Have you ever stopped to imagine what the Church could look like in the future? I was asked this question a while ago and I soon realised it is not a question to simply answer, but rather a journey that we need to embark upon. Personally, I feel that if we don’t start this journey of discovery and honest reflection, the church will struggle in the wilderness of the future. We need to become like the Israelites who were willing to make the journey to the Promised Land, not because they knew what it looked like, but rather because they knew they wouldn’t survive in Egypt much longer.
We as the Church have drifted off course
On some level, Church leaders have been wrestling with this topic long before Covid-19 uprooted our planet. It is just that the pandemic has forced us to push pause on our weekly programmes and activities long enough to ask the Big Question: “Is this what Jesus was thinking when he spoke about his body, the Bride, the Church?”
Sadly, I think we have drifted off course.
In his recent book, Letters to the Church, Francis Chan reflects on his own journey of disillusionment with the Church and his struggle to find a new way of being the body of Christ. Seen as a “successful” church leader, Chan felt a growing dis-ease with the way he felt the church (and he does mean his local church) had slipped into a space that no longer matched what he read in the Scriptures. He writes of his own experience:
“We’ve strayed so far from what God calls Church. We all know it. We know that what we’re experiencing is radically different from the Church in Scripture.”Francis Chan
Author, Leonard Sweet has also been grappling for years with the image of what the Church has become, compared with the Church that Jesus called us to be. There is a huge disconnect between the two and unless we recognise this as a fact, we may be in grave danger of becoming a respectable, but ineffective institution. Sweet takes us back to the modus operandi of Jesus who “stood in the midst of the world and invited his disciples to join him there,” instead of hoping that people would stumble through our half-open doors.
The unexpected gift within the Covid-19 pandemic
The world in which we find ourselves is changing faster than we can keep up and although we may have embraced a modern façade, we still seem to be decades behind the global changes that are pushing upon us. And for this reason, I believe that the Covid-19 pandemic has gifted us with an opportunity to sift through the red tape and truly re-imagine Church. Writing on the unrest of his time in the 1970’s Hans Kung said:
“It is a healthy … unrest and it should give us cause for hope, not anxiety. What looks like a serious crisis may mark the moment of new life; what looks like a sinister threat may in reality be a great opportunity.”
I couldn’t agree more!
The ABC of Church
Before I begin to offer an opinion on what I think the church could look like in the future, I need to share one more observation. Up until early 2020, many established churches fell into the trap of thinking that we were “successful” based on three criteria, which have become known as the ABCs of Church:
- Attendance. How many people do you have in your church? (On your membership role?)
- Buildings. How many buildings do you have or what facilities do you use?
- Cash. What resources do you have? Are you financially sound?
Whether we referred to them as the ABC’s or not, thousands of Pastors have been drawn into this way of thinking and feeling judged on these criteria. If we are going to truthfully re-imagine Church, we will have to start pushing these three items way down the agendas of our gatherings. If you don’t believe me, then just measure Jesus’ ministry on the ABC scale and see what score he would have received? He would have scored low on all three of these criteria.
Smaller, rather than bigger
My gut response to the question on Re-Imaging Church is this:
“Our focus in the Christian community will need to be smaller rather than bigger.”
Let me explain what I mean.
Perhaps the truest definition of ‘church’ comes from the Greek word ‘ecclesia’, which means ‘the called-out ones’ or ‘an assembly.’ This is how the Church began, as a small group of people, called out of the world, to follow Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. We also didn’t meet in any official Church buildings or Cathedrals for nearly 250 years, yet we managed to do the work of God and follow Jesus without gathering in massive spaces or being the dominant faith.
Christians were always the minority and the persecuted, yet the Church grew exponentially. We had little cash, no buildings and smaller gatherings of people, although, over time, there were more and more of these meetings. The Christian experience was like this until Constantine brought about some majors shifts in the world and in the Church (325 AD). This is when it seems that our focus began to shift.
Back to our roots
For these reasons I believe that part of Re-imagining Church is going to call us back to our roots where the gatherings of the Christians were smaller in number. We make the mistake of placing a modern paradigm on the type of churches that existed in the early church. We think of the size of our churches (which may be hundreds or thousands of people strong) and we imagine that this is what it was like. It was definitely not!
Even when the church exploded in Acts 2 and thousands were added to the numbers of the Faith, the disciples didn’t find a vacant plot of land and put up a 5000-seater auditorium, did they? Of course not. The new Christians went to their villages and homes, taking the message of the Gospel with them and began to worship where they could. The gatherings were small in comparison with our modern worship services, but they multiplied as each believer was filled with the power of the Spirit.
As we grapple with this topic, we will need a little more time and word space to deal with this effectively. While we wait for ‘Part 2’ to come out next month, can I encourage you to do your own thinking on this topic and share your thoughts with me.
Let us Reimagine Church together.