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.
By Paul Boatman
To predict what we’ll be saying about the church one year from now is difficult, and it’s easy to see why: The January 2013 evaluators of our predictions will have the benefit of hindsight. With information that was simply not available to us at the dawn of 2012, they may say . . .
“I wish we had known. . . .” “What were we thinking?” “If only you had listened to me.” “Will we never learn?” Surely events would have been different if certain insights had been available. Did we spend enough time in prayer and planning?
“The trends never predicted this would happen.” “Who would have guessed . . . ?” Whether through the winds of culture or the work of the Holy Spirit, some events—often wonderful events—simply were never on our radar.
“I tried to tell you!” It is not unusual for such gloating to include historical revision. It happens often in politics. The church is not immune.
“Here is what we should have done. . . .” “Now is the time for you to listen to me!” The remarkable power of hindsight enables us to prescribe solutions as though we could retrofit the events of the past year.
All of the above will be said a year from now. They will find application in almost every situation in which the church has conflict of opinions. I risk nothing in predicting those evaluations. But I am equally confident in predicting that outspoken pundits will be making the following statements a year from now:
“The megachurch has run its course.” Though vibrant, inclusive, and apparently spiritually sensitive megachurches will continue to grow throughout 2012, the crepe-hangers will continue to predict the demise of the megachurch.
There will be some specific instances of decline, but much of the negative prediction relates to the nostalgic wishing for a simpler era. Certainly the megachurch phenomenon relates to current cultural trends, but the healthy church of any size is always interacting with culture to find the most effective application of gospel.
“Our Bible colleges are giving up their mission.” Existing Bible colleges actually have a variety of missions, and one school cannot be measured by another’s mission. Institutions of higher learning will continue to struggle with the issues of survival, secularization, and submission to mildly supportive, but highly critical constituencies. While generalizations are unfair, tight times often mean colleges and seminaries are receiving a smaller share of strained mission budgets.
Any school not willing to clearly articulate and demonstrate a mission that constituency churches support is left only with the option of more secularized programming to draw students from a wider audience. But the culturally relevant Bible college must educate both students and constituency of the need for “new wineskins” (Matthew 9:17) for both the church and the academy.
“The young people in our churches just don’t care about our heritage.” A growing majority of Christian church members have little or no knowledge of the Stone-Campbell heritage, and don’t care to learn it. People are added to local congregations in response to what is occurring in their lives in a particular time and place. They have no sense of joining either a movement or a denomination.
It is ironic that a people who championed being “nondenominational” are disturbed by a generation that truly disdains denominationalism. The “Campbellites” of the 19th century showed greatest fidelity to the developing heritage by their consistent and conscientious commitment to being “Christians only.” Twenty-first century Christians should follow in their train.
“Whatever happened to Christian Standard?” The printed word has long been powerful, but the growth in publication is not in paper and ink. Fewer churches are purchasing and distributing publications like Christian Standard, and individual subscriptions to most magazines are trending downward. Such journals will continue to have impact only through a deft combination of Christians and churches buying into the publication’s mission and the publisher finding ever-more creative means of “getting the word out.”
Or perhaps a year from now they will be saying, “I wonder if anyone cares what we say about the church.”
Paul Boatman is professor of pastoral care and counseling at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.