With declining church attendance, all mainline denominations worry about the future of the church. As Jesus speaks to the church in Philadelphia, he offers words of hope for their future. “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” That is like the position facing the church of the 21st century – an open door, but with great challenges.
There are seven cultural challenges that every church faces: secularism, pluralism, nominalism, materialism, post-modernism, criticism, and atheism.
Our world is changing. The ongoing downturn in church attendance this millennium is partially related to external cultural changes and the challenges we face today. Largely unaware of these changes, many churches continue to operate in modes and mentalities that no longer resonate with our culture.
With the exception of nominalism, which means that Christians don’t walk like we talk, the remaining 6 cultural challenges are all external to the church. These forces and challenges lie outside our control.
We cannot stop the rising tide of secularism as a greater percentage of our population concludes that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is not necessary for a full and happy life.
We see our communities change and the vast multicultural tsunami sweeping the globe. Millions bringing new cultures have migrated to our shores bringing with them faith traditions of Africans, Asians, Hispanics, and Middle Easterners – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and other non-Christian traditions.
We are, and have been participants in the mentality of a growth economy, relying on consumerism to fuel our economic engines. As a result, we find ourselves – Christians and non-Christians alike – suffering through the inevitable consequences of the meltdown of materialism, one that has also affected our churches.
Post-modernism has brought with it the loss of confidence in the stories that previously sustained our nation and churches. This is evidenced by falling church attendance and the questioning of any claims to absolute truth. The internet has levelled the playing field between truth and false information, or truth and personal opinion by creating space for all ideas, regardless of their credibility.
We see the church and Christianity attacked boldly without hesitation by movements like the new atheism, or simply by individuals for whom church is not a necessary part of their lives.
We are facing unique challenges. Will the church survive? Will Christianity disappear? Will our grandchildren and great-grandchildren find the same faith we did, or will church buildings become museums and art galleries as many have in Europe?
One thing we need to remember is that the Church of Jesus Christ has always faced challenges. Shortly after Pentecost, the apostles were challenged, persecuted, and imprisoned. As the church grew, new challenges emerged with each succeeding year.
Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence) writes that the church goes through a major transformation every half-millennium. “Every 500 years or so, the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.” (Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer) At least three other of these theological rummage sales preceded the current one.
In the first 500 years, the monastic movement took hold. The Desert Fathers and Mothers, predecessors to the later monastic movement, fled the corruption of the church in the cities to live ascetic lives devoted to God. The Church of that time faced both external and internal challenges. External persecutions came from a hostile regime, until Constantine. Then internal pressure came from the church’s shifting partnership with the state after Constantine. Those who fled, fled the corruption of the church herself. During the Dark Ages, the monasteries became the keepers of the flame, the repositories of faith and practice in a world that seemed to be losing its way.
The second great event came about 500 years later. The Great Schism – the separation of the Eastern Church from the Western Church – divided a previously united, if fractious, Church into its two predominant cultures. The Eastern or Orthodox church went its way with its icons and liturgy, while the Western church became consolidated in Rome.
The third great transformation was the Great Reformation of 1517, an event that sparked the split. Challenging both the theology and corruption of the church, Luther sparked a firestorm of religious fervor that brought new thinking and new theology to the western world.
We in the 21st century are experiencing another one of those “great” moments in the church – what Tickle calls the Great Emergence – the fourth ecclesiastical rummage sale. The church has always faced challenges – both external and internal. But, as the church has come through those challenges, she has been changed dramatically. New groups, new liturgies, new theologies, new mission, and new believers came out of each of these great transformations. Unfortunately, not all the tactics were peaceful. Many died defending their version of the faith rather than the faith itself.
What does that mean for us today facing annual declines in church attendance? Methods of the past are no longer working. To understand the church of the future, we need to look at the world of the future. By 2050, the world population will reach 10 billion from the current 7 billion. 90% of the population growth will take place in less developed countries. By 2020 there may be no majority race. The church of the future will be multi-cultural and multi-ethnic.
The shift from rural to urban will also increase. Today, half of us live in small towns or rural settings, and half in large urban centres. By 2050, 90% will be living in densely populated urban areas. The world as we know it is changing rapidly.
The rising generation, the Millennials, (young people born after 1980) will change our world. As a generation they are larger than the Baby Boomers and are already upstaging and displacing Boomers in number and influence. They are optimistic and eager to make this world a better place. They volunteer to build Habitat houses, to take on various jobs in developing countries. They work well in groups, are open to all ethnicities, and are generally accepting of others. They are builders and world-changers. Just look at Deborah and the Olive Branch. They have never known life without a TV, computer, car, or cellphone. They are technology natives, ready to harness the power of the internet to do good and connect with friends. And they are staying away from the traditional church in droves. Their criticisms of the traditional church sting, but they need to be heard. They are not interested in issues that have driven our churches in the past. They see the culture wars of the 1980s as a remnant of a dying movement.
The church has to change. And it will change because there are increasing voices calling for the church on earth to reflect the diversity of the church in heaven – with people from every tribe, tongue and nation, social status and condition. We are not immune to the challenges of our culture. We must change. The question we need to ask is not, “Who is here?,” but rather, “Who is not here?” The answer to that question will reflect the changes in our culture for we are not reaching those of other ethnicities, the young, the poor, the outcasts, and those not like us.
We need to open our eyes to those around us. We need to be open to and ready to pursue new ministries – ministries to the physically and mentally challenged, ministries to new ethnic groups. When you’re working with God, nothing’s impossible.
Nothing is impossible for those who are faithful to Christ. In the face of overwhelming challenges, there was one church, the church in the original Philadelphia. Jesus told them, “I have placed before you and open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” We can also be that church of brotherly love, the church of the open door. For it is Christ himself who has opened that door. A door to the masses on earth today and the increasing populations in the years to come. It is a door or opportunity that Christ alone can open, and no one else can close.
Our future is not restricted by the changes in the world around us. Our future is bound up with the purposes of God. Our future is God’s future. The door is open, the world is waiting, the Gospel still is good news. We must walk through the open door, change our methods but not our message, and present the unchanging good new to and every-changing world. Our prayer is that we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to this church.