What will the church look like in 50 years?
We all know that something is afoot and have seen the decline in membership in many churches. Many know people that have never, and never plan, to go to a church. The political and social influence upon society that churches once had is diminishing. Everyone is talking about the fact that the Western world is more interested in spirituality, yet there does not seem to be an interest in pursuing this spirituality within the Western church.
Then there are the categories. We love to label churches (we even label our own). That church is an institutional church; this one is a seeker church; that is an emergent church; we are an engaging church. (I go to a church called rechurch; go figure.) What do these labels have to do with Church?
By now you may have noticed that as I am writing this I sometimes capitalize “church” and sometimes I do not. This is not random. “Church” refers to the believers (people), globally and locally, that are in Christ. Ephesians calls this understanding the “body of Christ,” with Christ as the head – or ruler (Ephesians 4: 15-16). The word, church, with a small “c” refers to the organizational system under which local groups of people are organized.
One of the mistakes that we all make is to assume that church is Church—that our traditions, the way that we practice worship, the way that we organize structurally, even the way our service is ordered, is what it means to be the people of God. Western Christianity is particularly guilty of this as evidenced by the number of churches in non-Western lands that organize as if they were Western.
Now, there is nothing wrong with organizational structure. The structure of an organization is the total sum of the ways in which it divides labor into tasks; coordination occurs so that the organization meets its purpose. Yet what we learn as we read the scriptures regarding Church is that Christ is the ruler and model, relationship is the point, and mission is the purpose. (I could go on about all of these but I won’t.)
When we say that mission is the purpose of the Church, we shift the purpose of Church from building an institution to witness that draws together proclamation, community and service. The modern church, following its Christendom heritage, has mostly understood Church as church and because of this has held the understanding that the purpose is to be an institution guarding a “truth system” gospel. Indeed, the Hellenist understanding of orthodoxy was to hold right beliefs as opposed to the Hebraic understanding of orthodoxy as believing in the right way or, another way to put this, a way of being in the world as the people of God.
So if Church means people of God in the world, and church refers to the way we organize ourselves to fulfill our purpose in the world (mission), then what will the Church look like in 50 years? It will look just like it does in the present. The people of God are only the people of God as far as we focus on the present and our purpose, which is a present purpose. For the Church is in the world to live a ministry of witness and reconciliation through the Spirit of Christ, and if the Church is not fulfilling this purpose, then it is not the body of Christ (John 15:5-7).
What then will church (organizational system) look like in 50 years? Who knows? I suspect that there could be as many structures as there are contexts. Many structures enable the fulfillment of the Church’s purpose as long as we stay focused on the right purpose.
And the minute we think we have it right just might be the minute we need to scrap it all and begin discerning again.
Matthew Norman works for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as missiologist and personnel selection manager for global missions.