I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow, August 16, 2009. The Future of Our Faith concludes this 8-part series titled, Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces. The preceding seven sermons are:
Here’s the concluding message. I hope you have a wonderful Lord’s Day tomorrow.
Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces: The Future of Our Faith
7“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
Reviewing the Seven Cultural Challenges
The passage we have just read was penned during a time of extreme challenge to the church of Jesus Christ. The emperor Domitian persecuted the church more fiercely and relentlessly that previous Roman emperors. Yet John’s words to the seven churches of Revelation chapters 2 and 3, contain words of encouragement. Some contain words of rebuke, but as Jesus speaks to the church in Philadelphia, he offers words of hope for their future —
“See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” That is very much the position that the church of the 21st century faces — an open door, but with great challenges.
Over the past weeks, we have examined Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.
- When we discussed secularism, we asked the question, Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?
- On the Sunday we looked at pluralism, we asked, Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?
- Thinking about nominalism, we did some self-reflection around the question, Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?
- Looking at our consumeristic lifestyle and materialism, we wondered, Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?
- Taking a cue from pop culture and post-modernism, we wrestled with Why Is Truth No Longer True?
- We wondered Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore? when we thought about criticism of the church and Christianity.
- And finally, we talked about atheism, and asked the question, Why Don’t They Believe in God?
All seven of these cultural challenges are converging in unique ways, especially in regard to the community of faith we call the church. David T. Olson in his book, The American Church in Crisis, states —
“In America our world is also changing. The ongoing downturn in church attendance this millenium is partially related to external cultural changes. Christian ministry faces more challenges today than it did 20 years ago….Largely unaware of these changes, many churches continue to operate in modes and mentalities that no longer resonate with our culture.” Olson, p. 161.
With the exception of nominalism, which means that Christians don’t walk like we talk, the remaining six cultural challenges are all external to the church. In other words, these are forces and challenges that lie outside our control.
— We cannot stop the rising tide of secularism as a greater percentage of our population concludes that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is not necessary for a full and happy life.
— We are witness to our changing communities and the vast multicultural tsunami that is sweeping over America and the globe. With easy access to international transportation, millions of new cultures have migrated to our shores, just as our forefathers brought the cultures of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Europe to American soil in the 18th and 19th centuries. With that multicultural flood also have come the faith traditions of Africans, Asians, Hispanics, and Middle Easterners — Buddhism, shamanism, Islam, and other non-Christian traditions.
— We are, and have been, participants in the mentality of a growth economy, relying on consumerism to fuel the economic engines of our nation, cities and states. As a result, we find ourselves — Christians and non-Christians alike — suffering through the inevitable consequences of of the meltdown of materialism. Churches and denominations have reduced budgets, laid off workers, downsized programs, and sold property in order to survive the economic downturn.
— While post-modernism defies a common description, the loss of confidence in the stories that to this point had sustained our nation and churches is being felt in lower church attendance, and the questioning of any claims to absolute truth. The internet, for all its good, has also leveled the playing field between truth and falsehood, or truth and personal opinion, by creating space for all ideas, regardless of their credibility.
— And finally, we are seeing the church and Christianity attacked boldly and without hestitation by movements like the new atheism, or simply by individuals for whom church is not a necessary part of their lives.
The doom-and-gloom recital of decline and demise could go on for the rest of this sermon, but I think you get the picture. We are facing some unique challenges. The question is — what about the future of our faith? Will the church survive? Will Christianity disappear? Will our grandchildren and great grandchildren find the same faith we did, or will church buildings become museums and art galleries as many have in Europe?
The Church Has Always Faced Challenges
Before we despair too much about the current set of challenges we face, we need to remind ourselves that the Church of Jesus Christ has always faced challenges.
At her birth on the Day of Pentecost, 3,000 may have been saved, but immediately the apostles were challenged, persecuted, and imprisoned. As the church grew, new challenges emerged with each succeeding year.
At first the Roman empire believed that Christianity was merely a branch of Judaism. As much as possible, the Roman empire allowed its conquered states to keep their traditional religions, as long as they posed no threat to the Pax Romana, and the goals of the empire.
But as Christianity grew in numbers, and Jews like Saul of Tarsus began persecuting Christians, the empire itself began to see the Christian church as a threat. And even though the story of Saul who became Paul, turned out to be one of the great stories of the church, the empire increased its scrutiny of those who were called “christiani” or the little Christs.
By Nero’s reign, Christians were being made the scapegoats for everything wrong in the empire, much as Jews were vilified in Nazi Germany. Persecution rose to such a crescendo by the reign of Domitian (81 AD to 96 AD), that John the Revelator was given the vision that became the Book of Revelation. John’s message was one of encouragement in the midst of persecution to Christians facing martyrdom in the first century.
Persecution continued however, until the reign of Constantine who in 313 AD issued the Edict of Milan, which returned the property of Christians back to them. In essence, Constantine’s decree legitimized Christianity and brought the Church into a partnership with the state.
In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle writes that the church goes through a major transformation every half-millennia. She quotes Anglican bishop, Mark Dyer, who quips that every 500 years or so, “the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.” We’re in one of those times, according to Tickle. And at least three other of these theological rummage sales preceded this one.
In the first 500 years of the church, the monastic movement took hold. The Desert Fathers and Mothers, predecessors to the later monastic movement, fled the corruption of the church in the cities in order to live ascetic lives devoted to God. The challenges the church faced then were both external and internal. External persecution came from a hostile regime, until Constantine; but then internal pressure came from the church’s shifting partnership with the state after Constantine. Those who fled to the desert also fled the corruption of the church herself. Clergy under Constantine had become extensions of the empire’s bureaucracy. Clerical appointments became political favors often handed out to completely unqualified and unsavory churchmen.
Gregory the Great took the monastic tradition to a new level, and sheltered the great traditons of the faith — theology, liturgy, daily prayers, personal devotion — during a time when the Roman empire was collapsing and the Dark Ages were upon Europe. Monasteries became the keepers of the flame, the repositories of faith and practice in a world that seemed to be losing its way.
The second great event came about 500 years later. The Great Schism — the separation of the Eastern Church from the Western Church — divided a previously united, if fractious, Church into its two predominant cultures. The Eastern or Orthodox church went its way with its icons and liturgy, while the Western church became consolidated in Rome.
The third great transformation was the Great Reformation of 1517. We know the event that sparked the split. A Catholic priest named Martin Luther posed his 95 theses — topics meant for discussion — on the front door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. Challenging both the theology and the corruption of the church, Luther sparked a firestorm of religious fervor that brought new thinking and new theology to the western world.
Tickle believes we in the 21st century are experiencing another one of those “great” moments in the church, which she calls the Great Emergence. Personally, I don’t think Tickle fully captures what is happening in the global church, but she at least gets credit for naming this fourth ecclesiastical rummage sale.
My point in all of this is that the church has always faced challenges — some external, some internal. But, as the church has come through those challenges, she has been changed dramatically.
New groups, new liturgies, new theologies, new mission, and new believers came out of each of these great transformations. Unfortunately, not all the tactics were peaceful, not all the arguments civil, and many died defending their version of the faith rather than the faith itself.
What Does The Church of The Future Look Like?
But, even though the church has faced and survived challenges in the past, what does that mean for us today? With annual declines in church attendance, one wonders. Examples are not hard to come by. The Episcopal Church had set a goal of increasing attendance by 20% by 2020; instead, their attendance has declined by 7%. Southern Baptists have little room to brag either. Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, has pointed out that the SBC has been in decline for the past 50 years, and the indicators for the future do not bode well for us either.
Lyle Schaller, renown church consultant, published his book, The Ice Cube is Melting, as a wakeup call to his own United Methodist denomination. The Presbyterian Church USA launched a major effort to include more minorities in its congregations, only to discover that after an immense effort, their denomination still remained 97% white.
Churches of all flavors are facing tremendous challenges, and the methods of the past are no longer working. In light of that, what does the church of the future look like?
First, to understand the church of the future, you have to look at the world of the world of the future. According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2009 report, the world population will hit 7-billion by 2011. The climb from 6-billion to 7-billion took only 12 years, and according to the same report, by 2050 the world’s population will stand at 10-billion. That’s almost a 50% increase in people on this planet from where we are today.
Secondly, 90% of world population growth in the 20th century took place in less-developed countries. In the 21st century, virtually all of the world’s population growth will take place in less-developed countries. Africa and Asia will lead the way. India will emerge by 2050 as the most populous country in the world with almost 2-billion inhabitants. China will be second with 1.4-billion.
The US will rank third with 439-million by 2050, up from our present population of 307-million, another almost 50% growth. But, in the US, most of the population growth will come from newcomers to our country, primarily those of Hispanic descent.
You might be thinking, “Well, I’ll be dead by 2050, so it won’t affect me.”
Well, you might be right, but most of the shift in demographics will occur within the next 20-years. By 2020, whites will no longer be the majority race in the US, and in fact, there may be no majority race.
But, even if you think 2020 is a long way off, we’re already seeing significant signs of demographic shifts in our country, and in our region as well.
An example is the church I pastored in Stone Mountain, Georgia from 1980-1984. I was called to Pine Lake Baptist Church when I graduated from seminary. At that time the community was a suburb in the greater Atlanta area. Middle to uppper-middle class subdivisions dotted the landscape, and our members reflected the white, middle class world of suburban Atlanta in the 1980s.
The year I came to Chatham, 2004, Pine Lake invited me to come back to preach their annual homecoming service. We walked into a much different church than the one we left.
The platform had been reworked, and the organ replaced with a place for their new 4-piece band. A couple of guitars, a drum set, and a keyboard stood to one side of the platform. The choir director was from Jamaica, and the song selection was upbeat and happy. The choir was made up mostly of west Africans, Jamaicans, and some long-term white members of the church. Black and white deacons served together. A Laotian church meets there each Sunday, conducting their worship in their native language. The community around the church has changed from white suburban, to urban and ethnic. Many are students at Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory University, or one of the other colleges and universities in the Atlanta area. The church had lots of kids, young people and families. It truly was an amazing experience, reflecting the trends that are changing the ways we live our lives, including the way we worship.
So, first the church of the future is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. Sunday morning will no longer be the most segregated hour of the week in our communities.
But, wait, that’s not all, as the TV commercial says.
The rising generation, called Millennials, will change our own country in ways we are just now beginning to see. Millennials are young people born after 1980 or so. As a generation, they are larger than my generation, the Baby Boomers. We thought we would dominate society until we passed off the scene, but the Millennials are already upstaging and displacing Boomers in number and influence.
The good news is that Millennials are optimistic, and eager to make this world a better place. They volunteer to help in soup kitchens, to build Habitat houses, to become Big Brothers or Big Sisters. They work well in groups, are open to all ethnicities, and are generally accepting of others.
Millennials have been compared to the World War II generation, which Tom Brokaw labeled The Greatest Generation. They are builders and world-changers, just like the World War II GIs. They never have known life without a TV, a computer, a car, or a cellphone. They are technology natives, ready to harness the power of the internet to do good and connect with friends.
And, they are staying away from the traditional church in droves. Their criticisms of the traditional church sting, but must be heard. They are also not interested in the issues that have driven evangelicals in the past 30 years. Millennials see the culture wars of the 1980s as a remnant of a dying movement.
In addition to the world population, and the Millennial generation, the shift from rural to urban will increase. Today about half of Americans live in small towns or rural settings, and about half live in large urban centers. By 2050, 90% of Americans will be living in densely populated urban areas, reflecting the sprawl of cities that are already evident in places like Mexico City, Shanghai, and Mumbai, India.
In short, the world as we know it is changing rapidly.
An Open Door That No One Can Close
The church will have to change. And it will change because there are increasing voices calling for the church on earth to reflect the diversity of the church in heaven — with people from every tribe, tongue and nation. Although change will come more slowly to us here in Chatham, we are not immune to the challenges of our culture. We must change.
And the question we must ask ourselves is not ‘Who is here?’, but rather, ‘Who is not here?’ And the answer to that question will reflect the changes in our culture for we are not reaching those of other ethnicities, the young, and those not like us.
We need to open our eyes to those around us like one of the rural Methodist churches whose pastor I met this past week. They have a ministry to bikers — not motorcycle riders, but bikers. One of the men who works in that ministry, a biker himself, was asked to tell about what they were doing. He stood before the assembly of 100 United Methodist pastors, plus Debbie and me, and with his scraggly beard, long hair, bandana on his head, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and he told about the biker ministry and said, “When you’re working with God, nothing’s impossible.”
Nothing is impossible for those who are faithful to Christ. In the face of overwhelming challenge, there was one church, the church in the original Philadelphia. Jesus told them, “I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”
We can also be that church, the church of brotherly love, the church of the open door. For it is Christ himself who has opened that door. A door to the masses on earth today and the increasing populations in the years to come. It is a door of opportunity that Christ alone can open, and no one else can close.
And, Jesus recognizes our limitations. We may appear to have little strength. We may appear to be unequal to the task. But strength is not as important as faithfulness. Jesus told the Philadelphian church — “You have kept my word, and not denied my name.” To keep the word of Christ is to be faithful to Christ asserting in the face of changing cultures that Jesus is still the savior of the world.
What is the future of our faith? Our future is not restricted by the changes in the world around us. Our future is bound up with the purposes of God. Our future is God’s future. The door is open, the world is waiting, the Gospel still is good news. We must walk through the open door, change our methods but not our message, and present the unchanging good news to an ever-changing world.
Jesus concluded his message to the church in Philadelphia with these words —
11I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. 13He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Our prayer is that we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to this church.