I am writing this teaching in the first year of the 21st century—2001. I wonder what people will think who might read it in the early 22nd century. Will they feel the article was timely, appropriate, and correct? Or, might they feel I was a “false prophet” when I wrote it and none of the things I wrote about came to pass? Only time will tell . . . According to the Bible, if it turns out that I was a false prophet, you’ll have to stone me to death. Oh wait, I’ll already be dead so you won’t be able to stone me. Oh well . . .
No, I won’t be here in my present mortal state to be a part of the worldwide Church, the Body of Jesus, at the beginning of the 22nd century. But, I am here at the beginning of this momentous era, and I want to share some thoughts with you about where I predict the 21st century Church is heading. For the most part, I will be focusing on the Church in North America and Europe, but will also consider the worldwide Church as a whole. Whenever I teach about the Church, I always make a distinction between the “western” Church of Europe and North America and the Church in the rest of the world, namely much of Asia, South America, and Africa. The so-called “eastern orthodox” churches generally located in eastern Europe are another matter altogether, and I won’t address them in this teaching.
I read and hear a lot of speculation since the turn of the 21st century about what might happen to the Church during the next 100 years—and beyond. Some are saying it’s the era of the mega-church. Some are saying the Church must go underground in order to survive. Others are saying, “We don’t need to worry about the future of the Church; after all, it’s going to be raptured any day now.” Still others are saying rich and colorful liturgy and sacramental tradition will draw to Church those people who have lost their spiritual moorings. And so it goes.
Futurist or “Pastist”?
I hesitate to add some of my own thinking—one more viewpoint—about the future of the Church, but I feel my viewpoint needs to be shared. I begin by stating I am a Futurist. All who claim to be authentic Jesus believers should be futurists. Sadly, however, many of them are “pastists,” almost always looking back to the past to remedy Church problems, challenges, and errors in an attempt to change the Church, modernize it, restore it, or purify it. True, we need to look at the past, but only in attempt to see from where God has brought a present generation as it heads into it’s future. This is particularly true concerning the Church.
Here’s my generalized definition of “Church” based on what the New Testament teaches: “The Church is everyone everywhere and everywhen in whom Jesus lives permanently in his ‘unbodied form’ of The Holy Spirit.” However, in this teaching I am narrowing down that definition and thinking more of one portion of the Church—the present-day Church on earth, specifically the western Church, that of North America and Europe at the beginning of the 21st century. Some feel the Church of the past is a “model” or “pattern” we should go back to in order to reclaim something (fire, purity, holiness, etc.) the Church has lost. I don’t see the Church of past ages so much as a pattern, as I see it being a storehouse of knowledge and experience from which we can extract certain practices and behaviors, adapt them to the present, and move toward our futures. We should all be futurists in that sense; after all, we’re all going to live in our futures—from our next breath onward.
If the western Church continues on its present course, I predict it will cease to exist as a recognizable, visible entity by the beginning of the 22nd century! In George Washington’s time, only 17% of the colonial population attended traditional Sunday morning Church services. In our day approximately 65% of the population claim they “regularly” attend traditional Sunday morning Church services (not necessarily every Sunday morning, however, but occasionally—enough to claim “regular” attendance).
In reality, on any given Sunday, far, far fewer North Americans are actually In attendance at our traditional, institutional Churches; yet, it is still a far higher percentage of regular attendance than In the colonial era. For the sake of making a point, however, let’s say that attendance on a given Sunday morning really Is 65%; nevertheless, every available statistic and bit of historical evidence available indicates that Christianity In America during colonial times was much, much stronger and healthier than it is in the period in which we live, even though we have a much higher percentage of people who attend churches in our day.
In our era, millions of people in North America claim to be committed Jesus believers, and yet the fact is we live in a Post-Christian (almost an anti-Christian) society in which historical, traditional, institutionalized western churches are losing membership in alarmingly large numbers; even though regular attendance remains relatively high right now, those numbers are declining very rapidly—and will continue to decline markedly as we continue our journeys into the 21st century. So far, nothing seems to be reversing that trend.
Interestingly, recent statistics report that great numbers of people who claim to be deeply committed Jesus believers are not dedicated to the traditional, institutional Church. It is not a significant and meaningful part of their day-to-day and weekly lives. They have forsaken virtually any type of regular, systematic Church fellowship, choosing rather to stay home on Sunday and “worship” with the televangelists and television preachers and televised Church services. This is causing a great deal of isolation, insulation, and disenfranchisement among millions of western Jesus believers. They are losing any sense of the importance of Jesus believers gathering together regularly for fellowship, worship, and ministry. They are losing a sense of corporateness, community, and “body life.” They are losing the vitality of koinonia (Greek for “Jesus believer relational fellowship”) the Bible emphasizes as being imperative for growth, maturity, and witness as Jesus believers.
We hear of many large and growing mega-Churches centered in the large urban areas of North America. Yet if we look at how they are growing we learn that most of their growth is “transfer growth,” not new-conversion growth. And, almost as many people leave the mega-Churches as enter them. In fact, many of them even have special “back-door ministries” aimed at attempting to thwart the “leakage” of the thousands of people who leave such churches after attending for a brief period of time.
By contrast, in Africa, South America, and Asia the mega-Churches are growing by new conversion growth, however—which seems to be how God intends the Church to grow. Nevertheless, the fastest growing, new-conversion-growth Churches in the world are in the nation of China where the vast majority of its 100 – 150 million Jesus believers meet secretly in homes for worship, service, and ministry. It must be noted, too, that perhaps the “healthiest” portion of the Church in the entire world today is the Chinese Church which, for the most part, knows very little about traditional, institutional Church worship and life.
There are significant reasons for possibly believing that the traditional Church and its services as we know them in North America and Europe could cease to exist within a few generations. One reliable researcher believes that over one third of all Church buildings in America could lock their doors by the year 2050 simply because the traditional Church has ceased to be a significant factor in the lives of most North Americans (and Europeans). Added to that is the fact that many other types of non-Christian religions and religious practices are growing rapidly in North America, among them the Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Age Churches, Wiccans and others of a similar nature.
A Temple Is Not A Temple
Speaking of Church buildings, God has clearly stated for the past 2,000 years that He does not “live” in buildings constructed by human beings. True, in the Old Covenant era before the coming of Jesus, God did live temporarily in various tabernacles and temples he commanded to be built. But those structures of the Old Covenant era were merely object lessons, temporary “pictures” God used to teach how he related to people. He made it very clear throughout that era that for him to live in buildings was merely temporary. During Jesus’ life and times the Old Covenant era closed and the New Covenant era was ushered in; under the New Covenant, God no longer lived in buildings in any way, shape or form. Instead, he made it abundantly clear that humans were the temple of God—that his living presence is fully manifest in humans (individually and corporately), not in buildings.
Nevertheless, there is a deeply rooted mindset among most Jesus believers that we must gather together in special church buildings in order to worship, minister, and serve God. That is such a deeply held belief that even when people acknowledge that God does not live in buildings constructed by humans, in most cases one hears a “Yes, but . . . ” Friends, there is no “Yes, but . . . ” God no longer lives in a special, unique manner in buildings made by humans. Period!
Yet, because of the upbringing and basic mindset of large numbers of western Jesus believers, many continue to feel they must somehow remain connected to an institutional, traditional Church which meets on Sunday mornings (or in some cases, Saturday mornings) in order to consider themselves as being authentic Jesus believers. Many feel this way in the face of overwhelming biblical, historical, and current evidence to the contrary. One does not have to go to a traditional Church building on Sunday morning in order to live a vital life as a Jesus believer. True, the Bible teaches one must be vitally connected to other Jesus believers in order to maintain a consistent godly lifestyle, but that connection does not have to be a Sunday morning connection in a building.
For the western Church to not only survive but thrive, they must resume the practice of meeting primarily in homes for worship, ministry, and service to their communities. It seems a given that the basic unit of all societies is the home. Right now, I believe those Jesus believers who meet primarily in homes have a vague, subtle, undefined, unarticulated feeling that they are merely performing some sort of experiment or that they’re doing something that isn’t quite “right” in terms of their choice of “Church.” Among such believers, there is a prevailing feeling that they’re outside the mainstream of Christianity or that they border on being cultish. Or that in time what they’re doing might become a failed experiment.
There’s even a feeling among such believers that they don’t want to invite “normal” people to join in and participate in what they’re doing in homes, because normal people want to attend a “real” Church. They know in their spirits and minds that is not the case, yet that mindset is still present and nags at their consciousness telling them that somehow if they’re not connected with the traditional, institutional Church building something is not quite right with them. Once they see that meeting in homes just might be God’s will for them, then they will see new growth and new Life flowing through them.
A personal example. I just returned from visiting with a friend who is contemplating attending seminary in order to become a parish priest in a mainstream Church. While attending seminary, my friend will be required to attend a minimum of 5 church services each week—in a church building, of course—in order to successfully complete seminary. So strong is my friend’s mindset about “attending” church, he cannot even begin to entertain the notion such attendance is not necessary in order to maintain the godly lifestyle of a Jesus believer. He acknowledges the New Testament clearly teaches that God does not inhabit buildings made by human hands, but quickly follows with a “Yes, but . . . ”
God will soon begin changing the mindset of millions of western Jesus believers regarding Church. In fact, the present mind of Jesus—the will of God, if you please—in this matter is this: all over the world—by the millions—Jesus believers are turning to simple worship, ministry, and services in their homes (and occasionally, in public auditoriums or halls), just as the early Jesus believers did for the first 300 years or so of Church history—and as many thousands have done throughout the intervening centuries of Church history.
In fact, those western European Jesus believers living around 300 A.D. who were forced by Imperial edict to begin meeting in special Church buildings rather than in homes probably went through the same slow change of mindset western believers are presently undergoing—in reverse! It probably took them a while to feel they remained authentic Jesus believers after they began meeting in Church buildings with all the activities and events that began to accompany such meetings—after hundreds of years of having met exclusively in homes for worship, service, and ministry. Those early Jesus believers would no doubt understand and sympathize fully with the mindset displacement many western Jesus believers are presently experiencing.
A Major Paradigm Shift Has Begun!
Beginning in the nineteenth century until approximately World War Two, the major evangelistic and missionary efforts to carry the Good News about Jesus to the rest of the world originated in the United States and Europe. That is no longer true. The bulk of global missions efforts now originate outside the Western Church. In fact, the tables have turned. After generations of missionaries from the Western Church evangelizing unreached people in the remainder of the world, western nations are now becoming a major missions field for missionaries from other nations!
Moreover, many foreign evangelists are now targeting North America and Europe as major unreached evangelistic fields. It is one of the most significant paradigm shifts in all of Church history! In 1900, the majority of all authentic Jesus believers were found in North America and Europe. Now, 100+ years later, two-thirds of all Jesus believers are in Asia, Latin America and Africa. For example, 100 years ago there were perhaps 500,000 authentic believers in all of Latin America—from Mexico to southern Chile. Today, there are 40 million Jesus believers in Latin America!
The figures are even more staggering in Asia and Africa. 50,000+ people become Jesus believers each day in China. South Korea’s population is almost 75% Jesus believers, contrasted with fewer than 2% of them being Jesus believers in 1900. In Japan, since 1980 hundreds of thousands of her teeming millions have committed themselves to Jesus. Other Asian nations, even Viet Nam, are experiencing similar explosive growth in new converts to Jesus. “U. S. News and and World Report” (November 22, 1993) featured an article “The Lure of the Orient”, stating that the world’s economic center of gravity has now shifted to Asia. So, too, has the world’s spiritual center of gravity shifted to Asia (and to Latin America and Africa). The Christian “world” western Jesus believers live in today is far, far different from the Christian world of a few generations ago.
On one hand, this paradigm shift is good news: the efforts of past generations of western missionaries have succeeded; a large part of the non-Western world has been penetrated with the Gospel of Jesus. On the other hand, the Western Church is no longer strong and healthy in relation to the Church in the rest of the world. In fact, Dr David Yonghi Cho, pastor of the world’s largest Christian Church (700,000+ members!) in Seoul, South Korea, stated recently that the Western Church is the Korean Church’s “ailing elder brother.” Let’s consider a few more examples of the Church’s paradigm shift before we consider ways to treat the ailing elder brother and restore it to its former health and vitality.
The traditional Western Church is largely middle class, middle aged, conservative and “defensive.” By contrast, the Church in the remainder of the world is poor, full of teenagers and young adults, and on the offensive spiritually; this young, powerful Church is keenly attuned to the stark realities of poverty, hunger, political oppression and the supernatural realm. The North American and European Church has a monocultural view of the world and of reality. The thriving Church of Asia, Africa and Latin America has a multi-cultural, pluralistic view of life on planet earth, allowing them to be much more flexible, innovative, and sensitive than the Western Church to the massive movements and strivings of people worldwide—and is much more open to ethnic multiplicity.
North American and European missions activities and methods are fast becoming relics of the past. In contrast, the Church of Africa, Asia and Latin America has developed a 21st century global vision and is taking the Gospel of Jesus to the unreached, using methods and logistics undreamed of by the West. In addition, they espouse and practice a concept of “power evangelism” in ways generally unknown and unrivaled by the Western Church of the past few generations.
Restoring The “Ailing Elder Brother”
What are some ways in which the Western Church—the ailing elder brother—can be restored to health and vitality and resume its rightful place on the world scene? First, the western Church needs to welcome and embrace those “foreign” missionaries and evangelists who are now streaming to the West. Western Jesus believers need to radically shift their own paradigms and come to understand the reality of the sweeping changes which have occurred since World War Two.
The ailing elder brother must understand it can no longer practice business as usual. The traditional Western church which worships within four walls of a church building at 11 A.M. Sunday morning is no longer worshiping and ministering to God and the masses of unreached people in an effective manner. For example (as already noted above), the rapid growth of the so-called mega-churches of the West is misleading. Reliable surveys disclose that 60 to 95 percent of the numerical growth in churches that average 400 or more members is due to “transfer growth,” not to new conversions. In contrast, the explosive growth of Third World mega-churches is due almost completely to the influx of new converts to Jesus.
Also, the Western Church can survive—and thrive—only by abandoning traditional clergy and laity roles. The clergy must equip and train so-called laypersons to do the full work of ministry. Laypersons must be freed to minister in creative and ingenious ways where the unreached are—not where they are invited to come once a week on Sunday morning. It is still true that most personally meaningful events in the lives of ordinary Western citizens occur in and at home; The Western Church must begin meeting primarily in homes for worship, service, ministry, and evangelism!
Next, the Western Church must yield full equality to women in ministry, leadership and service. Finally, instead of exclusively initiating and supporting more missions activities based in North America and Europe, the Western Church must begin to support and assist more non-Western missions activities. The Western Church must share its expertise, training and resources with non-Western missions. Western Jesus believers must serve them and become partners with them, allowing them to assume full leadership while the western Church remains in the background as helpers and supporters.
Which nations must western believers begin to aid and serve in their missions efforts? Currently (early 21st century) the top ten missionary sending countries from the non-Western world are India, Nigeria, Zaire, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Kenya, Brazil, the Philippines, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and South Korea. I predict that in the not-too-distant future, China will top them all as vast numbers of missionaries from the “Sleeping Dragon” begin to march forth to carry the Gospel of Jesus to the unreached peoples of the world. Concerning China, I invite you to read another teaching on this web site entitled Shang Ti and Sinim.
Right now, those top ten nations have the missionaries to send forth; the western church has the money to support them, money which non-western Jesus believers will accept as long as western believers make no efforts to use the money to control them. They even want western believers to work side by side with them as helpers, co-laborers, educators, thinkers, and theologians as long as westerners don’t seek to control. Can the Western Church humble itself enough to serve in those capacities? After all, western Jesus believers are used to being in charge. A significant paradigm shift, indeed!
The face of the worldwide Church has changed—markedly and permanently. How should those in the western Church respond to this change? More than anything else, they must humble themselves and become servants to the non-Western Church. Western believers must make room for power-full, new, non-western leaders who don’t look, act, talk, and think like we do. We must learn to submit to their God-ordained leadership. One of those non-western Church leaders I refer to is Pastor Joseph Prince from the New Creation Church in Singapore. You can view his type of pastoral leadership and some of their church services at josephprince.org.
The western Church must give. Those in the West have been tremendously blessed with enormous wealth in comparison to the relative poverty of most people in the rest of the world. God holds the western Church responsible and accountable for their wise stewardship of that great wealth. Western believers must share their wealth with non-Western brothers and sisters who are carrying the old, old story about Jesus in such power-full new ways to the unreached people of the world—including the unreached in North America and Europe.
Change Is Not Coming. It’s Already Here!
Yes, there has been an historic paradigm shift in the worldwide Church of Jesus. No, those in the western Church have not been left out nor left behind in God’s great plans and purposes for humankind. But their role and status both at home and abroad have changed forever. They must accept that change, adapt and fashion themselves to it and return to the mainstream of God’s worldwide evangelistic and missions activities.
Western believers must remove their heads from the sands of time, stand tall, and stride forward hand-in-hand with the amazing new masses of non-western believers whom God has called to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to the world as the 21st century marches rapidly into the future of Church history. Jesus said He will build his Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against its forward movement. It’s not the gates of hell western believers must be concerned with. Rather, those in the western Church must ensure they are not the ones standing against the march of the rest of the worldwide Church as it seeks to bring all the world’s people into God’s glorious Church marching down the corridors of the 21st century!
Life Enrichment Services, Inc
Revised and Updated November 2020