Contributed by David Horita, PhD, Regional Director, Fellowship Pacific, Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada.
Over the past few years, the questions of the status of the church and its future has been asked and answered by almost everybody connected with the Church of Jesus Christ in Canada. It is also a question answered by all the big-name people in the big readership publications and the most listened to podcasts. If you haven’t already prognosticated on the subject then you probably don’t make the cut into the Show, the Big Leagues of Christian podcasting, journalism, and conference speaking.
Rereading many articles and relistening to far too many podcasts on the future of the church, I realized yet again that there is sufficient uncertainty in the present to preclude me from guessing the future. I reviewed survey results by Lifeway Research, Pew Research, Christianity Today, Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and others, only to recognize that I have little to add to their analysis. The entire topic coverage is summarized by the 2022 movie title “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Not the movie; just the title.
What is there to add to the subject matter? Perhaps only simplicity, spoken from the heart. I am not going to pretend to add to the body of knowledge or academic research or futurist prophesies. However, maybe readers can resonate with the heart of a fellow traveller struggling to reconcile feelings of sadness and hope.
What is the status of the church a few months into 2023? It is broken.
We don’t need a deep dive into the numbers to know that COVID-19 smashed church attendance. Likewise, we don’t require bar graphs to have seen people wandering to online Sunday morning services or simply dropping out because they found luxury in having Sunday morning suddenly unencumbered. We don’t need the gurus to explain it all to us because most of us can look in our own families, friendships, and churches. The cracks within the foundations of church life that formed over the past decades have become chasms too big for our loved ones to cross throughout the COVID-19 experience. The glass bubble of “church community” or being a “committed disciple” was shattered for many. Now they know that the church was not actually making a big difference, they didn’t have that many friends, and their discipleship was shallow. They know it because they didn’t care and didn’t miss it. And right now, many of the lost simply don’t want to be found. Yes, there are many churches beginning to welcome back almost as many people as they had pre-pandemic. But there are many more for which that is not true.
We have watched as churches divided over issues of vaccinations, masking, public gatherings, and ultimately the concept of religious freedom. While we all believe in these freedoms and value them, our individual definitions of what freedom looks like have become the line in the sand we dare others to cross. At both a deeply personal and at an organized church level, we have begun to militantly align our faith and politics in the mistaken belief that our fight for personal rights equates with a battle for our faith.
We have been crushed by report after report of both sexual and power abuse by far too many of our most esteemed evangelical leaders. Whereas once we inappropriately looked at Mainline or Roman Catholic groups with an air of superiority and arrogance, we have been forced into acknowledging the painful embarrassment of our own widespread sin and coverups. Even in the many churches where the scenario is less directly criminal, we cannot ignore the implementation of hierarchical power structures and results-only environments in which such power thrives. It is as if character and integrity are no longer a critical measure for the Christian leader.
It is not hard to imagine other things that could be written here. If we have been paying attention, then we are concerned. Why? Simply because it is hard to ignore that the church is broken. There is no avoiding the heaviness of heart that comes from this.
Thankfully, there is more to the story of the church than human frailty. What does the future of the church really look like? Despite our brokenness, let me suggest that it still looks inspiring.
A widely held recognition that the church is broken might be the best news we have had in a long time. The following are a couple of reasons why this might be true.
First, many of our present church issues are based in a non-critical adoption of current cultural perspectives on change and power. It is frequently instructive and enjoyable to read current writing on the topic of leadership, and most of us do so. I openly confess to this guilty pleasure as well as to believing we ought to continue to read widely. However, the problem has less to do with leadership teaching or writing and far more to do with accepting the power assumptions that form their foundations. More often than not, the bedrock of their approach has little to do with character and more to do with results. Tragically, we have obtained exactly the results we could have expected. The outcome of our non-critical acceptance of these approaches has been obvious to the entire world.
The church has always been called to be something else and to act in a different way from the culture surrounding us. Leadership in the church is to follow the way of Jesus. This means “having this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the very nature of God did not consider equality something to be grasped” (Phil. 2:4-5). Biblically, we have always been called to servant leadership and to the forsaking of power rather than to the pursuit or application of it.
This also means following in the footsteps of Jesus by rejecting a political solution to the hot-button issues of our society; instead, choosing a loving application of the gospel as our route forward. In seemingly increasing ways too many are adopting a freedom convoy approach to our call, inadvertently suggesting that the grace and truth demonstrated in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ are not enough. While there will always be a need for activists who unveil the hypocrisies and blatant disregard of God’s standard in society, the primary call to be salt and light will be modelled through the Beatitudes that are the front end of that same sermon of Jesus.
It is time for a reset in the church and in church leadership regarding our adoption of power perspectives. Throughout history, God regularly calls his people back to his values and foundations. For the good of the Kingdom and for his own glory, it feels as if he just did. It would be good if we were listening.
Second, a clear understanding that the church and the people of the church are broken is not something that should surprise us. This has been true since the fall. It should bother us far more when we begin to believe that we can exist apart from the plan of the Father, the sacrifice of Jesus, and the ongoing work of the Spirit. We are in trouble when we start to think that our church will succeed because of our church growth strategies, our missional communities, our excellent board structures, or whatever is currently trending. While we need to appreciate the value of being strategic in all these areas and more, we can never afford to forget that we are all broken people in need of Jesus.
Perhaps because of all of the issues that have been thrown in the face of the church in the past few years, it has felt like there has been an increase in talk about vulnerability, authenticity, community, discipleship, servant-leadership, and how these play out in a healthy church. The majority of church leaders have been forced back to the very basics of who they are in Jesus and how that forms the critical foundations that happen in church life. We know we cannot do it on our own and that left to ourselves, we will tend towards spiritual entropy. This is good news.
It releases a lot of stress to remember that the church does not belong to us and never did. The success of the mission of God through our churches has never depended upon us or even on our already-but-not-yet fully redeemed lives. Unless we have forfeited all belief in the sovereignty and power of God, then we know that God will ultimately win. We also know that God’s plan for redemption through his Son, expressed within his church, is not at risk. If it is, then we are in far bigger trouble than that caused by Covid conflicts and freedom controversies.
When we read John and his drawing upon the imagery of Isaiah and Ezekiel in Revelation 21 to illustrate his picture of the perfect and brilliant New Jerusalem where God’s people dwell, we need to remember that this soul-fulfilling reality has not changed. When Scripture tells us that there is no temple because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple, and there is no need for a sun or moon because the glory of God gives it light, we must let that spark of hope become something that legitimately inspires us. God will work his plan, and the mission of the church will be fulfilled.
To a degree that seems to vary from day to day, we live between the heaviness of brokenness and the joy of anticipation. The church is broken, and the church will accomplish its purpose.
Simplicity is still a gift for our lives. We are broken people living in a broken church, where our hope is found solely in Jesus. While we must learn to adjust our strategies to the new context in which we now live, it is far more important to recognize that at the essential level nothing has changed. We are still called to love God and to love people.