Over at sowhatfaith.com, the blog of Greg Smith, there is a ten-part series called “The Future Church (v. 2020) – 10 Shifts.” Smith describes the series as: “the top ten ways I hope the American church of 2020 will differ from the church of 2012.”
According to his biographical information, Greg Smith has had most of his experience in mainline communities. He calls himself “a 30-something progressive, postmodern, postdenominational follower of Jesus who believes that the Christian faith is best understood experientially.” He has served in congregations affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lutheran (ELCA), Presbyterian (PCUSA), and United Church of Christ (UCC) denominations. Currently, Greg serves as Director of Adult Education at Naples United Church of Christ and teaches at Hodges University.
So, here is a perspective on the future of the American church from a younger leader in the mainline Protestant world. I think you will find it not too much different from what many in evangelicalism are saying. Smith suggests ten shifts he would like to see in the church by the year 2010. (You can read more detail at each link.)
Here’s his list:
10. More collaboration and less competition. Citing trends that collaboration between churches is already increasing, Smith hopes for an increase in shared community projects and an increase in interfaith activities of all kinds, including efforts to increase religious literacy, dialogue to promote understanding, shared social justice projects as well as joint worship services and sharing of clergy. There will more of a balance on encouraging people to belong to a congregation rather than to believe in a way that shuts out other congregations.
9. More scalable and fewer fixed costs. Smith suggests several ways that churches will deal with their financial stewardship in the future. Church budgets are heaviest on human resources, so this is the logical place to try and reduce costs. He suggests there may be fewer seminary trained clergy, more shared pastorates or lay pastorates in smaller churches, more staff positions in larger congregations that are open to both lay and clergy participation, more part-time and specialized staff, and more volunteer opportunities with an increased emphasis on training volunteers in churches. As far as property and facility costs, he sees the churches continuing to move away from single-use spaces, owning rather than renting, and moves toward decentralization that make use of virtual technologies.
8. More about following and less about membership. Churches will focus more on encouraging people to follow the way of Jesus rather than being a faithful member of a local church. Rather than membership being the starting point of belonging to a congregation, membership will grow out of belonging and being assimilated into the life of the community. Measuring membership statistics will be less important than determining ways of assessing who have found a vital place in the church’s life. Smith cites Michael Foss’s book, Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church, with its contrasts between a membership model and a discipleship model for specific examples of what this will mean.
7. More about questions and less about answers. In the teaching ministry of the church, there will be more of a focus on on the content and style of Jesus’ teaching, especially the parables, which encourage people to question rather than giving them easy answers. Smith sees more “both/and” rather than “either/or” thinking, and less focus on a teacher up front on a stage lecturing and more on walking beside students in a more give and take fashion.
6. More Jesus-centered and less focused on tradition. Smith offers little detail as to what he means by this, other than to say there will be more a focus on the great commandment and more of an emphasis on deeds, not dogma.
5. More begin by belonging and less by believing. This is a point that is important to Smith — when you read the entire series, this idea comes up again and again. Therefore, I will let you hear exactly how he puts it:
The current preferred order emerged in the last 500 years and became dominant as a result of many factors, including a preference for rational thinking guided by the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation alongside the perceived need by all denominations and religious groups to clarify its uniqueness. This model is now so common that many who follow the way of Jesus simply assume it has always been either the preferred or only path. It begins with belief, requiring would be adherents to affirm a group’s specific beliefs. Those who embrace believing are then expected to behave in manners that are consistent with such beliefs. Persons displaying proper beliefs and behaviors are then eligible to belong through formal standing typically referred to as church membership.
The new preferred order is consistent with the nature of Jesus’ own earthly ministry, the practices of the early church, and shared understanding embraced until the shift leading to the current order. The new (and old) order begins with belonging as people respond to invitation and receive welcome into a community of faith. This relational starting point provides newcomers the ability to experience what it means for them to be a part of this new community. As they participate they begin to act like (behave) those around them and those that the group as a whole seek to follow. Only after belonging to and behaving more like this new community do people move on to believing.
4. More connected and less geographically dependent. Churches will continue to find ways to use technology, resulting in congregations that will become a hybrid presence that blends their existing physical presence with a virtual presence. Churches both big and small will try to find ways of building connections between people and offering worship, learning, and service opportunities both in the real world and the virtual world.
3. More innovative and less predictable. Again, Smith is somewhat sketchy as far as detailing how this will work, other than to suggest there will be more less of the “top down” approach when it comes to generating ideas and developing ministries and more involvement by congregation members in pursuing their passions in both existing ministries and new ones.
2. More egalitarian and less hierarchical. An increasing role for technology, along with a greater role for the local congregation rather than larger bodies will lead to a greater exercise of the priesthood of all believers, less division between leaders and congregation members, and perhaps even reforms in church polity and the emergence of new networks of relationships in and between churches.
1. More about deeds and less about creeds. Again, I will let Smith speak for himself on this final point:
- “Religious” experiences will be valued over “religious” information, especially among younger generations and those of all ages who self-identify as postmodern.
- Orthopraxy (correct actions) will precede and be viewed as more important than orthodoxy (correct belief). While not removing orthodoxy as a part of the life of the church, it lessens the likelihood of its use as a primary requirement for entry or a litmus test for faithfulness. It also allows for a wide diversity of roles for orthodoxy within varying congregations and denominations. Belief oriented common ground will focus on essentials rather than doctrine or dogma.
- Local communities of faith will focus on a shared mission while allowing for and even encouraging questions within the egalitarian group.
Last week in a post I noted that the “church growth movement” is alive and well, adapting their entrepreneurial and marketing mindset to changing circumstances. Well, in this post, it appears that the “future church” and “church renewal” movements are alive and well also, along with the “body life” movement, the “spiritual gifts” movement, the “ecumenical” movement, and the “discipleship” movement.
One advantage to getting a bit older is that you see fads and trends not only emerge but also re-emerge in the church. Greg Smith’s “vision” for the church in 2010 sounds basically the same as things I’ve been hearing in certain circles since the 1970’s:
- Personal discipleship over institutional life
- A concern for ecumenism and shared mission between church bodies
- More lay involvement as people “discover their gifts” and “pursue their passions”
- Innovation and creativity in the way we do things, along with a less dogmatic and traditional style
- Less authoritarian structure, teaching, and organization
The only truly new realities Smith factors in are big changes in the way we use technology and the pragmatic realization that churches cannot go on funding ministries in the ways we’ve been doing it for the past couple of generations. Otherwise, I find most of this simply to be recycled church renewal material, repackaged for a new era.
Michael Spencer used to say often: ” I believe the way forward for [the church] is the way back to the roots of the broader, deeper, more ancient, more ecumenical church, not forward into more of what [churches] have been doing the last 50 years.”
Greg Smith is not showing us that way here. While I do believe we need to think carefully about such things as the place of technology in our churches, the challenge of funding ministries in a post-Christian society, and the way we balance individual and institutional life, in my opinion we need less of this “forward” thinking and more faithful incorporation of practices of the church that have stood the test of time. Most of all we need to focus on the present grunt work that needs to happen day in and day out, doing the actual work of the church in the midst of our congregations and out in our communities.
- That means simply remembering why we as the church gather together and why we scatter into the world, and doing those things prayerfully, thoughtfully, lovingly, and consistently.
- It means loving God, one another, and our neighbors — really and practically and personally — not as part of some innovative program.
- It means freeing clergy to be pastors: to share the Word, give the sacraments, hear confessions, visit the congregation and provide pastoral care and spiritual guidance, and equip a few close friends to carry on and multiply the ministry.
- It means becoming grounded in our neighborhoods and communities as trusted institutions that consistently contribute to the well being of our communities.
- It means, not abandoning our traditions or thinking we can simply follow Christ without them, but donning them with gratitude and learning how to wear them attractively and in such a way that they will increase our love for Christ and others rather than bog us down or hinder our relationships.
- It means not becoming enamored of innovation and creativity and new tools, but trying them out and incorporating their use when it makes sense, while never forgetting that the most effective work of ministry has little to do with anything new or better but rather is now what it has always been: people loving God and other people in Christ.