The Future of the Church

by Brian Edgar

What is the future of faith? What future is there for the church? These were the matters discussed on the ABC’s Sunday Night Talk  (July 18) with Jon Cleary, myself, Andrew McGowan (Warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne) and Dr Margaret Beirne, a Catholic sister of Charity and senior lecturer in Biblical studies at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox theological college.

You can read Jon’s comments and download the whole program as a podcast from the ABC site.

Before the program started I made some notes on what I thought. Note carefully, that these are only notes. But they might stimulate your own thought on the topic.

  • Prophetic Problem 1: it’s very hard to prophesy, especially with respect to the future!
  • Prophetic Problem 2: everyone has the same difficulty: that of distinguishing  what one would like to see happen and what one expects actually will happen. We all have our biases.
  • Prophetic problem 3: The church is always in crisis and only occasionally realizes this!

The fundamental issue as seen from the perspective of faith (as distinct from sociology) is that the question is not about the role of the church in the world of the future, but it is about the role of the world in the future of the church.

That is,

  • sociologically the world is the broader concept and the church a small part of it but
  • theologically, the church as the body of Christ is the broader concept – it is the future and the destiny of all things – the world was created so that there might be a church, a community worshipping God, a body of Christ. The church is the future of the world.

The future of the church and of faith lies in having Jesus Christ at the centre. That can happen in a number of ways, via a number of traditions but any church which is not explicitly, overtly focused on Jesus has lost the centre of faith.

Now to a few of the other major issues.

Firstly, the future will indeed be a spiritual world. Faith is not disappearing as has often been predicted. Note (Peter) “Berger’s blunder” concerning The Sacred Canopy (the sociologists text of the 1960’s and 1970’). The ‘sacred canopy’ over society has not been folded up and put away. Secularism has not won out (as Berger subsequently admitted). The world today is as religiously orientated as ever. Religions are not disappearing. The question is which will be healthy, life-affirming and  spiritually enriching.

Secondly, the future of the western/Australian church cannot be discussed without reference to global influences (note particularly the work of Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom). The church of the future will be dominated by non-western influences (proviso: USA) and based in the south and it will be characterized as; evangelical; Pentecostal; morally conservative; spiritually enthusiastic; theologically orthodox; eschatological/future orientated; missionary. (ie. Very different to where typical western mainline secularized churches are going).

The majority of Christians are already now in south/east rather than north/west.  And this majority church is, amongst other things,  both poor and missionary. (Did you see the ABC’s program about the mission of African priests to the Catholic church in Tasmania? And one of this years most anticipated new Australian plays (according to the Age newspaper) is Gwen in Purgatory by Tommy Murphy (dual winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award) about an African Christian missionary in suburban Australia: you know something is happening when there are plays being performed about a subject!)

Thirdly: in terms formal structures things are changing quickly.  It was some time ago that Loren Mead wrote his influential book The Once and Future Church: we have moved from an Apostolic paradigm; to Christendom; and now to Emerging.  I would simply say that “denominationalism is dead”. This is not to say that denominations will disappear but people (at least in non-Catholic/Orthodox circles) no longer identify themselves spiritually in terms of a denomination (as they used to: “I am a Baptist” or “I am a Methodist”). People change denominations/church according to other factors (theology; worship style etc).  In this situation there is a need (possibility) for a new grass-roots ecumenism (of local networks ?). We certainly should shift from the current situation of ‘ignore your ecclesiastical neighbour’ (how many times have you just been to visit the worship service of the church nearest to your own?).

There has been a shift towards congregationalism (even in episcopal churches ). IN the future we can expect less ‘top-down’; less clericalism(? ); more diversity in form with many bases (geographic and non-geographic).

Fourthly, after decades of faith being seen as private we will have to see more of a public church/faith. But not in the form of ‘Christendom’.  Christians will  have to engage intellectually and experientially with atheism/hard secularism/and even progressivism.  [Progressivism is so passé. Theologically unorthodox progressivism will fail. Non-orthodoxy is ultimately self-defeating (why would anyone really bother?) but temporarily parasitical (only getting converts from within the church)].

Fifthly, the form of spirituality is fragmened in form but united in ethos (as with the amorphous ‘New Age’ spirituality).   The church needs to exhibit humility, offering faith to people. It must be Christocentric and Trinitarian in form and have a very clear spirituality.  Those parts of the church which have engaged in other (often very useful) activities without maintaining a clear focus on Christ will continue to diminish. The mainline churches have largely dropped the ball in this regard. They have simply not been sufficiently overtly spiritual and Christ-centred. That is what the church is about and if people only get other activities then they can usually find that done more effectively elsewhere. The uniqueness of the church lies in making Jesus real to people and not in anything else (not vaguely spiritual or even ‘generic-God’  focused and not even just in being fellowship, justice or education orientated: these are important but will wither if not associated with a deep spirituality).

There are any number of ways of being Christ focused:

  • Renewal movements: evangelical; liturgical; contemplative; home church
  • The contemplative tradition – the quiet/reflective life (eg Peterson: the Contemplative pastor)
  • The Holiness Tradition – the virtuous life
  • The charismatic tradition – the spirit powered life
  • The social justice tradition – the compassionate life
  • The evangelical tradition – the Christ/cross/Bible centred life
  • We have focused on “gathered church” but there is a greater role for “scattered church”.

Sixthly (but it really should be promoted in this list) there is the indigenous situation in Australia. Our failure to deal with this issue (and therefore with related issues such as asylum seekers/racism) is a moral and spiritual roadblock for Australia.  Revival/renewal should be sought ‘from the centre/the heart of Australia. Will it happen?

There are,  of course, any number of other issues that will impact the future of faith including the presence of the persecuted church (more needs to be said about the fact that more people died for their faith in the twentieth than any other century); the influence of biotechnology, ecology and the status of women.

This entry was posted in Purpose and Destiny. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.