Nothing challenges us to think about changing times more than the transition from one year to the next. On this first day of 2012, we asked six Christian leaders to think about the church a year from now and to draw a picture of our progress—and our problems—then.
First, I think the church as a whole will continue moving toward an outward focus that seeks out and cares for the marginalized, powerless, homeless, dirty, and helpless. We, the church, will increasingly see the “least of these” as the impelling reason for our very existence. The church will see as never before that the gifts God has poured out on us Christians are not simply for our enjoyment, but are for equipping us to minister to those to whom Jesus gave priority. “Those who are well don’t need a doctor.”
Second, I believe this outward focus will grow out of spiritual formation of the church by its leaders. That is, our spiritual leaders will consciously gear what we have called our “education programs” toward forming Christians to understand the point of Christianity—to know and reflect the heart of Jesus and to bring those without the love of Christ and the peace of God into a healing and transformative relation with their creator. This will make Christians and the church “sound”—healthy.
Congregations will study the Gospels (how Christ thought and acted), Philippians 2 (how Christ gave up his rights, privileges, and preferences for others), 2 Corinthians 3 (how we are being transformed into the image of Christ from one degree to another), and Galatians 5 (how the fruit of the Spirit looks in contrast with the works of the flesh).
Third, because it is so hard for traditional churches to be a place of refuge for outsiders, they will seek ways to partner with nontraditional churches—by whatever name they are known: simple church, cell church, new church, underground church, emergent or emerging church. The temptation will be, as always, to view “partnering” as giving money, with a special Sunday devoted to reports about “that work over there.” True partnering will move Christians in both contexts to see their ministries as inseparable, with the traditional church on the “turf” of the nontraditional church in multiple and constant ways. Both traditional and nontraditional churches will be sorely tempted to see themselves as superior—a temptation each must be aware of and resist.
At the heart of these developments will be a shift away from the assumption that the chief way we identify a person as a follower of Christ is their assent to a set of precisely articulated doctrinal propositions. Rather, the chief criterion will be seeing Christ in the other person. Sound or healthy doctrine is essential! But people will increasingly see that doctrine is not an end in itself, but a means of transforming us more into the likeness of Christ as we take it into our hearts and minds, as we grapple with unfathomable truths, as we grow in our understanding and trust in God.
This shift will involve seeing Scripture, not primarily as a “book of facts” to master, but a place where we encounter God’s Spirit that masters us. Scripture is filled with facts—truths we can believe and trust. However, if we think that the point of being in Scripture as “all about us”—about our mastering the data—we have turned things upside down. The main reason we need constantly to be in Scripture is so God’s Spirit can master and transform us. I see this as an increasing conviction in the church that will grow in the next year.
In the Millennial Harbinger in 1837, Alexander Campbell said, “It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves.” In Jesus’ description of the last judgment in Matthew 25, the people who gave food, clothed, visited, and showed love to the marginalized were the ones who were right with God. Somehow—even when they didn’t realize it—they were responding to the image of Christ in those people. They were doing their acts of love to Jesus himself! I see an increasing number of followers of Christ who are allowing the Holy Spirit of Christ to so shape them that they can discern that image of Christ in all they meet.
As a Christian historian, I see the church in a time of momentous change and possibility. The scenes of traditional churches struggling to redefine themselves, declining in numbers, even closing their doors, are frightening to many. On the other hand, the possibilities for allowing God to reshape the church are exciting, though disorienting. I see congregations of Christ’s church throwing themselves into the arms of God and seeking to see with new eyes the way God would have us go. May we keep our eyes on Christ and embrace his priorities as our own.
Douglas A. Foster is professor of church history and director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Abilene (Texas) Christian University.