The Shape of Church to Come
I have little doubt that within 50 years the “church experience” many hold so dear and dogmatically will be completely different. It must or the future looks rather bleak for this institution we call the “Church.” But if there’s one thing I know: God won’t let His Church die on the vine, so maybe it’s time the vine (a.k.a., Christians) started to re-imagine the Church yet to emerge. My friend Thom Schultz is also writing on this topic and worth a read.
As web and wireless communication continue to reinvent how we connect, the Church itself will need to also RE-FORM (just like it did in the REFORMATION 500 years ago) to stay relevant with postmodern culture. Emerging churches have tried new wineskins, some with success and others with failure. But let’s give them some credit: at least they tried. Too many churches, particularly smaller ones and lots of very large ones, are just hiding their heads in the sand figuring this “postmodern” season will soon pass (it won’t), hunkering and bunkering to tradition and what worked in the 80s and 90s (or 50s, 60s and 70s), or simply riding what’s left of their growth wave (as it slowly loses momentum).
The shape of the church to come? Smaller and bigger, faster and slower, future-fitted and historically-rooted. The modern “either/or” church will have to reinvent “both/and” or face obsolescence and eventual obscurity.
Hence, my fearless predictions:
First, churches will become smaller (homes) and larger (massive networks) all wired for interaction, experience and image-rooted communication around worship, discipleship and service. Churches will become even more “edgy” in reaching particular fringe groups. The “one size fits all” mainline/middle of the road church will slowly fade. Home fellowships will continue to find favor and don’t be surprised if the new “multi-site” is homes not buildings. Smaller, more focused worship to tight communities with a live, brief message (10-12 minutes) from a central teaching pastor, followed by spiritual conversation and conversions within that niche. Modern churches scratched itches. Postmodern communities scratch niches.
Preaching and teaching, like all postmodern communication will also reinvent. The sage from the stage is a T-Rex as postmodern culture prefers coaches, mentors, facilitators and guides from the side. Sermons will consequently become shorter, deeper, with less application (leaving that to conversations to follow). The Bible is a book (technology). The emerging Church, incorporating digital formats, will certainly reform around more ancient and accurate terms like “Scriptures” and the “Word of God.”
Worship will be more interactive and experiential rather than performance-based. Can you imagine a day when everyone will bring a song, a sermon or a special insight to the worship experience? Again, home-based focused worship experiences with an interactive, time-intensive Lord’s Supper incorporated will no doubt emerge. Worship will be timeless, with scheduled starts but no particular end. The Spirit will lead, not a song leader. Don’t be surprised if someone falls to sleep in church…not at 10:30 a.m. but 10:30 p.m. Churches and their worship experiences will meet 24/7/365.
The church building may even be a dinosaur. The reason? No need. Plus, rising U.S. government pressure to tax church facilities and property will force churches to rethink how and where they meet. The megachurch will face grim days as monstrous buildings have little value, except to schools (who will be in the same pickle due to online learning). The worship area in many churches is a concert or lecture hall and largely useless for authentic connection and community (especially with sloped, theater floors, pews and chairs bolted to the floor). The most important immediate space for churches will be their atriums (the new fellowship hall). The hottest commodity remains the small old-fashioned church buildings (not rural) that can be quickly renovated into community centers, coffee shops, meeting spaces and neighborhood connection points. Still spiritual. Still Christ-centered. Need an example? Check out Rembrandts in Eagle, ID!
The Church of the future will help people unplug, retreat, sabbath and rest. They will focus on congregational health not just growth. Sanctuaries will be just that: safe places to rediscover Purpose. Pastors will no longer be sequestered in offices or on stages. Preaching will evolve from “I told you” to “we told us.” Elderships will re-emerge as essential guides and guards to doctrine, vision and values. Leaders will lead from the edge and bottom, not the middle and top.
How do I know this will happen? Easy. The cultural signs are all around. Wider culture, immersed in a wireless, web economy, is reforming around interactivity, experiences and images. Starbucks figured it out. So did movements from the Tea Party to Occupy. Facebook operates like church community should: fast and fluid, invitations to friend/de-friend, transparent conversation. Wikipedia operates like church communication/education should: open-sourced, anyone can contribute, links to research, flags for questionable content. Craigslist operates like church mission should: open-sourced, services listed, intentional targets.
It many ways the 21st century Church will resemble the first-century Church: fluid, fast, fascinating! We just still have growing pains to endure before we enjoy it. The 21st century church will be rounded, not squared; 3D not 1D; participatory and personal not programmed; organic not organized; a Body not a building.
The shape of this coming Church will revive current (and then aging) postmodern generations to reconsider Christianity. Until now, at best, they’ve experienced only modern churchianity: boxes, buildings and boredom.
And they’re leaving in droves.
Like any birth, the process will be messy, painful and emotional. But JOY will come in the mourning. And the Church of tomorrow will look and act nothing like the Church of today. We’ve seen that one before, too. It happened in the first-century (as the Church emerged out of Judaism). It happened in the fourth century (as the Church emerged out of political and social oppression). It happened in the sixteenth century (as the Church emerged out of Roman Catholicism). Each of these were driven by technological or cultural innovations (from Roman roads to printing presses) that changed all the rules.
And it’s happening again. The old guard may not like it, want it or embrace it, but its happening again. Ignoring it won’t work. Casting stones at the prophets won’t stop it. Building a bunker won’t stall it.
A new Church is emerging and will continue to emerge.
And that’s a beautiful thing!