I wonder what readers might think if they were to read this teaching about Church in the early 22nd century, 100 years from now? Will they feel my teaching was timely, appropriate, and accurate? Or, might they feel I was a “false prophet” when I wrote it and none of the things I wrote about came to pass?
Of course, I won’t be here in my present mortal state to be a part of the worldwide Church—the Living Body of Jesus—a century from now, but some of you could be. But, I’m here now—near the start of this momentous century–and I want to share some thoughts with you about the condition of the 21st century Church. 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 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 “eastern orthodox” churches generally headquartered in Russia and eastern Europe are another matter altogether; 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 be concerned 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 . . .
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 “upgrade,” change the Church, modernize it, restore it, or purify it. True, we need to look at the past, but only in an 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.
Definition of “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 in his ‘unbodied form’ of Holy Spirit.” However, in this teaching I am narrowing down that definition and thinking more of only one portion of the Church—the present-day Church on earth, specifically the western Church 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 through 2,000 years of time.
I don’t see the Church of past ages as a pattern; 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, by the beginning of the 22nd century, I predict it will look and be far different than anything we now know as the Church!
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 (and Europeans) 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 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 the western Church 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. Attending Church 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 Sundays and “worship” with the televangelists and television preachers and televised Church services, or do something else.
This is causing a great deal of isolation, insulation, and disenfranchisement among millions of western Jesus believers. They are losing any sense of the necessity for 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 “relational fellowship among Jesus believers”) 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 The West. 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 stop 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. The fastest growing, new-conversion-growth Churches in the world are in the nation of China where the vast majority of its 150 – 200 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 the west 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-biblical religions and religious practices are growing rapidly in The western world, 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 4,000 years that He does not permanently “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 man-made 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 lives in buildings in any way, shape or form. Instead, he made it abundantly clear that humans were the temples of God—that his living presence is fully manifest in humans (individually and together), 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 . . . ”
Dear reader, there is no “Yes, but . . . ” God no longer abides 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 vitally connected to an institutional, traditional Church which meets on Sunday mornings (or some other day of the week) 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, good and godly lifestyle, but that connection does not have to be a Sunday morning connection in a building. Having said all that, yes, I worship God in a church building, usually on Sunday mornings with a large number of other Jesus believers—and believe very strongly that’s exactly where God wants me! Hey, I’m just an ordinary human trying to obey God.
For the western Church to not only survive but thrive, they must resume the practice of gathering in homes for worship, ministry, and service to their communities—as well as in so-called church buildings. The basic unit of all societies is still 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” and “ordinary” people to join in and participate in what they’re doing in homes, because most people want to attend a “real” Church. Those meeting primarily in homes 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 buildings something is not quite right with them. Once they see that meeting in homes as well as in church buildings just might be God’s will for them, then they will experience new growth and new Life flowing through them.
Continued next month
“Through followers of Jesus . . . gathered in churches, God’s extraordinary and diverse plans for all humanity—in all it’s infinite variety, is becoming known and even talked about among angels!” –paraphrased from Ephesians 3: 10 in the Bible
To Think About This Month
“When you invited Jesus to take up permanent residence in your life, you automatically became a member of the worldwide Church; there can be no “lone ranger” believers who choose to disassociate themselves from the church and not meet with other believers!”
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Revised and Updated May 2019