I believe that the Church, capital C, Church, is facing a challenging future. Many have said it, but I believe it bears repeating. The world that the Church is facing is hostile to Christianity, and will be increasing hostile to Christianity. The fact is that the next 100 years will look increasingly more like the era that the church was born into, rather than the Christendom many of us were born into.
Why? Because while Christendom was a culture marked by a consensus “Christian worldview” (there was a catholic shape to this, and a protestant shape to this, but there was a shared core despite the tension), that’s not the world we live in now. Now we live in a world that is increasingly hostile and antagonistic towards Christianity. I hold up the way Vanderbilt University is trying to drive Christians off their campus as exhibit A. The good news is that as we move forward, the mushy middle will finish its slow death. The era of protestant liberalism will die, because it’s a powerless heresy that was as good as dead the moment it was birthed (75 years ago Richard Niebuhr spoke of it as "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross", while J. Gresham Machen showed that it is a heresy that is clearly not biblical Christianity), and we will increasingly be called to count the cost of discipleship, and live for his glory. What will be left is a leaner, stronger Christianity that will have a much greater impact for the glory of God and the furthering of his Kingdom.
And as we face this future, I want to note some things that I believe will be important to keep in mind. Things that should shape the church as we move forward.
First, I believe that we will have to have our lives completely shaped by the gospel. For some time now, I’ve been consistently trying to articulate to First Baptist that we have to have a vision for gospel centered Christian living. My hope as a pastor is to grow people who really understand they are not saved by their works, or tenure, or anything else, but Christ and his finished work. To borrow from Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + nothing= everything. We will need to drill this into our heads. Then, in grateful joy, we must live lives of consistent cross-bearing for the glory of Christ and the building of the Kingdom of God. As a church, I believe we are well on our way, and as I look to the future, what I hope to see is the continuing emergence of a church that is a Bible based, gospel centered, missional church family that seeks to proclaim the gospel, glorify God, build a great community through loving service, and grow deep disciples through solid teaching. As we face the future, we must be driven and shaped by the gospel, it’s the only thing that will sustain us, encourage us, and allow us to live for the glory of God in the face of suffering.
Second, we will need to be intensely missional. The early church went out, loving and serving the world around them, even in to face of persecution. It blew the world away. It was such an incredible witness to the world around that it transformed the Roman Empire. Our lives should be marked by loving service. We should be going out and serving the world, with joy, no matter what comes our way, knowing fully that we are always being watched.
Third, I believe that the church and church leaders will need to become much more intentional about training disciples. This will become increasingly important. We can’t just have people pray a prayer, and expect that they will find their way in hostile world. We need to be mentoring and training people, helping them mature as followers of Christ, as they take off the old man, and put on the new man, Christ, and live for him and his glory. Church leaders will need to increasing focus on using the influence God has given them to help people live for God, remembering that the essence of Church leadership is not position and power, but service; serving people and using the influence God has given us to help people follow God more faithfully.
Fourth, we must relearn how to think doctrinally and critically, while speaking apologetically (apologetics has to do with giving a defense of the faith). Many Christians don’t know what the Bible says, they don’t know the core doctrines, and they find themselves unprepared for a hostile world. Furthermore, many Christians don’t know how to think critically. They don’t look at the arguments and assumptions that are being presented to them by the culture, and instead, blithely accept them. We need to relearn how to think critically, logically, and carefully, because while Christians are not known for being critical thinkers, when we look back we see that early Christians and Christian leaders were. In Acts 19, we see that Paul went in and was “reasoning daily” in the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). He did this for two years. As Christians, we need to be able to do the same. We need to be able to understand the beliefs and arguments of our secular friends better than they do, and then be able to refute them. We also need to learn to speak apologetically, to winsomely present Christ in a way that captivates the world around us as they see Christ lifted high in our words and deeds. Over time, I hope to see our church become more and more marked by people who think biblically, doctrinally, and for the glory of God. I think we have to see churches develop that are marked by theological rigor, critical thinking, and an ability to speak apologetically as they wisely live for the glory of God this incredibly and increasingly hostile world.
Fifth, I believe that we must prepare to face persecution. As the world becomes increasingly unfriendly to biblical Christianity, we will be forced to face the cost of discipleship. The good news though, is that the church will be strengthened by persecution. Persecution forces us to decide who we will serve, and that’s a good thing, because it kills off most of the tares (think of the parable of the wheat and the tares, the farmer plants good seed, but the enemy comes and plants bad seed. They both grow side by side, and Jesus says, don’t root them out, if you do, you root up the wheat along with the tares). Something happens in the face of persecution. Most of the tares root themselves out. Because they aren’t true followers of Christ, they bail, and the church is actually strengthened. We see this in place after place. Christianity was supposed to die in China when the western missionaries left. Instead, while it shrunk initially, it’s now thriving. That’s the story in place after place. What grows up is not mushy middle faith, it’s Christianity, strong, and lean and lived with intentionality because the cost of discipleship has been counted.
Sixth, I believe that being a church leader will be more intense and more challenging than it has been since the reformation. In a hostile word, we will be pushing and encouraging our people to do something that is increasingly countercultural, live lives that are holy to the Lord in the face of hostility.
Seventh, how should you be preparing individually? Three suggestions. Learn, mentor, count the cost. I’ve been wrestling with three questions lately. What are you learning, what are you teaching, and what are the results? So what are you learning? What passages have you been studying? What books are you reading? What has God been showing you? Second, who are you teaching? Who are you training up, who is the Timothy to your Paul? And what are the results? Learn, mentor, but also, count the cost. We must prepare to count the cost of discipleship once more, and challenge each other to remember that Jesus invites us to take up our cross- our instrument of execution, and follow him. No matter what.
As the world shifts and changes, as it becomes hostile to Christianity, the future will be challenging. But here’s the thing. We can let it catch us from the blindside unexpected, or we can rise to meet it with joy. When I was in Texas, I got to help out with the football team of the school I worked at. One of the things that I remember that the coach told us is that you can be the hittee, or the hitter. You can be leaning into the tackle, applying the hit, or the other person can be the one leaning in and applying the hit. His point was that if you were ready for the tackle, if you are leaning in and ready for it you would come out far better than if you were the one that is back on their heels. Blindside hits were always the worst; the quarterback doesn’t see it coming and can’t prepare. We face a challenging future. We must be ready. For the glory of God, and for the furthering of His kingdom.