Future Church: Part 5

By: Justin Anderson

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

We are back at it this week with our fourth installment of this blog series. We are looking at what I think will be key components of effective churches in the next 10-20 years. I think we will continue to see significant changes in culture and the way we will need to lead our churches.

So far, we’ve talked about being crystal clear about our beliefs (especially the controversial ones), preaching boldly about the things people are actually facing, and creating space for people (especially men) to find meaningful relationships.

After re-reading my last installment, I thought I would pause the series and explore a little deeper why I think this is such an important issue for our churches going forward.

One of the most immediate and practical implications of the changes in culture is that Christians who resist those changes are immediately in danger of real loss. We will lose friendships, social status, jobs, and opportunities because of our Christian convictions. This is already happening and will only get worse as the culture continues to shift. I would guess that everyone reading this has a story, either about themselves or a close friend who has experienced significant loss in the last few years as a result of their faith.

Even those who don’t experience this loss directly will feel the anxiety and fear that it could happen to them next. It is important that we teach our people to take that anxiety and fear to the Lord and find our confidence in him alone. We need to teach them that Christians have almost always existed on the margins of society and that Jesus promised we would be persecuted for his name.

But, we also need to create spaces where people can find common cause and a sense of security. That is why it’s so important for us to create space for meaningful community in our churches. People are, by nature, social creatures. We can’t avoid the need for other people in our lives to be sources of encouragement, exhortation, and strength. This isn’t a flaw, this is how we were designed.

In God’s original creation, he looked at Adam and decided he needed someone else. We aren’t meant to be alone, even in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Our folks will feel like they are alone on an island and under attack if we don’t surround them with a supportive community. If the only people they interact with tell them that Christian beliefs are wrong and bigoted, even the strongest of them will crumble under social pressure.

I have been using the word meaningful on purpose here. It’s not enough to just have small groups or classes or Sunday gatherings that create a social space for people. We have to create spaces that allow for vulnerability and honest conversations. We have to cultivate deep relationships that are materially supportive. I think these communal spaces need to have a few essential elements:

Catechism – Don’t get hung up on the Catholicity of the word. The idea here is that we need to cultivate communities that teach people the faith in significant ways. We need to give people a robust biblical theology through which they can see and understand the world around them.

Vulnerability – We have to create spaces for people (especially men, for whom this is often more difficult) to be really honest about their fears without being told they just need to trust God more. They do, but they need to be shown why God is trustworthy in a way that moves their hearts and doesn’t shut down their honesty.

Openness – Our tribe can be a bunch of know-it-alls. We like theology, and that’s a good thing, but it can create spaces where people who have honest questions are implicitly and explicitly chastised or ridiculed for processing an idea that others might think is obvious or settled. There are a lot of crazy ideas out there right now and it can all be very confusing. We need to let people be confused and bring those questions into communities where answers can be wrestled with. The ideal space is one where someone can honestly ask why there are only two genders and then disagree with some of the answers they are given for a while. Minds don’t have to be changed in 15 minutes. Allow the space it can sometimes require to be deprogrammed from the madness people hear every day.

Consistency – Our lives are all way too busy for our own good. We need anchors and rhythms that constrain us because constraints form us in ways that freedom cannot. Call people to be consistent and committed to these communities.

Support – Some people are going to lose their jobs and relationships, and they will need their church communities to stand in the gap. Mormons have done an amazing job of this over the years, and Christians need to take a page out of their books. If we are going to call our people to be bold in the face of persecution, there is no better encouragement than knowing people will have your back if things go sideways.

Two of the points above seem particularly important and challenging for our network. Strengths become weaknesses, and I think two of our strengths can become severe weaknesses in this cultural moment.

First, vulnerability is not a historical hallmark of the Reformed movement. I am glad for the ways this has changed and is changing. I’m thankful that ministries like Tin Man and Crosspoint are making inroads among our churches, but we need to keep pressing. I don’t want to narrow the scope of this idea to just counseling, though I think that’s a part of building a culture of vulnerability. I think our churches need to continue to grow in our willingness to be broken and repentant in front of each other.

One example of this is the way we deal with sexual sin among pastors and ministry leaders. Too many pastors in our network have lost their jobs because the truth of their sexual sin was revealed in disqualifying ways. But, I would argue that we have built a system that can’t function in any other way. Nobody goes from one lustful thought to a full-blown affair overnight. It’s a process that starts with lust or relational discontentment, moves to pornography and then flirting, etc.. It’s possible that if we created safe spaces for guys to admit their struggles and temptations early on in the process without fear of losing their jobs because of it, we may avoid the catastrophic ending.

If we could create a culture of vulnerability that allows men and women to admit areas of temptation and weakness without fear of retribution, I think it could be revolutionary. Recovery and Steps ministries are one example of this happening in our churches and the more we can normalize these things as helpful ways to step sin’s advance, the healthier our churches will be.

The second area of strength that could be a weakness is our theological emphasis. Acts 29 tends to attract guys who are serious about their Bibles and serious about getting theology right. This is fantastic and might be our greatest strength. When this becomes a weakness, we start doing evangelism, and people who either aren’t Christians or are new to the faith step into our classrooms and small groups with their bad theology. Sometimes, in our rush to get things right, we can unintentionally shame and alienate people who just haven’t been taught how to think well about tough issues. We have to balance our desire to be theologically precise with a thick culture of grace that allows people the space to learn and grow at a human pace.

If we expect people to hear something once—especially something that runs contrary to everything they’ve been taught and are surrounded by—and change their minds immediately, we are not only setting them up to fail, but we are communicating an unrealistic and unbiblical anthropology. Humans just don’t change that quickly and if we expect them to or if we create an environment where it will be relationally awkward if they disagree about something for a while, we have done them and our church a grave disservice.

There is a lot more to be said about this, but we’ll stop here. Creating meaningful communities where people can be supported and encouraged will be a game-changer for our churches going forward. What will that look like for you?