Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, posted an insightful blog article yesterday on the future of the Wesleyan movement. Describing the “crystallization of discontent” of many of us United Methodists over what we consider to be serious problems facing our denomination, Dr. Tennent advocated for a serious revision to our denominational Discipline that is more missional, with a strategy for church planting over the next decade.
In reflecting on his post, I have been led to think more broadly about the challenges that the Christian faith has experienced within Western culture, most particularly in the United States. It is well understood that people are decreasingly identifying as Christian and that many denominations are quickly dwindling in size, such as my own United Methodist denomination or the Southern Baptists. While those churches that are holding steady or growing tend to be evangelical, the gradual decline of the Southern Baptist denomination reveals that it isn’t evangelical doctrine that guarantees any sort of church growth. The denominations that are experiencing the most growth in recent years tend to be (a) evangelical off-shoots from historically mainline denominations such as the Presbyterian Church of American (from the PCUSA) or the Anglican Church of North America (from the Episcopal Church), (b) smaller denominations with a Wesleyan background like the Wesleyan Church, the Nazarenes, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church and (c) charismatic/Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, TN).
In looking at these three categories of denominations that I outline, it is hard to draw any single principle that explains all of their growth in an increasingly post-Christian era. Nevertheless, I think there are a few principles that may define the future of Christian faith in the West if it is to spread on a wider-scale. While these thoughts may in the end be more reflective of my own spiritual and intellectual journey than coming in contact with something closer to the heart of church renewal, I offer these as food for thought for others.
Evangelism will move from persuading to believe to story-telling
Much of the evangelism that has taken place in the United States have largely relied upon some motivation for people to believe. Whether it be escaping eternal judgment or finding God to be a source of help for a person’s personal struggles in one’s marriage, career, etc., evangelism has largely been a persuasive endeavor. However, in an age of secularism, the traditional means of persuasion will no longer have the force they did in the past. In an increasingly post-Christian culture, one is not persuaded to become a follower of Jesus Christ. This is even true in a society that has a deep sense of skepticism towards anything that smells like smuggling fear or a sales-pitch.
It is my conviction that evangelism in the future will be more like evangelism was for Apostle Paul, when Christian faith was more suspect in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Paul endeavored to tell the story of Jesus Christ in ways that people could readily comprehend, rather than trying to directly persuade people to believe. Far from Paul’s sermon in front of the Agora in Athens being some attempt make the Gospel “relevant” that it is often made out to be, Paul used the type of language and concepts the Stoics and the Epicureans would have understood. Before getting interrupted by the scoffers, Paul began his story-telling by using the ideas on an unknown God and the idea of being made like God to lead up to the story of Jesus’ resurrection. However, Paul didn’t think his evangelistic task was to persuade people based upon what the audience valued and expected (1 Corinthians 1.22-23). Paul’s main evangelistic task was to tell the story of what happened to Jesus Christ and how this was part of God’s story testified to in the Scriptures (1 Cor. 2.1-2, 15.3-8).
Evangelistic persuasion will be more dependent on the Spirit and people’s personal experiences
This is the flip side of the focus on story-telling. Rather than trying to describe and provide motivations for coming to faith, effective evangelism will focus more so on the signs of God’s work on people’s behalf and in their lives. In a day of skepticism of sales-pitches, people want more first-hand experience of what it is that they commit to. Evangelism will become more like guiding people on tour of a college campus rather than outlining all the accolades of the school and the benefits of choosing to attend. Paul believed that it is ultimately the demonstration of Spirit that was responsible for persuading people to faith (1 Cor. 2.3-5), not his own preaching.
Churches that grow will focus more on the small than the large
In the past few decades, megachurches have discovered that one of the keys to church growth and retention have been vital small groups. Most people don’t come to faith and remain in faith due to attending one service on a weekly basis where one person is part of a large crowd. While traditional worship and preaching will still have a place in churches in the West, the center of Christian life will make an even more decisive shift towards the small and personal. The conventional church and its staff will be focused more so on encouraging and providing basic oversight to small social connections in the church, with less emphasis on big program ministries and large gatherings aside from weekly worship.
This is in part because the organization and maintenance of that which is large, complex, and with many moving parts primarily relies upon those who have special training and pedigree (i.e., clergy) and the motivated few (i.e., super-spiritual lay Christians, the clergy’s favorite laypeople, laity seeking to boost their reputation, etc.) whereas the small and less formal is more inclusive of responsibilities and roles of its various participants (i.e., laity as a whole). In the 20th century, churches could grow due to the more to the efforts of “specialized” evangelists and “professional” teacher; it was easier to speak a Christian message that could resonate with the people due to the culture being more uniform and the Christian having a default plausibility and recognition. However, in a pluralistic world without a default recognition of the validity of Christian belief, “professional” Christians will no longer be critical to evangelism. Evangelism, discipleship, and church growth will be the task of the various gifts of the laity in a smaller, less formal setting.
We can think of this move analogous to the early Jewish believers retaining a connection to the Temple in Jerusalem, but the center of evangelism and teaching about Christ happening in the “smaller” settings of homes. In fact, the shift towards the smaller and more communal over the larger and more social tends to be the pattern for renewal movements that culminate in broader, evangelistic growth. The earliest Christians were seeking a reformed Judaism in light of the teachings of Jesus that lead them to gather separately. Similarly, the Wesleyan revival in England placed a greater emphasis on the small in terms of meetings in bands and personal conversations, while they still retained their involvement in the churches.
Churches will focus less on capital campaigns and focus more on planting campaigns
How did churches in the 20th and in the turn to the 21st century try to support evangelistic growth? Build a bigger sanctuary with more parking space. Build a large meeting area or activity center such as a fellowship hall or gym to house various program ministries. Insofar as the Christian message had a de facto credence with people, churches could try to engineer church growth by simply making more space and providing more activities to get involved. However, the net effect was to grow churches bigger and bigger.
But in an age where bigger isn’t better, churches that want to fulfill the Great Commission will focus less on growing big and more on helping plant other churches. There will still be some churches that grow larger facilities because they will have a natural reach to a large population or they will operate as a central station for some traditional ministries of the church such age-level ministries and program ministries that supplement other churches (more on that in a moment). However, individual churches that grow big will grow big more out of necessity than ambition.
Instead, churches that successfully contribute to evangelistic growth will have more focus on giving birth to new church plants. It isn’t enough that church planting becomes the purview of a centralized decision-making process of a denominational bureaucracy, but that local churches are actually the primary agents in church growth. We are already witnessing the early signs of this trend with larger churches moving towards multi-site models of churches. This trend can be modified and transformed into a practice of support church plants by churches that lack the overhead and staff to support a multi-site model.
Of course, a question needs to be asked: why would churches be motivated to plant other churches? Churches that have developed a culture of church-planting might develop this as an instinct, but what about the already established churches. Why would they be motivated to do that? Firstly, for many established churches that have shown no signs of growth at this point, it can provide an alternative to trying to change what the people are presently familiar with. While from my observation it seems that the “worship wars” of the last 20th and the early 21st century have largely become a cease-fire, there are still strong emotions attached to not messing with “what we have. Second, for churches with large facilities and the corresponding bills to pay but no longer having the number of people to make use of the facilities, partnering with a new church plant provides a way to ameliorate the cost. Thirdly, aiding in church plants can be a way to help “dying” churches a way to die well with spiritual dignity in passing on to the next generation. Rather than fostering the feelings of fear and crisis of a church death, it can be seen as a time for passing on to a new church while they still have the resources and energy to support one.
Many of the traditional age-based and program-based ministries will be done through small churches partnering with larger churches
While the age of the small may be arriving for churches in the United States, there will still be a need for some of the traditional ministries that larger churches have provided. Specifically, week-to-week programs for children and youth will still have a place. Yet, optimistically, I would think these would be accomplished more through a partnership between churches, especially with churches who have similar theological traditions and commitments. The effect of this would be fewer resources being dedicated by smaller churches to reproduce what other churches who are more economically empowered to do in a much more efficient and effective way. This will, however, require much more trust and collaboration between churches, which means that would likely be the case in church networks where the people share a strong sense of shared identity and theology.
The relationship between clergy and laity will neither be monarchical or democratic in form, but rather work more as a covenantal partnership
In the present time, we are witnessing two great problems with various Christian denominations. On the one hand, in those denominations where there is less wide-scale accountability, such as the Southern Baptist church, we have heard many, many horror stories of sexual harassment and abuse defiling the halls of the church. With little accountability, abusers are able to move from one place to another with little real reporting or discipline. On the other hand, a less morally evil but a problem that nevertheless threatens are denominations that are more traditionally lead from the top-down have experienced greater dilution of denominational identity and greater degree of conflicts between Christians. In the United Methodist denomination, we have witnessed how many of my fellow “professional” clergy have used their positions to actively subvert our ‘covenant’ in ways that the ‘covenant’ does not otherwise allow for because the local churches and laity are not able to hold them accountable for their duplicity and manipulation.
In both monarchical and democratic forms of governance, there tends to be one center of power that other people are accountable to. In the traditional episcopacy, the leadership makes the decisions that determine the direction of the churches. In the congregational model, the people of the local churches tend to hire/fire their ministry ‘leadership.” Because there is only one center of power, both models are highly susceptible to charmers, charlatans, and manipulators who can effectively play and navigate the one source of power.
A more genuinely covenantal model of church governance, where there is a greater separation and distribution of responsibilities and resources between the clergy and the laity that allows both some freedom but both some ability to hold the other side accountable is a way navigate away from the heinous evil of sexual abuse and the less heinous ecclesial hijacking that also presents a challenge to American Christianity. How that would be realized is up-for-grabs, but it is necessary if we wish to fight against both problems that our denominations are facing right now.
Theology will become less about abstract reasoning and more based upon reasoning from well-taught and well-understood narratives
For evangelism and discipleship to occur through more decentralized and smaller churches and groups, it will be necessary that the theological teachings of the church be more widely understood and disseminated to the laypeople. In other words, the culture of our churches needs to be more formed by our theology. While a return to catechesis can be instrumental in decentralized evangelism, the problem is that the way we typically engaged in theological reasoning in thinking is a massive road-block. The implicit assumption that the normative way to do theology is by understanding various conceptual doctrines about God, Jesus, the Spirit, etc. that you then apply to life, we effectively divide comprehension and application in such a way that only the more cognitively elite and trained can really participate in. Theological concepts that require a high-degree of abstractions and disciplined imagination to master, use, and teach are less accessible to people. Such theology is the theology of professionals (i.e. clergy and religious academics), not the amateur (the laity).
However, a theology that takes narratives, not concepts, as the primary source material for theological reasoning is much more accessible to a wider population. Most people can more quickly understand and reason from narratives. This would equip more people to engage in evangelism as presented in the first principle I outlined as they are not responsible for knowing all the “hidden theological meanings” of the cross, but proclaiming the story of death and resurrection.
However, the move away from abstract reasoning can be very messy. There is a reason the early church prior to Nicea faced so many different threats from the formulation of various heresies. While there is still a place for traditional theological formulations, for a messier narrative base of theology to remain orthodox, it would need to be a theology based upon a small, repetitively, and well-waught set of highly significant narratives (that is the story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and other prominent narratives in the Scriptures such as Abraham, the Exodus, Pentecost, etc.) that are also provided a rather uniform understanding of their central, but not exclusive, significance (such as, Jesus Christ’s death is a death for people’s sins, Jesus’ resurrection is the overcoming of the power of death, etc.).
Liturgy provides one avenue for teaching such narratives, although liturgy alone without other acts of narrative pedagogy and instruction will simply become mindless rote. Catechesis is another resource that can be used, although the traditional forms of catechesis that I am personally familiar with still seem to work from a more paradigmatic, abstract mode of instruction rather than a narrative form of reasoning.
The role of the clergy will be focused more on teaching theology (as outlined above) and responding to the crises and challenges of life and community and less on the regular maintenance of day-to-day function.
Presently, due to the professionalization of churches due to the demands of the “big,” pastors are expected to wear many, various hats in serving churches. We treat pastors as “professional church people” are our hired to who provide the services in the church that others don’t provide, such as preaching, teaching, counseling, administration, etc., etc. If you are in a church big enough, multiple pastors may be hired to provide each of these individual services, but in moderate size churches with one or two pastors, they become treated as do-it-all types. However, with the dramatic shift towards the small, pastors and other clergy will be freed to take on a more apostolic role in terms of teaching and instructing people in the Gospel and tackling the challenges that require specially trained skills to effectively address (such as various life crises).
However, to produce a church and denominational culture that engages in evangelism and theology in the manner previously outline as described above to be accomplished, it would entail clergy becoming the chief story-tellers of the Gospel who ensure the proper transmission and comprehension of these narratives.
I offer these either principles of churches in the future to imagine how evangelism and discipleship may need to adjust into the future in order for the Chrisitan faith and churches in America and the West to have the capacity for a powerful and clear witness in a post-Christian culture. Again, these may be more due to the way my own lenses used to understand the Church has shifted through my own personal story and change, so treat them with all due caution and deliberation.