Future Church: Part 4

By: Justin Anderson

If you are having trouble viewing the video above, click here.

Welcome back to our ongoing series, discussing some important changes to church life in the coming years and how we can respond so that our churches continue to grow and thrive. The first two weeks we were focused on being clear about what you believe and then preaching those beliefs boldly. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback about those two ideas. They seem to be resonating with people, which is good to hear. It will only become more difficult for us to be clear about our beliefs in the coming years, and there will only be more pressure to keep our most politically incorrect opinions to ourselves, making it even more necessary to do this.

The importance of preaching clearly about our beliefs is a good transition to our topic today. I think we are already beginning to see a foxhole mentality developing among Christians. Amid persecution, we are looking for allies to fight the fight alongside us. This is a very human reaction to persecution. Nothing is worse than undergoing hardship alone, so finding other people to suffer with eases the suffering and helps us remember we aren’t alone. This, in turn, strengthens our beliefs and gives us the courage to be more public about them.

So, one implication of being clear about our beliefs is that we signal to others (Christians and sane non-Christians) that we are a place where they can find refuge, camaraderie, and support. Without a community of faith, people are left to deal with the challenges of life in isolation, which often leads to weakened or lost faith and tribalization.

Increasing isolation is a growing problem facing all Americans, not just Christians. The advent of smartphones has had an enormous impact on the way humans interact with each other. I was at the airport last weekend and thinking about this issue. I looked around at the people at my gate, and every single one of them was on their phone. Sitting across from me was a mom and dad with their middle school-aged son, and all three of them were on their phones the entire time I sat across from them. It made me sad for the kid and angry at the parents. There is a massive reckoning coming for parents who have raised the first generation of kids who had to fight with a phone for their parent’s attention.

Admittedly, I am little better myself. I have to be very disciplined about not using my phone around my kids so I don’t fall into the same trap of distraction. The result of all of this is a culture that increasingly feels disconnected from each other. This disconnection quickly leads to online tribalism and unthinkable vitriol being spewed across the internet. People hiding behind avatars feel free to say things to others that they would never dream of saying to a person’s face. Luckily for them, they may never have to.

Many of you have experienced the effects of this isolation and online tribalism. In the last five years, we have seen many of our previously calm and thoughtful church members become radicalized about one issue or another and leave our churches because we weren’t as mad or scared as they were about their pet issue. People are losing the ability and willingness to have rational, nuanced dialogue about almost anything and it’s tearing our culture apart.

Unfortunately, churches haven’t been immune from these kinds of changes. If anything, they have been a breeding ground for division, conspiracy, and atomization. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, I think the pastors who can figure out how to turn their churches into genuine communities—united by clear teaching—but who model grace, an appreciation for nuance, and a willingness to listen to those you don’t perfectly agree with will see their churches thrive.

There are few places in our world that create space for a genuine connection to other human beings. Churches have always been those places and they can be again. Sports teams, political parties and online influencers are ultimately using people to grow their brand. They may use the language of community or family but they really just mean customers. Churches, ideally, should be places where the “customer” is the whole point of the endeavor. In fact, you could say that in churches the customer is the product. If we are really in the business of life transformation (and in so many ways, we are not in any “business” but go with me), then all our focus should be on the people, not our programs.

I don’t want to get too sidetracked here so let me return to my thesis. The churches that can create spaces for genuine, unmediated human interaction and place a high value on it, are going to thrive in the coming years. The impact of social isolation is going to get much worse and even though it is becoming normal, it will never be human. There will always be a longing in people to connect with other people. The church is the only space where people can agree on the most fundamental things in life—and disagree about a hundred other things—but remain united by what matters most.

This doesn’t just mean small groups. Most, if not all, of you have some sort of small group ministry in your church, and that’s a great start, but it’s not enough. You should really think about everything you do and try to add an unmediated relational piece to it. Do a meet-and-greet time during service, or interview members from the stage for normal things and not just ministry successes. Create physical space for connection before and after service, and talk about it a lot.

I think this is an area where we will need to emphasize the importance of it and why it’s important. Our church members have been hearing for years that they should get into small groups, and the “why” has probably been because “people need people.” This is undoubtedly true, but the church wasn’t the only way you could find that connection. As things and people move increasingly online, the spaces for genuine human interaction are diminishing. This is, for lack of a better phrase, a market opportunity for the church.

I’d encourage you to really think hard about how you are creating space for people to make meaningful connections with one another in your church. As a quick addition to this thought, I would recommend prioritizing connections between men. Not to the detriment of the women, but it’s been my experience that it’s a lot harder to get men together, and they really need it—whether they will admit it or not.

How could you dial up the opportunities and emphasis on human interaction in your church?