Future Church:

Churches of Christ are declining!  That’s what I’ve been reading about in the blogosphere as of late.*  I tend to agree bur beyond the reasons for decline, I want to talk about the way forward…at least where it begins because I don’t believe in waiting around for the bells to finally toll.

As far as decline is concerned, the reasons are larger than any simple answer.  Part of the problem is that like many other Christian tribes, the Churches of Christ came of age among Christendom era where almost everyone understood the basics of Christianity and the Bible.  For Churches of Christ, who became very sectarian, evangelism was often nothing more than convincing others why we were the “right” church.

This became the tribal DNA but as things have changed, this has been found in wanting.  For instance, many Churches of Christ have shed their sectarian skins and therefore what motivated evangelism has lost power.  I suspect this has also created something of an identity crisis (if not the only right church, then what reason is there for existance?).  I also suspect that some congregations see the need for new wineskins but keep pouring new wine into old wineskins (cf. Mk 2:22).  Added to this is two other fairly new realities that has created much confusion.  First, there is the reality that North America is now a post-Christian world of religious pluralism where the religious question of society isn’t “which church” but “which god or gods.”  Added to that is the increasing number of “dechurched” people (those who at one time belonged to a church) who are never going to encounter our churches unless it is outside the confines our Sunday gathering

Of course, not every Church of Christ is in decline.  But for those that are, what should the response be?   Some churches will remain as they are, either denying the reality before them while spurning any change or hold out hope that members of another congregation might transfer (which only prolongs the inevitable).  Other congregations might see the situation as hopeless and, throwing in the towel, die a slow and sad death.  I, on the other hand, believe there’s another option that is future oriented…mission oriented.

Where Future Becomes the Present

With the increased number of people who either do not or no longer believe in and follow Jesus, I certainly believe the need for churches living on mission with God is clear.  But how?

I serve as a minister for the Columbia Church of Christ and we are a small congregation that has been in decline for some time.  We could pursue one of the options mentioned above but we’re not.  We believe God still has a place for us to serve in his mission as we follow Jesus and so we are trying to do just that — following Jesus into our world, beginning in a neighborhood.

For the last six months a few of us have been meeting every Sunday after worship to pray specifically for our church and how God is calling us into the future (prayer should always proceed and envelope mission).  The shepherds and I have also started journeying with Mission Alive as we seek church renewal.  In the meantime, my neighbor has been battling with breast cancer (she expects to be declared in remission this coming May).  Consequently, this has opened up some opportunities for our church to help her while she goes through this ordeal with her health.  However, come this May we plan to throw a BBQ and invite the entire townhouse complex to come and celebrate my neighbor’s new lease on life.  Not only is this a great way to celebrate with my neighbor but it is also a great way to begin subtly saying to the townhouse complex that the kingdom of God is here.

What might come of this?  That’s a good question and we won’t know the answer until it happens.  In some ways, this is an experiment.  We’re not throwing the BBQ with any other motives other than to live as kingdom people among our neighbors, loving them and sharing the beauty of life with them.  But we have to believe that as we follow Jesus into the neighborhoods, that there are those who are seeking God (even if they don’t have the language to express that desire) whom we can share the good news of Jesus Christ with.  That’s why we can believe that there is a future full of mission and therefore a future for our church as participants in the mission of God.

I am not so naïve to believe that this is it.  There will be other systemic changes that we will need to make in time as they are revealed.  But this is where we start, where the future church begins.  So if your church is in decline, I hope this post offers you hope as a way forward beyond decline and eventual death.  While every church has different circumstances, the future church always begins with a renewed commitment to following Jesus.

——————–

* If interested, check out James Nored, who has written a series of posts on this issue (read here, here, and here), and Sean Palmer, who recently wrote a guest blog post for Jason Locke’s blog about this issue (read here).

15 responses to “Future Church:

  1. Hi Rex,
    First of all…tribes….the Anglicans have their Branch Theory which is a sort of endorsement of the Tribes theory, and it may resonate with observation, but I do not think with Scripture. The Church is the Resurrection Body of Jesus and so cannot devolve into ‘tribes’ of mutually contradictory doctrine. As the Resurrection Body of Jesus on earth it will maintain doctrinal faith and unity till the end. So, a better word is schism; or rather, a schism within a schism, within a schism. Branches cut off from the vine do one thing, they wither. Some take longer than others.
    I would suggest the remedy is to come back to the Church.
    Second, discerning the times: we are in the period historically of the beginning of sorrows; we are in the time of end-time apostasy. And that ‘mission’ in times of apostasy is to ‘strengthen the things that remain’.

    • For better or worse, the “tribes” language is just a more polite metaphor for denomination. Schism assumes that there is some division and perhaps there is but I am not trying to perpetuate any division, rather I am just living where God has placed me.

      Also, I understand fully that any branch cut off from the vine withers but unless I am misunderstanding you, I understand your comment as implying that the Church (I presume you speak of the Eastern Orthodox Church) as the vine. My reply is that the vine has always been and will always be Jesus and not the church. Your implication that the Church is the vine to which Christians (outside of the Eastern Orthodox Church) must return to for there to be a remedy replaces Christ with the church as the mediator of the new covenant. That itself creates a major schism, does it not?

      Any ways, if I have misunderstood you then please forgive me.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

  2. Finally, the Church historically had a faith in the Church as the Body of Christ, as seen in the historic Creeds. “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church.” Failure to believe in the Church is a major evidence of the end-time falling away and may be the very breaking of the power of the Holy People, spoken of by the prophet Daniel. We need to cure the apostasy in our own hearts before we try to address the larger apostasy of a post-Christian world. Judgment begins at the House of God. Schism is something we take all to much for granted. Scripture has another view of it.

  3. Don’t you just love it when people respond to a post and immediately prove your point for you? When we become more concerned about a word in an illustration than we are about a congregation that is trying to renew Christ’ passion for lost souls something is indeed wrong. I suggest everyone that reads his post should pray fervently for this outreach effort in May. Pray that this congregation will embrace the community with the love of Christ, that the lady with cancer will in fact expereince a complete healing and that more and more people will come to know spiritual healing of salvation that only Jesus can provide.

  4. I really appreciate your post. It recognizes the issues facing Churches of Christ specifically, which is helpful for many of us. I also agree that the solution is a simple re-focus on Jesus, His Gospel, and His mission. Our Church is experiencing renewal in this way, and it’s encouraging to see God doing the same all around our country.

    • Thanks for stopping by the blog and commenting. It is likewise good to hear about other Churches of Christ who are seeking and experiencing renewal as well.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

  5. I appreciate the forward-thinking nature of your post, Rex. Good job! I’m with you. In my context, however, we have to first be willing to be honest that the past is no longer the present — nor the future — before we can start to talk meaningfully about what can happen. I hope you’ll tune into my blog series in April as we look at possibilities for missional renewal on the West Coast. I’m not a big fan of most suggestions I’ve seen so far from our tribe for renewing or growing our churches. Your contextual proposal is much more “organic” and points in the right direction, I think.

    • Jason,

      Thanks for visiting the blog and providing feedback. I am definitely interested in following your blog posts and here what you have to say. I certainly don’t have the final word on renewal. And even though I didn’t articulate this, I am fully with you about admitting that the past is neither the present or future. We must seek new wineskins rather than trying to redress the old wineskins.

      Any ways, your thoughts are especially important because of your location. Though Columbia, Maryland is not Fresno, California, they are both outside of the Bible-belt culture that our fellowship came of age in and continues to be shaped by.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

  6. I’ve read a handful of articles today stating the decline in churches and in particular the cofc. Hard to grow a church when you’re living in times of peace with the ruling order. Paradoxically, churches prosper & grow when oppressed. Lots of reasons why but the one reason I’ll mention is the dramatically different models churches work out of in peace and oppression. One is by choice and the later (oppression) is forced.

    The Christian community no longer finds itself living in a favored position with its host culture. At least not as it did a decade ago (and it will only get worse as time progresses). I’ve been giving this warning for years. Guess what! Oppression is coming. And an oppressed church won’t be operating out of the current attraction model we see today (peace time). When a spiritual community finds itself in total disfavor with it’s host community it will leave the cathedral for the cave. In oppression — the church will by nature become missional.

    • Fred,

      I think there’s a lot of truth to what you say. When existing among a culture that is friendly/welcoming to the church, it is too easy to become co-opted to the culture. And I do think the time is coming when Christianity in America will face persecution. However, I don’t think it is impossible for churches to grow if we are willing to learn how to missionally…that is, go out into our neighborhoods rather than trying to get the neighborhood to come to us.

      Any ways, thanks for stopping by the blog and leaving your comment.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

  7. I’ll be sure to pray for your congregation and its efforts to reach out to the community. I came to the conviction some time ago that there is a limit to the “I’m right, you’re wrong” approach to evangelism and that there must be some way to engage the world in the name of Christ. (I didn’t know at the time this had a name- “missional”) It has been an uphill battle ever since and I’m just now beginning to see some fruit in my congregation as we are beginning to serve outside of our walls more and more. It goes with the classic line: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

  8. I’m always interested in learning how others are trying bring the kingdom to others so I appreciated reading about your church’s efforts. It sure took us long enough to figure out that door knocking and handing out tracts with the five steps to salvation wasn’t really working!

    I don’t know exactly what form evangelism will take going forward, but the best advice I received was that evangelism is about challenging people’s assumptions. Be someone who shows up consistently and cares. Don’t beat them down with Bible verses and add millstones to their necks. Simply put – shut up and listen. Easier said than done, but I’m hopeful. I think my generation (mid 20s/30s) has seen how bad things can get when you refuse to listen and bury your head in the sand and we don’t want history to repeat itself!

  9. Thanks for the article Rex.

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