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Riding Elephants


What will the future of the church look like? Here is what I see.

A reality that needs to be named, the elephant in the room that many care not to acknowledge has blown its mighty trumpet. Now that it has our attention, it is time for some truth telling. In the next five to ten years a lot of struggling congregations are going to continue to struggle, and will struggle to the breaking point. When that happens the choice will have to be made to either to ditch the albatross of buildings they simply can no longer afford and either rent space, use public space or meet in homes. Those that choose to continue to be churches without a building might just be the most interesting thing that happens in the near future.

In the meantime denominations with smaller and smaller budgets will also fight to stay alive. With the exception of a few who cultivate a real spirit of creativity they too will outlive their usefulness, probably swallowing up way too many resources and congregations in the process. Some congregations will struggle but hang on but remain fiscally sound enough not have to face the decision making point yet about thier future, while others, of various sizes will thrive with their buildings intact and start to serve others as resource centers. But what will be interesting in the wake of all this is a new sense of opt-in participation and social networking that brings communities and their leaders together. The denominational lines will blur and a lot of cross-over will happen through new partnerships. This is already happening. A few years ago I knew on one hand non-Lutheran pastors (besides ones in the same town or new classmates when I went back to school). Now I know dozens and chat back and forth on a regular basis – thanks to Facebook, Twitter and so on. This will become more and more the norm; we will gather and network support and nurture one another in a flat, participatory, opt in world and the old structures will simply fade away because they won’t matter anymore.

Among Protestants there will still be the theologies of Luther and Calvin and Wesley and others, and there will still be churches that identify with one of them as a primary resource, but they will all be in conversation with one another as never before.  It will not be a bland ecumenism of looking for the common denominator and ending old disputes – this will be an ecumenism that genuinely seeks the strengths of the other in dialogue with an established identity.

It is going to be painful and a lot of tough choices are going to need to be made amidst a lot of death; but there will be lots of new life in far corners we haven’t ever gone before. Maybe the church of the future is better suited for the fringes than out front on the town green like we used to be. Maybe that is the place God wants us right now. Maybe it is where we as followers of Jesusu need to go.  We got it wrong, in my view, when at some point the church became the message rather than the bearer of the message. We  got concerned with what we did, what programs we offered, what statements we made, what fancy buildings we had, what denominational HQ we built, what so-called diversity we could take credit for, what brilliant ecumenical treaties we could sign,  and the like. We turned the outward thrust of the gospel inward so that “church” became our faith’s destination, rather than our starting point for engaging the world around us.

We should be thrilled – not scared right now.  After all this self-centered stuff collapses, we will be left with the only thing we need – Good News that needs none of it, because it sends us out. Christ alone, and Christ really alone – not Christ enshrined within our cathedrals – is our identity. Christ and him crucified is the Gospel that sends us out.

The church of the future will be focused on vocation not location.

The church that rises out of the ashes will be those who hear the Gospel and trust the Spirit to hold them in that Good News – whatever comes next. And we will go; riding elephants if we can.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. PTC permalink
    24February2012 16:37

    Geoff…. I actually did ride an elephant once in the circus. It is quite an experience. You need to sit in the ravine between the head and the body and hang on with your barefeet hooked under the creature’s ears. if you have a choice regarding what to grasp you go for the head — it is much more likely to feel secure holding on to either the elephants “head gear” (if it is a circus animal) or some handhold around the ears (if it is simply a “tame” (yeah, sure!) animal).

    Hmmm… maybe I learned something long ago….hang on to the Head!


  2. 24February2012 17:57

    We are in an interesting time where we have the opportunity to get down to the most simple and basic understanding of what it means to be the “holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Too many idols exist and a few have come crashing down on my head in the past year! But what it has taught me is that my primary allegiance is to Christ alone and not the institution no matter what alphabet soup it calls itself. Christ alone. Faith alone. Grace alone. Word alone. There was never a sola “church building” in those lists.

  3. 27February2012 12:55

    “The church of the future will be focused on vocation not location.”

    Fantastic line. You’ve written powerfully about the changes the church is facing. I would add one more. The church of the future, focused on vocation and not location will also be focused on the gifts of all the saints, rather than looking to the pastor for all leadership and direction in spiritual things. Releasing the gifts of the people – clergy and laity – to serve, “vocare” in the truest sense of the word, will make the Externally focused church, Mission focused, whichever word you want to use, the way we experience and engage the world through Good News that sends us out

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