As the Body of Christ finds its way in our post-modern, post-Christian culture, I believe we will see major chances in the way the Church goes about its business. In addition to shifts in organizational structure and a reduced role of the ordained clergy, the churches that survive will be the ones that are innovative, transformative, and incarnational.
If the Church is to reach the growing post-Christian culture in ways that are relevant and effective, several things must be seen with clarity and focus. First, the primary question that must be answered is not, “How can we evangelize these people?” Instead, the relevant question must be, “How can I help you?” It is through this sort of proactive Christian service that the Church’s evangelistic witness can be best fostered. Secondly, the Church must reconsider how it can best present the truths of the faith in new wineskins that are more appropriate than the 19th Century model that is commonly used even today. We must re-introduce people to God, to Christ, to the Scriptures, and to the Church and this must be done in ways that are both practical and palatable, given the parameters of the environment in which the Church is now operating.
One salient and ubiquitous feature of 21st Century America centers on the increased interest in all things spiritual. Increasingly, people are seeking spiritual experience, not just dogma, doctrine, and didactics. Many Americans find themselves encountering the reality that something important is missing from their lives and they are quite active in their search for an answer. It is here that the Church has consistently fallen short of the mark.
Protestant Christianity in particular has long been suspicious, even paranoid, regarding spiritual disciplines and spiritual experience. As a result, the Church as we know it has been narrowly focused on belief and doctrine, ignoring the experiential, subjective side of an individual’s walk of faith. Discipleship programs have traditionally been focused on regimented Bible study and the central aspect of the overwhelming majority of Protestant worship services is the pastor’s sermon. Is it any wonder that many churches see dwindling numbers? The spiritual seeker of today finds the typical church service and discipleship program as unsatisfying and irrelevant. As a result, they turn elsewhere. Spiritual paths such as Buddhism, Yoga, Wicca, and many self-help programs are flourishing, primarily because they are more likely to address the needs of today’s spiritual seeker.
Connected with this lack of deep discipleship on the part of the Church is a general lack of transformative experience among the faithful. According to the majority of sociological and spiritual research done by Gallup, as well as George Barna, the typical believer is not significantly different than the non-believer in terms of worldview. Our pews are filled with sincere people who are, in the words of Thoreau, living lives of quiet desperation. This unfortunate reality accounts for the fact that a tour of any Christian book store will reveal a plethora of books with dust jackets that claim the book will, “change your life.”
Why do so many Christian experience such a desperate quality of life and seek something life-changing? Precisely because the Church has not provided a consistent means for spiritual growth and fulfillment. Let’s get real about this. A few praise songs, a couple of corporate prayers, a didactic Sunday School lesson, and a sermon just doesn’t cut it. If the Church is to thrive in the context of the current culture, it must be transformative. Few people speak as clearly and consistently on this issue as Dallas Willard:
“The overshadowing event of the past two centuries of Christian life has been the struggle between orthodoxy and modernism. In this struggle the primary issue has, as a matter of fact, not been discipleship to Christ and a transformation of soul that expresses itself in pervasive, routine obedience to his ‘all that I have commanded you.’ Instead, both sides of the controversy have focused almost entirely upon what is to be explicitly asserted or rejected as essential Christian doctrine. In the process of battles over views of Christ the Savior, Christ the teacher was lost on all sides…..Discipleship as an essential issue disappeared from the churches, and with it there also disappeared realistic plans and programs for the transformation of the inmost self into Christ-likeness. One could now be a Christian forever without actually changing in heart and life. Right profession, positive or negative, was all that was required. This has now produced generations of professing Christians who, as a whole, do not differ in character, but only in ritual, from their non-professing neighbors….”
Finally, the Body of Christ must develop innovative methods of giving flesh to its primary mission: incarnating Christ. The new Church must be mission-driven and willing to get its hands dirty. I believe the 21st Century churches that thrive will increasingly be those that arise out of the culture where a need exists. These types of congregations will be largely unconventional in terms of make up and methodology. Numerous examples already exist and can serve as models upon which new, innovative churches can be built. Congregations like “Mosaic” in Los Angeles, “Solomon’s Porch” in Minneapolis, and “The Rock” in Huntsville, Alabama are but three among many examples to build upon. These churches are thriving because they encounter the surrounding culture and grow within the context of that culture.
If the Body of Christ can incorporate progressive innovation, transformation, and incarnation into its calling and its mission, the consistent answer to the naysayers who are blowing Taps on Christianity will be a resounding, “No!”
The Church faces major challenges as it learns to live within a cultural context in which it finds itself increasingly marginalized. We can either put our heads in the sand and pretend the storm isn’t on the horizon, or, we can come up with creative new wineskins to fulfill our commission being salt and light in our world. Realistically, we can assume some churches will do well, while others will become flavorless seasoning and blown out light bulbs. Some will become, in the words of Paul, a pleasant aroma to the nostrils; while others, unfortunately, will stinketh.
How individual churches choose to respond to the realities of the situation will determine whether they will die, survive, or thrive.
Redefining the Church’s Mission
Assessing the purpose of the Church is a timely issue and one subject to much debate, not to mention wailing and gnashing of teeth. As the Christian Church moves forward into the 21st Century, in all quarters theologians, clergy, and laity are all involved in the task of defining the purpose of the Church in general and the role it will play in society in particular.
Nowhere is this discussion more relevant than in the traditional Mainline denominations. Often criticized for being theologically liberal and rigid in structure and function, these denominations have seen a drastic decline in numbers over the past three decades. If these churches are to survive well into the new century, it is obvious that significant change must occur.
I am of the belief that the Church will continue to undergo radical changes over the next decade and these changes will be driven by two primary forces. For most churches, the changes will be brought about by the desire to remain relevant to the post-modern culture in which it finds itself. The second force driving change, for other churches, is survival. Across America, even though some elements of the Christian faith are enjoying growth, others are on the verge of extinction. As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, this critical situation is seen especially in the Mainline denominations such as the United Church of Christ, several types of Presbyterian Churches, the United Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, and the American Baptist Church, just to name a few. Unless these denominations make radical alterations to their structure and focus, they may well go the way of the dinosaur.
An exhaustive treatment of the process of redefining the purpose of the Church is beyond the scope of this article. With that caveat, let’s explore a few principles upon which any new mission of the Church must be established.
Underlying all of our efforts as the Body of Christ is the notion of working along with God to establish the “Kingdom.” I can’t stress this notion of Kingdom enough and, if you take a close look at the gospels, neither could Christ. His first public statement was “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” After beginning this way, Christ repeatedly stressed that his mission was to inaugurate the Kingdom. As ongoing agents of incarnation, it is now our mission to pick up where Christ left off. This is the foundational mission of the church. Even the great commission is aimed at this and this only: Bringing God’s Kingdom to Earth.
The coming of the Kingdom is really the heart of the gospel. The forgiveness of sins and the work on the cross, although of central significance, is not the heart of the gospel. It is not that which brings life to the body. No, it is the coming of the Kingdom that constitutes the life of the gospel. Unfortunately, the church, especially since the reformation in general and Calvinist theology in particular, has primarily defined the gospel in terms of the remission of sins by the work of Christ. Again, I am not downplaying the importance of this. All I am saying is that it is not the core of the gospel. Jesus repeatedly stressed the coming of the Kingdom. The remission of sins is part of this, but it is far from the whole enchilada.
Part of our mission also involves reintroducing the world to Christ. I don’t mean to say that the world does not know who Christ is. What I am saying is that they don’t really know who Christ is nor have a grasp on just what he said his mission was. Further, I believe it is imperative that the Church begin this process of reintroducing Christ with its own membership.
The fact is, a great many professing Christians don’t have a clue who Christ was and still is.
For over 2,000 years the church, at times mistakenly and at times deliberately, has weakened the image of Christ and smoothed over the rough edges of his message. That way, a person could be a Christian, remain a Christian, and still be comfortable with the status quo. This has nothing to do with what Jesus was really all about. The fact is, Jesus was far more radical and revolutionary than we have been taught to believe. Listen to Bruxy Cavey as he describes what happened when he took the blinders off and got a glimpse of the real Jesus:
I entered a season in my life when I began to realize that the Jesus described in the Bible was far more attractive, exciting, and scandalous than the meek and mild Jesus many churches proclaimed. I was young and beginning to study the Bible for myself and, in the process, came to believe that I held a volatile document in my hands – one that had the potential to destroy all religion from the inside out…The writers of the Gospels – the four biblical books that record the life of Christ – us a fascinating Greek word to describe the effect that Jesus routinely had on his religious audience. They describe Jesus as a “scandalon,” meaning a stumbling block, an offense, a scandal. Their point seems to be that Jesus is a rock, but one you can trip over just as easily as build your life upon. Anyone who holds too tightly to his or her religious preconceptions will sooner or later become offended at Jesus. That is, of course, they do what countless Christians have done and tame the historical Jesus through years of conservative tradition.
As the new century progresses, an increasing number of Christians, especially those involved with what has come to be known as the “EmergentChurch,” are coming to see Jesus in a more radical light. Jesus, with his message of the kingdom, was a revolutionary in the real sense of the word.
A third foundation for redefining the Church is the need for a return to “disciple making.” In order to establish new, dynamic and transformative methods of discipleship training, I think it is important to begin with a workable definition of just what a “disciple” is.
From all evidence, it would seem the church at large has lost touch with a crucial element of its mission – disciple-making. Just prior to his ascension, Christ did not tell his inner circle to “go and make converts.” No, he told them to go and make disciples. It is obvious that constructing a workable definition of a disciple is a high priority. Margaret Campbell gives us a great jump-start:
A disciple of Jesus is a person who has decided to live in attentiveness to Jesus. We live in attentiveness in order to become like Jesus on the inside and, thereby, able to do what Jesus would do on the outside. As maturing disciples we progressively learn to live in attentiveness, adoration, surrender, obedience, and thankfulness to God, and all of this, without ceasing. Through the hidden work of transformation, God writes his good way on our minds and hearts and this is very good. By his grace, our hearts are divinely changed. We are progressively conformed to be like Jesus in mind and will and soul and word and deed. What we say and what we do more consistently reflect the glory and goodness of God.
If that isn’t clear enough, let’s listen to George Barna:
True discipleship is about a lifestyle, not simply about stored up Bible knowledge. Often, churches assume that if people are reading the Bible and attending a small group, then real discipleship is happening. Unfortunately, we found that’s often not the case. Discipleship is about being and reproducing zealots for Christ. Discipleship, in other words, is about passionately pursuing the lifestyle and mission of Jesus Christ.
From these two definitions it should be clear that real discipleship, the kind of Jesus-following that makes a difference in a person’s life and the life of others, involves more than wearing a “What would Jesus Do?” bracelet.
Without doubt, the new century presents both great challenges and vital opportunities for the Body of Christ. In some ways, these challenges and opportunities are highly unique, mostly because of the complexity of post-modern culture and the rapidity of social change in the contemporary world. Any new definition of the Church’s purpose and mission must take these factors into account. This reality means that the new wineskins that come to house the 21st Century Body of Christ must possess an inordinate flexibility and fluidity. What works this year may not work next year.
In closing, it is noticed that many people are asking the question, “Can the Church survive in these post-Christian times, even if it redefines itself, its mission, and its purpose?”
It can not only survive; it can thrive.
(C) L.D. Turner 2013/All Rights Reserved