I love the church and have devoted my life to nurturing faith communities that gather, heal, and inspire Christ-followers. I’m 74 years old now, and even as I look back to see how the church has changed and adapted in my lifetime, I am looking forward to what comes next with some concern—and I wonder whether and how new vision for the church’s future will emerge.
I’ve been involved in bringing new vision and new forms to the church, so I do have hope built on a foundation of experience. I entered into full-time ministry in a rapidly growing megachurch in Southern California during the 1980s. Eventually my wife Nancy and I moved our family to Boise to plant a Vineyard Christian Fellowship church—a community that quickly grew to over 3,000 members and became one of the largest and most innovative fellowships in Idaho at that time. Now though, having been retired from full-time ministry for seven years, I am deeply concerned by what seems to be the fading relevance of the church—especially in Cascadia, where it seems that relevance has always been a challenge for Christian communities. In these tumultuous times, I find myself passionately seeking God for insight as to where the church (and the evangelical church in particular) is heading.
Leading the duck
Throughout my pastoral career, one of my main goals was to build competent ministry leaders. When teaching vision development, I would emphasize a crucial principle I called “leading the duck.” Having been raised in a rural environment in the 1950’s and 60’s hunting and fishing was a big part of my upbringing—so a hunting metaphor became a natural way for me to communicate. The principle of leading the duck is based on the fact that, when shooting at a rapidly flying bird, a successful hunter doesn’t aim directly at the target, but rather “leads” it. In other words, the hunter never shoots where the duck is, but instead anticipates where it is heading. Bagging the duck requires an educated and coordinated calculation of shooting into the space that the duck has yet to occupy.
The principle I tried to instill in young leaders, then, was this: A successful Christian leader—one who desires to develop expressions of faith community that continue to be relevant from generation to generation—will not merely focus on the present moment, but will instead build ministries to occupy the empty space before the need arrives. Successful leaders must regularly ask questions like:
- Where is all this going?
- How can I be prepared for it when it actually gets there?
- How can I possibly “lead a duck” that is moving so fast and flying so out of control?
It is especially hard to anticipate the future when it seems like it’s all we can do to meet the demands of the present. How does one lead the duck in this age of shifting cultural norms, political strife and disunity, acceleration of devastating environmental crises, and a global pandemic that has reached every corner of the globe?
Unfortunately, too many church leaders have responded to these overwhelming changes by doubling down on conventional approaches to ministry; at best they tweak familiar ministry methods as they seek to meet the immediate and pressing needs of their faith communities—essentially looking backwards. Ironically, this “retreat for survival” mode will, I think, be the very response that ensures their churches will not be viable for the future.
New vision from a new generation
While I do know that this desperate adherence to the status quo can never lead the church forward, I can’t say with confidence that I know what innovative, adaptive alternatives look like. Indeed, it is up to the next generation of church leaders—those in their 20s and 30s—to do the beautiful and difficult work of dreaming us into the future. This should not be surprising because nearly every fresh move of God has been youthful, starting with Jesus and his twelve disciples, then Luther and his students, John Wesley and his young leaders and (in a lesser way) the Jesus Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In recent years, thousands upon thousands of young people have left the evangelical faith of their parents, perceiving Christianity as politically biased, hypocritical in practice, and irrelevant to the very real fears and crises of the day. I have come to believe that many of these disenchanted folks will become the reclaimers of authentic faith in Christ—though in practice it may bear little resemblance to the faith of their fathers and mothers.
Let me offer an example: On a very practical level, one aspect of church praxis that will inevitably change will be in the way that younger generations learn the stories and values that inform their faith life. While the goal will continue to be the discovery of biblical truth, the pedagogy is likely to be very different. For example, if there are still “sermons” that remain part of new church practices, they will be short and to the point—and fundamentally different from the more traditional long, expository monologues. And instead of being dominated by the views of one individual standing behind a pulpit week after week, teaching will more likely become a celebration of multiple perspectives that, when taken together, yield new understanding.
Necessarily, this sort of community-orientation to learning will require spaces and practices that foster dialogue and personal interaction. The current trend away from conventionally churchy spaces will likely continue in favor of less rarified, more familiar social spaces like brew pubs, cigar bars, and coffee houses—venues that represent their generation’s desire for more intimate, authentic relationships and honest conversation.
At the same time—again in reflection of the priorities and learning styles of younger generations—re-imagined approaches to learning and formation are likely to become more contemplative in nature. I anticipate that they will promote both personal and collaborative discovery of truth rather than passive acceptance of what is proclaimed from the pulpit. Perhaps most importantly—and in contrast to current and conventional church practice—faith teachers and learners will not shy away from difficult questions concerning the Bible and how it applies to real life—especially in light of difficult questions for which there are no clear consensuses or easy answers. Rather, learning processes will boldly and unapologetically engage current issues such as the crises of climate change, the outrage of social injustice, the unfairness of economic disparity, and the rancor of cultural and political divisiveness.
Though I would like to think that established churches would welcome and make room for such profound reorientations, I have been in ministry leadership too long to hope for that. Such cultural shifts, in fact, are more likely to provoke outrage in much of the traditional evangelical church. I personally experienced such persecution after writing the book Saving God’s Green Earth in 2005. I had written it in an effort to encourage church leaders around the world to introduce their congregations to the power of environmental stewardship. The book told the story of how our church in Boise had embraced the theological principles of creation care, and what we were doing to put them into action. For us, this departure from (and challenge to) an established evangelical cultural norm was, for our faith community, both life-giving and transformative. We launched the first recycling program in our community, for example, and served our parks and recreation department by planting new trees and conducting river cleanups. We served the broader community—and the Idaho wilderness—by reconstructing and maintaining backcountry trails.
Such practices not only energized our faith community, but also attracted many new young people who saw in us a deep commitment to some of the things that they cared about most. Yet even as we grew as a church, bearing witness to the transformative power of a radically reorientated theology of creation, we drew the ire of mainstream churches and Christian talk show hosts who denounced us and our efforts. Sadly, this sort of resistance to change is to be expected. Those who would dare to imagine new forms of belief and faith practice—and to thereby challenge the status quo of evangelical culture—will need enormous courage to face inevitable persecution.
When I try to imagine the future church, knowing what I know of my children’s generation, the words that I believe will characterize emerging forms of faith are words like mercy, compassion, justice, grace, acceptance, and empathy for all humanity. This new movement of re-imagining and replacing old, tired forms will be a godly reaction to the cries of a broken, fearful culture. Whether they even call it “church” or not, I anticipate that the next generation of Christ-followers will grow to become a passionate movement of young people, rising up against the craziness of the world they have inherited. They will stand against the passivity of the church they walked away from; instead they will embrace righteous Christian activism, and the commission of Jesus in Matthew 25 will be their call to action. They will be unafraid to engage issues that most evangelical churches avoid; they will speak and act in response to the suffering of all creation due to climate change, the dehumanization wrought by racial inequality, or obscenities of wealth disparities on a national and global scale. And for this they will no doubt be branded by the dominant church culture as “politically liberal,” and persecuted for it.
Yet I honestly wonder: for how long will those churches who fear change and cling to their old ways actually persist? Jesus said, “unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives” (John 12:24). Many of us who have given our lives to Christian ministry and church leadership have become devastated and disillusioned as we have witnessed the church we love become unraveled by divisive politics and scattered by the effects of the pandemic. Many have rallied to do everything humanly possible to maintain the status quo in the midst of what has seemed to be a losing battle—forgetting that the very modus operandi of God is to make all things new, to reform, to reconcile, to rebirth. The hard news (for many) is that God always seems to allow “old wineskins” to shrivel as new vintages are being prepared.
We live now in such a time. It is not a time to resist new iterations of faith practice simply because they are unfamiliar and therefore threatening, as the Pharisees once did. Instead, those churches who would be part of a movement of re-imagination—even and especially as the world changes around them—must learn to lead the duck.
It isn’t easy for faith communities to embrace the uncertainties of necessary change, especially in these troubled times when so many aspects of our lives seem uncertain. The crises we currently face as Christ-loving communities will inevitably hasten the death of some of the old ways, regardless of how desperately we cling to their familiarity. Yet after a lifetime of pastoral leadership, I am convinced that to follow Christ is to embrace the principle of resurrection—to believe that death really can lead to new life. Those faith communities that cultivate a humble, hopeful stance of teachable expectancy will, I believe, be able to look forward to “many new kernels of wheat and a plentiful harvest of new lives.”
Cover photo credit: Josh Applegate