Reimagining a Church for the Future

The Christian church, regardless of denominational affiliation, doctrine, or methodology is being faced with the reality of a coming paradigm shift. There are significant disruptions already at play and forecasted to continue well into the future. Socially, financially, and theologically, the present day church in North America is generally unprepared to grapple with many of these disruptive shifts already making waves through the church.

The Writing is on the Wall

Last week I had an opportunity to be part of a Think Tank hosted by the Send Institute at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College for churches, denominations, and networks committed to church planting and missions in North America. In attendance were 40 of the top leaders representing some of the most influential and active church planting networks and denominations in the United States. The overall consensus: we need a renewed Spirit-filled imagination for the church — today.

According to research shared by the Send Institute, in 2010 the ratio of church congregations to population was 1 to 1,000 in the United States. In order to maintain the ratio with population trends through 2050, Christians will need to net a total of 76,000 churches over 40 years, or an average of 1,900 churches per year.

This may seem reasonable considering the rapid rise and investment in church planting in the last decade. But here’s where the crisis looms: our annual net growth is on average 300 churches, with 4,000 new churches started and 3,700 churches closed year over year since 2014. In short, the church is losing numerical ground.

Two significant challenges that appear to be clearly on the horizon for the church by 2050 are fewer congregations meeting the population growth and widespread underfunded ministries unable to support full time staff and their facilities. Although potentially disorienting and troublesome for the faithful, this may not be a terrible thing. I’ve heard others talk and write about these new realities that are already in motion, but for the first time I was witness to a room of national leaders who demonstrated humility, choosing not to hold many things sacred for the sake of the future church.

A Renewed Mission

In my work with Ephesiology, we’re studying the very first New Testament Christian movement and its implications for the church today. It’s our belief the future of the church is found in the past — in what has already been revealed and given to us. We’re not interested in specific models, growth strategies, or value statements which change and adapt for every culture and context. Instead, we believe the success of the church, regardless of the world in which it exists, has always been grounded in Christ-followers who live out their new identity as people who embody God’s mission for the world.

We believe in the church — her mission, her calling, and her restorative work in the world for all people. There is no greater time for the church to rise up and meet the challenges of the day for tomorrow. But the pathway forward will require a new imagination led by Spirit-filled people and a renewed mission grounded in the great commission that seeks to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19-20).

You can follow our work and weekly podcast as we examine this renewed mission of God and its implications for the church at ephesiology.com.

UPDATE (October 22, 2019): I discuss these findings in further detail on the Ephesiology Podcast with a new episode released today. You can listen here — https://ephesiology.com/2019/10/22/ep-25-ephesiologists-at-the-send-institute/