Unless a Grain of Wheat Falls: The Church in 25 years

Scott McClellan emailed me a couple weeks back and asked me to imagine what The church might be like in 25 years and write it in 150-300 words: It’s for an upcoming article for Collide Magazine (a magazine largely dealing with church and new media, an emphasis you will hear in my thoughts). So in a (very) playful, imaginative way I sat down and initially hand-wrote my response out. What I have below is actually more like 600 words, the second part “In 25 Years?” is actually the portion for the magazine, but I included the first part because it’s some background.

Unless a Grain of Wheat Falls

A recent article by the Michael Spencer, also known as the Internet Monk, made its way around the Internet recently titled ominously as “The coming evangelical collapse.”  I received a link to it on the pastor’s list-serve for our denomination, and you can imagine the (justifiable) responses that followed. In the article Spencer basically suggested for Christianity in American everything was going hell and a hand basket: “Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.”

That things are in decline in America shouldn’t be shocking to us, or even cause for fear, Jesus said, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” The church are the people of the light, those of us who stand for the peace, love and justice of God’s kingdom will continually be reviled. But what we often forget is that the world will hate us because of this revolutionary Jesus-centered imagination and that this is the more normative state of the church than the cozy role of chaplain its had in Christendom.

This seed falling to the ground and dying need not be cause for us to lock the doors, pull the shades and close up shop. We are reminded that this seed, after its death, will give birth to new life: “…I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” In John 12:24-25 we are shown that the church is born with a sort of auto-deconstruct mode, as John Caputo puts it. The Church is only the signifier of the kingdom, always subject to the movements and call of God’s Holy Spirit. There are times it will, even needs to, fall to the ground in order for rebirth.

This is very much the insight Quaker Everett Cattell had in 1966:

Perhaps the call is now before us for a new seeking: a seeking to find where God’s Spirit is actually at work in today’s world and then a giving of ourselves to work with Him – whether within or without the framework of Friends. The future of Friends may be like the grain of wheat, which must fall to the ground and die. Perhaps this would be the way to a new harvest (1966.).

Thoughts on The Church In 25 Years?

My sense about the future is that the church, whatever is left of it in 25 years, will be built around a kind of nebulous, decentralized participation in God’s mission. I imagine there will be a lot less full-time CEO pastors and more people who see themselves as co-cultivators of kingdom imaginations. People who band together in a world where there is little money, time or space for full-time ministry to embody this call.

At the heart of what we might call “mission communities” won’t be buildings, and budgets but high amounts of inter-connectivity, utilizing and disseminating the church’s wisdom and critique through whatever devices and networks are available. Being tied-down to physical space will be seen less as an asset and more as a disadvantage. I think these people will use whatever space is available to them, and while being committed to particular (local) areas, they won’t be fixed to one location.

Building on this sense of participating within these mobile ecclesial groups will be a strong emphasis on communal creativity, rather than the individualistic focus of the do-it-YOURSELF, they will be focused on a do-it-OURSELVES mentality. In 25 years the church will not count on social services, setup within Christendom, to do its work for it any longer. The church will have to embody God’s mission, creativity, justice, non-violence and hospitality as a community of people committed to being disciples of Jesus.

Because these Christians will be less separated from the world it will be important to build communities and practices of resistance: people who read Scripture together to be reminded and shaped as people of “The Way” while learning how to survive in empire, who share their food, their belongings, and who reject the speed and consumption of hyper-capitalism. They will be non-conformist while living within and seeking to transform the world.

Finally, while this gathered diasporic people will focus on their particular local concerns they will also join with other “mission communities” for collective fronts on important and timely issues of their days. They will disband and regroup as needs arise. Thus even denominations will work more like social networks, cultivating disciples, artists, theologians, leaders and imaginations for survival in a world in need of the Gospel.

14 responses to “Unless a Grain of Wheat Falls: The Church in 25 years”

  1. I like your vision of the Church in 25 years. I hope and pray that the trajectory of Christianity you and I see in our faith communities will continue (insofar as it’s a good thing). I wonder how this question would be answered in Europe or anywhere in the third world, though. Or South Korea for that matter.

  2. Thanks for this, Wess. I certainly hope you’re right about the future of the church, though I have a hard time imagining anything more than than increasing emphasis on the mega-church model. I’m also skeptical of any kind of catastrophe scenarios for the American church; the numbers have been steady for a long, long time (this comment is more relevant to Spencer’s vision than your own).

    I’m interested to know what you think about the following line from the article you linked:

    “The emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision.”

    I don’t know much about the emerging church, but it sounds like the vision Spencer (and you) have of small networks of communities focused on resisting empire is more or less what the emerging church movement (at least in some of its iterations) is all about.

  3. Chase – Good question about the rest of the world. It's something I wonder about as well. I need to read some of P.Jenkins stuff because I know he discusses what some of the new global Christian movements are doing. I was just asked to cover North America so I could really say much about the rest of the world, but to be honest I don't really know what I would have said other than that Christianity is growing in the rest of the world and slowly declining in the west.

  4. Jamie – I agree with your skepticism for any doomsday scenarios. I don't think from the rest of Church history that this is really the way things are going to be. I do think, given the various books I've read on the church in NA, that much of the church is declining in the West. You put your finger on it though, mega-churches are still growing, at least those already in existence (I'm not sure about how many new ones are being planted).

    I disagree with the quote above, it seems to me that Spencer has an axe to grind against the emerging church like a lot of people. For one thing, monolithic statements about the EC are ignore the fact that these communities don't work that way. And another is that, at least the best of the emerging church (there are certainly things to criticize) is attempting to operate very much like the early church, which was, as you put it, networks of communities resisting empire.

  5. loved this line: “we often forget…the world will hate us because of this revolutionary Jesus-centered imagination and that this is the more normative state of the church than the cozy role of chaplain its had in Christendom.”

    how does that relate to MLK saying the church is conscience of the state?

  6. “I imagine there will be a lot less full-time CEO pastors and more people who see themselves as co-cultivators of kingdom imaginations. People who band together in a world where there is little money, time or space for full-time ministry to embody this call.”

    Ministry with fewer pastors, less full-time ministry, people banding together themselves. Now why does that model sound familiar?

  7. The model, as Martin points out, has unfolded in several places both in the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Two examples, to the best of my knowledge, are Church of the Savior and Movement for New Society. The latter had many Friends connections.

    I see these models continuing to develop but by there nature tend to be “anti-” or at least counter-cultural. I am optimistic that some of the model can be translated to a “virtual” “kingdom imaginations.” However, I see the cultural institutions of the mega-churches and “main-line” churches maintaining a prevailing influence on NA. I don’t see the mustard seeds as overtaking the forest but maintaining a fruitful presence.

  8. Martin – hehe…yes, you guessed it. 😉

    Tom – Church of the Savior is a great great example IMO and I haven’t heard of this other one. I should look into it.

    “I don’t see the mustard seeds as overtaking the forest but maintaining a fruitful presence.”

    I agree with you on this point. I do think eventually megachurches won’t really be viable and may be more of a relic, but I think that will take a long time to really happen. But I do think that the rest of the church will (hopefully) follow more what’s been said above.

  9. Wess, great article and like many of your other commentators I find it hard to believe that the doomsday scenario for evangelicalism is coming.

    The great attraction of such churches (being in one myself, all be it in the UK) is that it allows you to be comfortable. To just attended each Sunday and little else. I've never been part of a mega church but I would imagine that this is only increased in such circumstances where there are lots (and lots and lots) or willing people to get involved and more places for an individuals to hide.

    Western Christianity is comfortable and we like it that way. *smile* Unfortunately, the only way I can see the rise of your 25 year vision is if some catastrophe does indeed befall main stream church and forces all us average Joe Christians to take it seriously.

    We really don't want this to happen!

    Great post, keep it up.