Each year at this time, we look toward the future, make New Year’s resolutions, and hope things will be better in the coming year. This year however, the painful memories of the horrible Newtown, Connecticut massacre and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, makes hope seem like an illusive dream. Add to this the Fiscal Cliff and the Congressional gridlock, and hope sounds like a wishful fantasy. Will 2013 really be any better than 2012?
Our answer as followers of Jesus is a resounding yes! There is reason for hope in the coming year. We can and must look ahead with optimism and faith. Someone has said, you are as young as your dreams, or as old as your cynicism. It requires nothing to be cynical. Hope, on the other hand, demands courage and faith – faith to trust God, and courage to dream the impossible!
One thing that gives me hope and encouragement for the coming year is the number of new congregations starting all over the world. Reports from China, Indonesia, India, Africa and Latin America speak of amazing spiritual awakenings, and disciple-making movements resulting in millions of new churches.
Even in North America, unprecedented numbers of new churches are opening their doors. Over the past ten years, an average of 4,000 new churches were planted each year in the United States – nearly 80 new congregations per week. Many, if not most, of these new congregations do not look anything like existing churches. Some are, by design, unlike anything we have seen before! Personally, I am excited about most of what I see in the burgeoning new congregations springing up across our community, our state, our country, and around the world.
At the same time however, I am saddened by the decline of many existing congregations, by the disconnect that exists between these congregations and their surrounding communities, and most importantly, by the lack of spiritual and emotional health found in many of them. Some reports demonstrate 70 and 80 Protestant churches closing their doors every week.
What does the future hold for us, if we close as many churches as we open each year?
As crazy as this might sound, I believe the future of the church is as hopeful and exciting as ever! This surge of new church starts reveals a deep spiritual hunger among people in our country, especially among young people. Even more impressive is the fact that people are finding God and discovering how to be the church outside traditional venues. I believe we are seeing a new paradigm of church beginning to take shape.
In this new paradigm, everyone is a missionary. There is no distinction between the clergy and laity, and the primary focus of the church is on reaching people where they are, in a language they understand. I am seeing this new paradigm developing in new church starts, as well as in transitioning congregations. It is so exciting!
I believe the future is not about worship style or music, but what it means to be the church in today’s changing cultural context. The future of the local church is not about how the members gather in buildings for worship, but about how they spread out into their communities to impact others with God’s love. The future is not about defending doctrinal purity, but about reaching a world that does not know God, and has been unable to find Him in institutions bearing His name.
Jesus said it is about building relationships that last for eternity! (Matthew 22:37) This is the future of the church – a future focused on discovering and living the simple truth found in Jesus’ prayer, “Father, just as you are in me, and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:31) It is a future where loving God and loving others trumps the traditions of men, and where shining His light in the darkness is more important than shouting our religious rhetoric at the darkness.
Yes, I believe there is a future for the church – a future marked by a passion to become the people of God in a world that desperately needs to know God. The great challenge for the church in the future will be to replace “doing church” and “going to church” with “being church.” There is great hope for the church when and if we are more committed to service than survival, more focused on significance than success, and more concerned with extending the Kingdom than expanding our brand of Christianity.
As we move into 2013, I pray we will discover what it means to follow Jesus, and as the Body of Christ, reveal God’s mercy, love and grace to the people around us. Will you resolve to be a part of what God has planned for the church in 2013?