What will the church of the future look like?
By John Turner
In the 1950’s and to some extent earlier, churches in the U.S.A. did rather well by locating on a well-traveled street in a developing neighborhood and inviting the local residents of their denominational persuasion to come join them. We will call that the traditional church era. By the mid-1960’s that traditional strategy was not working anymore. A new model was needed
No one was more influential in providing the new model than Donald McGavran (1897-1990). McGavran was born in the mission field in India and served there as a missionary himself for more than three decades. He found that it worked better not to remove new converts from their castes and cultures and then bring them to live within the foreign culture of a Western mission church, but instead to disciple converts within their castes and cultures for representing the gospel to their own groups, letting them build their own churches. McGavran trumpeted culturally indigenous evangelism as far more effective than the traditional approach to missions.
McGavran came back to the United States where he sought to share his methodology with the world, not just for foreign missions, but for church growth in general. In 1957 he established his own Institute of Church Growth in Eugene, Oregon, and in 1965 took it with him when he went to head the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. At the age when most were retiring, his time had come. From then and there, McGavran’s influence has emanated throughout the Christian world. He taught that churches grow best when they are culturally relevant, which usually means being culturally homogeneous. For the most evident fruit of this movement in the United States, we might look at middle class, suburban mega-churches such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback or Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek. We will call that the mega-church era.
George Barna was the leading church growth pollster of the 1980’s and 1990’s, helping churches identify what it meant to be culturally relevant in their niches. Barna now proclaims that the mega-church growth era is over, being replaced by what we could call the “churches without institutional walls era.” Churches without institutional walls are loosely organized gatherings of believers focused almost exclusively on spiritual growth and mission.
The new wall-less church movement still follows McGavran’s basic teaching that the most effective evangelizing involves discipling within the culture of the recipients. Don’t take a convert out of his or her social network, but help the new convert plant a new church right there among his friends and relatives. The new movement will not result in mega-churches, but in rapidly self-replicating small churches meeting in homes, offices, and neighborhood gathering spots. Of the many books that report this trend, the two I have read are Barna’s Revolution and Neil Cole’s Organic Church.
It is not that traditional churches and mega-churches will completely cease to exist. Some will remain strong. But writers such as Barna and Cole say that traditional churches and mega-churches will not be the growing edge. In terms of number trends, the church without institutional walls is on a roll and likely will be for a couple of decades until the next new trend comes along.
Many of us will agree that:
1.Spiritual growth and mission are the two most important dimensions of church life,
2.the busyness of church life distracts us from those priorities, and
3.the three main causes of distraction are financing and maintaining of church buildings, frivolous activities that are largely social and recreational in nature, and petty bickering about differences of taste and preference regarding program details (such as worship music).
Based on that agreement, we will naturally want to explore the concept of a lean, clean, focused fellowship for the twin purposes of spiritual growth and mission. Unfortunately, we soon begin to run into the shortcomings of such ventures, leading to these questions:
1.Without institutional structures, how will we recruit, educate, equip, coordinate, and support those who carry out mission, and how will we hold leaders of isolated, tiny congregations accountable to Christian faith and morality, and to effective work habits?
2.Without large congregations, how will we give small, homogeneous groups awareness and experience that they are part of a larger and more diverse body of Christ?
3.Without buildings and institutional identities, what will give the church a visible presence in the community?
4.As frivolous as social and recreational activities sometimes are, we still need them, especially for children and youth at one end of the spectrum and for seniors at the other end; in small congregations, where would such activities take place, and from where would the numbers needed to sustain them come?
5.At times, people need specialized gatherings for Christian support and enrichment in areas such as addiction recovery, parenting, marriage enrichment; what larger group would supply the pool of participants to make such gatherings work?
6.While some traditional churches and mega-churches will remain strong, how will we connect them to the wall-less churches, and what will we do with the resources of those that fade away
Those problems are real, but not insurmountable. The churches without institutional walls could be networked with a large center serving a number of theologically compatible wall-less churches within, say, a 30 mile radius. These centers would offer celebration, training, missions support, and larger fellowship events. At events in these centers, members of the small churches would be exposed to the richness of diversity in the body of Christ and receive the benefits of the kinds of resources now provided only by mega-churches. Perhaps some of these centers could be located in the abandoned facilities of faded traditional churches or mega-churches.
No matter what kind of church we personally choose to attend (traditional, mega-church, or without institutional walls), we need to do what we can to assure that the new model is as spiritually healthy and evangelistically fruitful as possible. In the meantime, it is not impossible that some of our mega-churches will continue to be worshiping/fellowshipping congregations and then double as centers for churches without institutional walls. Perhaps some of our traditional denominational structures can find a way to offer support for the wall-less churches too.
All this change is in itself nothing new. The church has had to adjust forms (or reform) repeatedly through the ages in order to be effective in its mission. In the midst of change, it is important that we remember why we do it, for the sake of reaching people for Jesus. It is also important that we know that Jesus and his gospel do not change with the forms. They are the same yesterday and today and forever.