Future Church: Part 2

By: Justin Anderson

This week we are continuing our new series about what it will take to lead your church successfully in our quickly changing world. Last week we looked briefly at the changes we are seeing in our culture and why those changes in culture should affect how we lead our churches.

In my most recent cohort meeting, one of the guys asked what it would take to see our churches grow going forward. He wondered if we can continue to rely on the same strategies that have always brought about growth or if we will need to think differently about church growth in the future.

As you might guess, I think the future is going to be different. Not fundamentally different, but meaningfully different nonetheless.

For most of us, the changes we will need to make will be about focusing on the things that matter most, and have the highest impact and not allowing ourselves to be distracted by activities that we no longer have the luxury of pursuing. That’s going to be a common theme throughout the series. We have to really be focused on what matters most and what will have the highest impact.

The most important thing pastors will need to do in the coming years is to be unmistakably and unapologetically clear about what you believe. This is one of those things that has always been important but will be absolutely critical going forward.

If you are liberal, be all the way liberal and crystal clear about it. If you are a Christian Nationalist, be the most CN and only wear flag shirts on Sunday. If you are hoping to strike a third way balance, preach while sitting on a fence. Whatever you are, be the most clear you can be about it.

Now obviously I don’t advocate for any of those positions personally, the previous paragraph is mostly a joke, but the principle is 100% true. Whatever you believe about salvation, discipleship, sexuality, race, gender, church discipline, etc., you have to be super clear about it.

The old denominational allegiances are mostly dead, and they have been replaced by ideological ones. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but it is true. So, I’m not saying you should seek to align yourself with whatever ideological tribe you think will bring you the most people (in fact, that’s a terrible idea). What I am saying is that whatever you believe about the world, you should be clear about it.

There was a day when equivocating about your position in hopes that you could draw people nearer to trust you more before you laid out your unpopular opinions was a functional strategy. I don’t think it was ever a great idea, but it did work. I remember a pastor in San Francisco telling me that they didn’t lead with their convictions about homosexuality because, “If we did, we’d never get a chance to minister to those people.” Right or wrong, those days are gone. Today, that kind of strategy is seen as disingenuous or cowardly, if not flat out dishonest.

The path forward is to be really clear about who you are and let your audience find you. That language might strike some as too much like marketing and you’re right, in fact it’s ripped straight out of the manual on how to be a social media influencer. But what those people have discovered is that in this cultural moment, people are looking for groups and institutions that will define the world for them and provide a community of like-minded people to be a part of.

Let me repeat that I am not advocating for you to chase an audience or see what the church down the street is doing to grow and then copy their convictions. I am saying that you should define your own convictions, be really clear about them, then live into those convictions and then find people who share or are sympathetic to those convictions.

Over the last couple of years, do you know what kind of churches grew the most? You probably do because you either saw your church grow or are mad at the church down the street for growing. Most churches grew in the last several years by being anti-government about mask mandates and virulently anti-woke about all the varying cultural issues that have rocked the country.

Those are the churches that grew, by and large. I’m sure there were exceptions and you don’t need to email me about them, but this was a very common trend. And I’ve had buddies who wondered aloud whether or not they should have done the same or if they should do so now. My answer to all of them has been the same. If you believe it, do it. Don’t be hemmed in by fear but also don’t chase something you don’t believe.

This is long so let me wrap it up. The future belongs to churches and institutions who are settled about what they believe, are clear about it publicly and lean into their convictions wholeheartedly. Vague or wishy-washy churches will not attract new people, nor will they galvanize the people they have towards a vision. So do the work to clarify for yourselves who you are theologically and culturally and then work on communicating yourself really clearly. Then, make the necessary organizational changes to make sure everything you do reflects your convictions. And then pray, always pray.

This is one of the strengths of being a part of a network like Acts 29. We are very clearly Reformed, Complementarian, Spirit-led and Missional. We have a clear doctrinal statement and a reputation to go with it. I planted churches in San Francisco and Seattle, so I know the temptation to avoid a tough topic in order to build relationships with nonChristians, but I’m telling you, that’s not the way forward.

I hope this is an encouragement to you. I think in some ways the future is built for churches like ours. We have clear convictions and a high value for preaching and doctrine. Let’s lean into those things and let our message attract people who are increasingly disoriented and disenchanted by the nonsense of progressive culture.