As society continues to change there is real pressure on the church to adapt in order to stay relevant. Engagement will continue to drive growth and authenticity will be key to connecting with people. In observing both society and the place of the church within it and having served my own church at Hope for over two decades here are 12 observations I see as we move forward in a post Christian context.
These observations formed part of a wider talk on the church which I gave at Hope. You can listen to the talk in full here - www.hopechurchnottingham.org/2019care5/
• Expect the church to discover ways to integrate itself back into communities. Congregations will grow as communities are served and relevance is established. There is no short cut to this. The fact is a certain amount of transfer growth and immigration has propped up church statistics across the UK and particularly in our larger cities. The truth is seeing unchurched people come to faith is hard work which is why every church should have a strategy to reach the young - we must win the hearts and minds of the young or the church has no future. Period. NB the recent decision of the General Synod to reestablish the church in significant housing estates across the UK. is a great step forward in this regard.
• Expect the church to both shrink and grow at the same time. Nominal Christianity will see decline whilst at the same time a relevant form of faith will emerge. There will be fewer churches - but the churches that are left will exist because they are engaging.
• Expect to see an increase in the idea of people belonging before they believe. There will be the merging of boundaries and as churches form community hubs people will be attracted to join thus blurring the traditional areas of ‘in’ and ‘out’.
• The longings of the human heart are not going anywhere soon. If the church continues to address the big life issues: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? She will maintain her voice in the market place - but will have to compete with a growing plethora of other voices in a newly emerging interest in spirituality.
• Expect the church to move towards narrative based theology. Stories are the future - you can see this in the revival of cinema and the rise of mediums such as Netflix and You Tube. People are looking for experiences - stories are what best convey these experiences. Notice how Christian organisations are positioning themselves for this. NB the introduction of NT Wright as an article contributor for Premier Magazine is a case in point.
• Expect to see more churches put their services online as they seek to engage with people via the internet - the church is migrating towards the mobile phone for both millennial's and the young. NB the introduction of Churchome Global – A New Way to Church is a clear example of this emerging trend.
• Expect modern scholarship, archaeology, big data, and collaboration to change the way we both view, read and interpret scripture and move contemporary theology to a more Christocentric hermaneutic where the teachings and life of Christ trump other biblical texts and provide the platform for re- engagement and evangelism. Fundamentalism will continue to lose ground, especially in the West to a more progressive theology. NB - Andy Stanley’s latest book Irresistible is an example of this growing shift.
• Expect the church to start to take a greater check on its excesses as people grow increasingly suspicious of such fringe teachings like the prosperity gospel. NB Joyce Meyer's recent statement where she addressed some of her own excess highlights this shift.
• The church has dealt poorly with the issues of sexuality often acting as judge and jury over sexual ethics. Recent exposure of the churches hypocrisy in this area has caused deep and lasting damage and the scandal has embraced many of the mainstream denominations, with the Southern Baptist Convention in the US becoming the latest with 400 members facing sexual misconduct allegations resulting so far in 220 convictions. How can we expect to be heard if we are not able to keep our own house in order? A new humility will need to emerge from this brokenness if we are to rebuild trust. Such scandals arise at a time when the church does not have the same voice in mainstream culture - the outcome from this will be interesting to observe.
• Expect a softening in tone within the church towards sexuality as we go through a generational leadership shift and she tries to work through the biblical and pastoral responses to those who live with same sex attraction and those within the LGBTQ community generally. NB the latest report from the Ozanne Foundation shows that of 4600 people interviewed, 458 people had undertaken conversion therapy to try and ‘become straight’ and 91 people had attempted suicide. The issue of human sexuality in a broken world is deeply complex and challenging. If we don't want to be side lined as bigots or cast off as irrelevant then we will need to think deeply about our language and the way we speak and act otherwise we will lose our place at the table and the dialogue will continue without us.
• Expect a rise in the importance of connecting with the historical roots of the faith as people look for greater tangible realities in an ever secularised and shallow world. Orthodoxy will play a growing role in anchoring the tenants of faith around the historical Jesus whilst at the same time the 'fundamental' doctrines of denominations will become less important as people place experience over doctrine.
• Expect the church to engage in experiential Christianity - tying real lie issues to faith borne out of real experiences with God and his Spirit. Apologetics is not the answer to an experience hungry culture - encounters are. The church will continue to create atmospheres that allow for encounters with God.
So there we go - my 12 observations of the challenges and changes for the church as we move forward.