Future Church: Part 7

By: Justin Anderson

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This week, the New York Times published an article that argued that much of the conversation around transgenderism has become polarized between radical liberals and conservatives. It argued that the right has been fearmongering but that the left has grossly underplayed the seriousness of the issues and, in the process, called anything short of immediate and unadulterated approval transphobic. It was the kind of centrist reporting that the New York Times used to be known for but has recently been lost.

The descriptions of young boys and girls being given medical interventions within days of meeting a doctor for the first time are chilling and give credence to some of the fear that exists on the right. In other words, it’s not fearmongering if we are right to be afraid. Some would argue that even the fact that we would consider an article like this “centrist” is a testament to how far the Overton Window has shifted on this issue. I tend to agree with that argument.

My point in bringing this up isn’t to talk about transgenderism per se but to point out a theme of the article that I think is and will continue to drive church participation in the coming decades. The article repeatedly points out that there is fear among psychologists that if they don’t follow the prevailing cultural opinions around this issue, they will lose their reputations and even their jobs. The trans mob is vicious, and the fear of what they are capable of has pressured many in the scientific community to abdicate their responsibility not to harm their patients. A quick read of the comments section (up to 2000+ on the first day) illustrated this even more explicitly.

Fear is at the heart of all of this. Fear of retribution, fear of being made an outsider, fear of loss. This fear puts these doctors in a precarious position. Do the right thing and possibly lose everything or go along with what you know isn’t right, but preserve your livelihood. It is a genuinely difficult choice, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. As much as I’d like to believe I would do the right thing in that scenario, I’ve never been there, so I cannot say for sure.

It’s not just doctors who face these difficult choices. These issues are increasingly touching every sphere of life. Teachers, administrators, CEOs, lawyers, and even soccer team general managers face similar dilemmas. The men and women you preach to each week face this same dilemma, directly or indirectly. Truthfully, we don’t have to face the dilemma directly to be impacted by its effects. Just reading about them drives anxiety, and that’s precisely what is happening to people in our churches.

This cultural movement is what drives this week’s advice. In light of the fear and anxiety driving people of faith in the West, I think our churches will (and need to) get bigger and smaller. What do I mean by this? A few things.

First, when people feel threatened, they seek safety and strength. Without opening an entire can of worms, this dynamic explains much of the appeal of men like Donald Trump. He projects strength and confidence, and people are drawn to him for it. The question of whether or not he is actually strong is a discussion for another time. The point is that people who feel weak and vulnerable look outside of themselves for their lack of strength. Ideally, Christians would look to Jesus for this strength, but alas.

When vulnerable people look for communities to be a part of, they look for strong ones. It’s why you see immigrant communities band together in their new countries. They are far from home and feel exposed, so they look for a community in which they can feel protected. When people feel alone, they look for something bigger than themselves, so they don’t feel alone anymore.

This is part of the reason I think large churches will thrive even more in the coming years. People are far more willing to feel like an anonymous part of a large group if that group offers them the security they crave. There are other reasons that I think large churches will continue to grow, but we’ll discuss those in a future post.

Large churches can create little cities, closed systems that offer nearly everything a person needs to survive. They not only have dynamic church services but also small groups, classes, age and stage ministries, schools, support and recovery groups, coffee shops, sports teams, service opportunities, and a million other things that a Christian family can engage in. Besides offering jobs and a supermarket, there is almost nothing they don’t offer.

This will be increasingly desirable to people as the public expressions of those activities grow more secular and hostile to Christian engagement. When your coffee shop doesn’t want you to hold your Bible study there, and your CrossFit gym revolts against you because of a sermon (both things I experienced in Seattle), you are left looking for safe spaces to caffeinate and get ripped.

These are practical reasons, but I think the more significant driver of megachurch attendance will be emotional. Whether we can put our finger on it or not, we love being surrounded by people who agree with us and look like us. This is especially true when it’s hard to be whatever you are. For instance, I don’t wear my Arizona State football gear as proudly in Los Angeles as when visiting Tempe. When you’ve spent two decades wallowing in mediocrity, there is comfort in being surrounded by maroon and gold.

For Christians, walking into a large room filled with people who largely agree with your view of the world and are proudly singing your anthems is emotionally appealing. Hearing an authority figure teach things you agree with and watching heads around you nod in affirmation gives you a sense that you are not alone and are not going crazy.

But large churches aren’t the only answer. While they can provide a sense of belonging and protection, they often fail to be places where people can make deeper connections. This is why churches need to get both bigger and smaller. Smaller churches don’t provide safety in numbers, but they do offer a different kind of strength.

Smaller churches can better offer the level of care and real-world provision that larger communities do not. I think the anxiety epidemic we’re dealing with has two cures: protection and provision. Again, these should, and ultimately do, come primarily from God, but God chooses to work through our communities and the relationships we build within them.

It’s tough enough to get up in front of your congregation and tell them to stand up against the prevailing cultural forces. It’s borderline criminal to do so while having no means or intention to care for those people who follow your advice and lose their jobs as a result of it. Our people are far more likely to act courageously if they know they have a safety net to catch them if they fall.

Our small groups and house churches can provide those safety nets if we prioritize them properly. That’s not to say that small churches always do this well, and large churches never do. All of our churches can do this, it’s just a question of whether they will.

Fear is the emotion of the day, and I see no reason to believe that will change in the coming years. This is why our churches need to get bigger AND smaller. We need to be able to do both, whether that’s through our local church or through a local network of churches. We have to be able to provide the kinds of environments where people can feel secure and cared for while always being pointed to Christ for their ultimate provision and protection.