s future. In recent years Christian denominations of all kinds have experienced numerous and far-reaching changes in form. Just the advent of huge population explosions around the globe has necessitated a new phenomenon that of necessity breeds all kinds of further changes in congregational form. There is such proliferation and variation that it is almost foolish to attempt to name a few by way of example.
A Christian time traveler, even from the comparatively recent 1950s, suddenly transported to the present day, would stand in mute confusion were they to suddenly walk into the usual “contemporary worship” service found in many churches today. Worship styles have changed dramatically of late and continue to be reformulated. While we may yet have a relatively consistent definition of what it means to worship God, we still tend to radically disagree with one another as to how our definition translates into practice on a weekly worship basis. Certainly worship manifests itself in a vastly different way from what it did in my teenage years (the 1970s).
Worship is a (if not the) volatile issue among many Christians. Forms of worship and worship music can be seen to be representative factors as one attempts to project the future of the church. A major survey of Australian churches in 1996, conducted by the National Church Life Survey, found that worship, particularly worship music, is causing a serious schism.(5) Many of us don’t need a survey to tell us such things. We consistently experience them firsthand. But some specifics may be useful.
The National Church Life Survey revealed that some 46 percent of respondents considered traditional hymns most helpful to them while 48 percent found choruses or other contemporary music most helpful.(6) Further, if an average Australian congregation was polled, it would reveal that 24 percent of them want “church” to be more contemporary, while 15 percent want things to be kept more traditional.(7)
It is not surprising that the survey also found that musical preferences are strongly linked to age. “Generational differences are expressed in musical preferences.”(8) The survey also revealed that age 50 seems to be the crucial age in church life where musical tastes divide. This seems to imply that future generations might be more instrumental in introducing changes in significant aspects of worship.
Do denominations have a future?
Denominations, while being redefined will continue to exist and make a contribution. Princeton-based sociologist Robert Wuthnow believes strongly that denominations are not a thing of the past.(9) They serve a purpose and will continue to serve a purpose. As an example, denominations allow us to be connected, to plug into something greater than our local congregation. It has been said that “through [denominations we] expand [our] own culturally bound concerns.”(10)
Denominations “multiply the conversations” in which churches participate. In other words, they amplify our concerns, projecting them into venues that transcend the local church. Hence, as a leading sociologist of religion has said, “Efforts to save souls and protect the planet gain clout when supported by dozens or even thousands of congregations bound together.”(11) Our experience confirms that. Denominations help us to connect, in view of the truth that there really is strength in numbers.
It is also true, however, that the role and function of denominations will continue to change; indeed, they are already changing. Traditional denominations and denominational leaders are finding that their old “tried and true” methods are not working, nor are they being readily accepted by up-and-coming pastors. At the same time mega-churches are taking over many of the traditional denominational roles and are thus becoming more like denominations themselves. This in itself is an exciting challenge to all involved in Christian ministry.
So what of the future?
The future, I believe is not predetermined. We are not God-created automatons who have been divinely programmed to act without thought. God has created within us the capacity, and the ability to “work out our own salvation” (Phil. 2:12).
A few years ago I was taken with the title of a National Church Life Survey publication: “Shaping a Future.”(12) This title was deliberately forged or chosen to reflect the ambiguity that is still before us. Of course, Missiologist David Barrett is even more blatant. In his book, “Seven Hundred Plans to Evangelize the World,” Barrett proposes numerous scenarios for church growth through to the year four billion A.D., when he postulates the ultimate size of the church of Jesus Christ to be 1 decillion believers (1 followed by 33 zeros).(13) Barrett’s plans, found on pages 789-811, suggest ways such a scenario might be achieved.(14) The point is, as Barrett himself realizes, that the possibilities are endless when it comes to how we might arrange the church and the church’s mission in the days to come. The variables determining our future direction are almost infinite.
For example, what will the Church look like in the future as multiculturalism becomes more pronounced and as the church more accurately reflects this growing phenomenon? We are already facing this issue in Australia where, according to the 1996 census, only 75 percent of Australians were actually born in Australia. While 25 percent of the Australian population only translates to a mere 4.5 million, enough to warrant significant proportions of our attention. Significant parts of the world are facing similar changes and challenges.
Yet again according to the National Church Life Survey people with non- English speaking backgrounds are under-represented in Australian church life. People from non-English speaking countries comprise 12 percent of population, but represent only 8 percent of church attendees. It appears our best efforts to provide a spiritual home for these disparate people seems to lie down the road of creating exclusively ethnic churches. Efforts at assimilating them into our own Australian congregations do not seem to be working at this time.
This is just one issue among many. What will Christian ministry look like as we wake up to the fact that AIDS, suicide, homelessness, unemployment, and the search for meaning, to name just a few, are matters that refuse to go away? What’s more, other philosophies and ideologies are addressing these issues, leaving the poor old church in their wake! What will it mean as, more and more, denominations embrace interfaith dialogue?
What might Christian education look like as we continue to train our young people, and our not so young people in organizations like Campus Crusade and other organizations designed to deal specifically with the young? When might we learn that training such leaders is worthwhile not just as something to do, but because we believe a person must be equipped to minister effectively to those they encounter?
What will be the shape of theological education in the days to come? Will we continue to press on under the old overworked models, or will we be prepared to take risks, to begin to train people differently, more experientially. Will such training include areas pertaining more to what pastors and potential ministers actually need as they pastor, rather than to what some have always thought is needed? I have written elsewhere that theological education is at a crucial crossroad. It needs to be more than simply imparting and measuring knowledge. Theological education needs to prepare Christian leaders so that they become better equipped to face and cope with a plethora of needs and expectations such as those defined by the social changes in our congregations and societies.15
The future of Christian leadership
What will Christian leadership look like as, God willing, we eventually deliberately allow younger persons to contribute? Will we in the church catch up to what many in the secular and corporate world have known for years: that younger people have a major contribution to make to our organizations and institutions and that by keeping them on the fringes, we are all impoverished? Will we begin to change our structures to reflect how younger persons think, rather than forcing them to transform their structures into an existing mold?
Will ministers and pastors look the same, or will we break away from the well-worn standards? The average Australian pastor is probably not very different from pastors in many other countries. The average Australian pastor has the following thumbnail profile: He is 47. He may or may not have a theology degree.
There is about a 50 percent chance he feels called to the church in which he is ministering. He has been there for about four years. This means this is about his fourth church. It also means he will shortly move somewhere else.(16)
Management guru Peter Drucker says that every time an organization doubles in size, half of the leadership becomes obsolete. As we in churches around the world pray for church growth, do we ever stop and think about what the impact that our answered prayers might look and feel like? How drastically different might the church of the future be as God chooses to answer our prayers in the affirmative and how that might affect the future of Christian leadership? If these answered prayers created our redundancy would we still pray so fervently for church growth?
An exciting, hopeful future
It is my firm conviction that we avoid these questions and other related issues to our peril. Perhaps the question each of us must ask is: What must I do to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ? What am I actually prepared to do? What am I prepared to let go? What can I do even though I may never have done it this way before?
An exciting future lies ahead. Exciting yes, but also quite gray and cloudy. But as German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg reminds us: “As a result of Jesus’ coming, the Christian community is to be a people of hope. We live in hopeful expectation of the final consummation of God’s rule over the entire world . . . [therefore] the calling of the church is to remain in the world, for this is where the struggle for truth occurs.”(17)
People of hope. That is what we are and what we are called to be. Therefore, Pannenberg adds: “Human behavior is shaped as much by anticipation as by the weight of the past.”(18)
I began by asking two questions: Does Christianity have a future in the twenty-first century, and Does the Church have a future in the twenty-first century? Let me simply close with two words: Yes, Yes.
1. j. Dickie, “Christian” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Gen. Ed.) The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979), 657.
2 A.M. Renwick, The Story of the Church (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1958) 17.
3 Robert C. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. Co., 1986), chart #10.
4 Eugene H. Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress Pub. Group, 1994), 42.
5 Peter Kaldor et. al, Initial Impressions (Adelaide: Openbook Pub., 1997), 13ff
6 Ibid., 15.
7 Ibid., 13.
8 Peter Kaldor et. al, Views from the Pews (Adelaide: Openbook Pub., 1995), 34.
9 Robert Wuthnow, Christianity in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 10.
10 Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Congregation and Community (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 362.
11 Ibid., 362.
12 Peter Kaldor et. al., “Shaping a Future” (Adelaide: Openbook Pub., 1997).
13 David B. Barrett and James W. Reapsome, Seven Hundred Plans to Evangelize the World (Birmingham: Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1988).
14 Barrett and Reapsome, 79.
15 Bill Jackson, Sociology: A Must in Training Tomorrow’s Christian Leaders, “On Being 23”  August, 1996.
16 , Tliinking Rationally About the Church . . . and Relationships, “Pointers 9” (3), 1999. 11.
17 Ed. L. Miller and Stanley J. Grenz, Fortress ntroduction to Contemporary Theologies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 130.
18 John B. Cobb, Jr., “Pannenberg and Process Theology” in Carl Braaten and Philip Clayton (F,ds.) The Theology of Wolfhan Pannenberg (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1998), 67.
This article originally appeared in Ministry Magazine on March 2001.