Can We Know the Future of the Church?

By Jeff Walling

The Weather Channel shocked me one morning recently by saying visibility was going to be “unlimited.” Wow! That’s a day I don’t want to miss. Think of it, to look out your window and see forever! I could see my children’s future. I could see our country’s future. I could even see our church’s future.

What a disappointment that the trees in my neighbor’s yard were blocking my view. If I could just get above the trees, what could I really see?

But there’s the rub. As a Christian, do I believe someone can actually “see the future”?

Our culture has long toyed with that notion in both thoughtful and fanciful ways. Consider the fortune cookie. I was eating Chinese food with friends when one of them pulled this prediction from his cookie: “You will have a prosperous day next Tuesday.” That was a slightly more specific prediction than we had seen before. And though we both knew it was printed in some factory in Beijing or Baltimore and stuffed at random into thousands of cookies, it seemed so . . . certain!

We looked at each other, and for a moment it seemed we shared the same ridiculous thought, Could it really be true? which was followed immediately by an involuntary, but telling, second thought, Where am I going to be next Tuesday?

That’s silly, right? But still, it seems we just can’t escape the notion that somehow all our days are predetermined in the great “time space continuum.”

My reaction that day was something like how I reacted to George Barna’s recent book Revolution (Tyndale, October 2005).

A Frightening Future

The book is a frighteningly negative appraisal of the church’s future. Barna, the George Gallup of the Christian world, has long been the go-to guy for gauging the future by interpreting polls and surveys of believers across the country. But seldom has he presented such a depressing take on the future. He notes the waning influence the modern church exerts on society, citing the falling numbers of those who feel their lives are influenced and impacted by the church. He further predicts those numbers will continue heading south. As he summarizes it:

The United States will see a reduction in the number of institutional churches. Church services will decline as Christians devote their time to a wider array of spiritual events. Donations to institutional churches will drop because millions of believers will invest their money in other ministry ventures. A declining number of professional clergy will receive a livable salary from their church. Denominations will go through cutbacks and executives will be relieved of their duties as their boards attempt to understand and halt the hemorrhaging.

Does this sound like a fortune cookie from Hades? Maybe. But there are plenty who seem to believe our tomorrow is visible . . . and it ain’t pretty.

So is our future set? The Bible strikes a strange balance in answering this question. Without taking an ounce from his own sovereignty nor diminishing a drop of his glory and grandeur, God grants us the chance to write our future. Scripture does not see our future as free from our control, nor fully controlled by us. Teaching through Revelation recently reminded me of that truth more clearly than ever.

Our Choice of a Future

Within the pages of the most predictive book in the New Testament, John’s Revelation, Christ again and again calls believers to repent, hold on, and be faithful. He clearly invites them to make a choice to change their future. Otherwise, he says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:5).

God has promised certain things will come to pass: Jesus will return, judgment is unavoidable, and this earth will not last forever. But he has not predestined our every choice, leaving us no influence on our future. He’s got the whole world in his hands, but he has, at least partly, put the reins of our futures in our hands.

The language of inevitability is very tempting. There is much solace to be found in comforting the bereaved by saying, “God had a plan for this accident” or “It was God’s will that this take place.” Even in our praising an almighty God we can fall into a “it’s all out of my control” mind-set that leaves us almost watching passively as our lives unfold.

But that is neither the spirit of Scripture nor the teaching of Jesus. He began his ministry with a call to his disciples to follow him. They could choose to heed that call or ignore it. And those choices would shape their future. As the apostles and early evangelists went out with the gospel, each person could choose to respond or dismiss the wonderful grace of Jesus.

It is the same for us. As we have sung for years, “whosoever will may come.” Our future is not prewritten on our palms or in the sky. On the contrary, God determined that the future of our families and our churches would be written today by the choices we make.

This is not to deny that Barna and others do us a service in ringing warning bells. The institutional church is in need of overhaul. The world has grown weary of thinly veiled hypocrisy and prideful elitism. A younger generation is wondering if the church has anything of value to say to them—and more to the point—whether Jesus still has anything to do with the church.

But these warnings cannot be read as predictions. There continue to be bright spots, often noted in the pages of this publication, that demonstrate open hearts still abound and new and creative methods of sharing the ancient are still being found. But sitting back and believing our future is unchangeable or predetermined will be a path to the most dire of predictions coming true.

Our Movement’s Future

So, what will be the future of the Restoration Movement? A continuing litany of splits and fights, of divisions and dissension? Or will we choose in humility to seek God’s will as we extend grace to fellow seekers? Will we ask the tough questions about how to reach this generation for Christ while maintaining an uncompromised stand for what is right? Will we be willing to spend the extra time needed to build our marriages and nurture the relationships with our children or will we let the pace of life crush any hope of Sabbath rests and family nights together?

Let us repeat again and again the challenge of Joshua: “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” From our church leaders to the teens in our youth groups, the choices we make are shaping the churches our children will attend. They are molding the world they will inhabit.

Yes, God is sovereign. Yes, he has the future in his hands. But he has invited us to have a part in it. We can reshape our futures. We can be part of a new and vibrant way of being the church of Jesus Christ. We can prevent divorce and division from being the hallmarks of tomorrow. And, ironically enough, part of the secret to doing so is realizing the power of the One who truly owns tomorrow.

Consider our brother John. He must have been chilled to see the future as God revealed it to him on the Isle of Patmos. Indeed, the fantastic pictures and violent visions of the book of Revelation leave us staring in horror at John’s words. “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later” (Revelation 1:19). But John also knew the One who created this earth and will bring it to a close has promised to be with his people. So before the writer of Revelation revealed the scary visions of plagues, wars and want, he reminded us in chapter 4 and 5 there is One who sits on the throne. He is worthy of our worship and praise. He has granted us our choices but not abandoned us in dealing with their results. He is present and he is God.

You see, even more important than getting a peek at tomorrow is knowing the One who holds tomorrow in his hand lets us participate in its creation.

And that’s a bigger truth than you’ll find in any fortune cookie!

JEFF WALLING has spent the last 25 years preaching and teaching about Jesus. He speaks to tens of thousands annually at Christian universities, evangelism seminars, and conferences worldwide.

Jeff earned his bachelor’s degree in speech and communications from the University of California at Irvine and did graduate work in religion at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California. He produces inspirational video and audio series used by churches and schools nationwide. Jeff writes for several Christian publications and is the author of Daring to Dance with God, Until I Return: 12 Things Jesus Wants Every Believer to Know, and Hugs for Graduates.

Jeff lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife, Cathryn, and their three sons, Taylor, Riley, and Spencer. He serves as senior minister with Providence Road Church of Christ.

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