What will the future Church look like?
In my Presidential address to the 2006 ministerial session of the Methodist Conference, I said:
As I have travelled around the Connexion I have been exploring the question, ‘What is the Spirit saying to the Churches?’ My conclusion is that we are standing on the edge of Pentecost. The Church in Britain is being graciously given a ‘kairos moment’. We have a brief window of opportunity (possible only five years) to turn the Church around, or to be more accurate; ‘to repent and believe’.
The candlestick will be removed (Rev 2.5) unless the Church changes radically (i.e repent) and risks all (faith). God is calling us to launch out into the deep; and cast our nets on the other side (Lk 5.4; Jn 21.6).
We therefore stand on a knife edge of possibilities – the rise or the demise of the Church in Britain. Andrew Walls in his book The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History reminds us that when we examine the expansion of Christianity we discover that God does not plant churches that endure for ever in particular places (p.12). The Christian story is one of advance and recession as the wind of the Spirit blows. He argues that the Church only grows as it continues to cross cultural frontiers, since the Church is primarily a movement rather than an institution.
Because the centre of Christianity has shifted from the rich North to the poor South the World Church will be more spiritually vibrant, evangelical and probably more theologically conservative. Philip Jenkins suggests that unlike the ‘liberal churches’ of the USA and Europe, the more Pentecostal expressions of Christianity will continue to grow because of the charismatic nature of their lay leadership and their identification with the poor. Also the Roman Catholic Church will survive and thrive because of its similar emphasis on inculturation (the process whereby the ‘Word’ takes the ‘flesh’ of a particular culture and expresses itself through the images, symbols and thought forms of that culture).
One thing is certain, the World Church will be more diverse than we have hitherto imagined. Churches will not replicate themselves like some multi-national McDonald’s. There will be a rainbow variety of Churches, each representing some aspect of the multiplicity of languages, peoples and cultures. Unity will not be the product of ecclesiastical joinery but of the Spirit who baptizes with fire and wills diversity. Each local Church, as in the New Testament, will be light in structure, ever ready to respond to its own moment of kairos (i.e. God’s moment of opportunity). Partnership links between different Churches through prayer, shared learning, mutual exchange of members and itinerant ministry will save them from parochialism and demonstrate catholicity. Churches will ebb and flow to the tides of the Spirit. God is not creating a new set of ecclesiastical institutions but rather a ‘fluid’ Church reflecting the dancing life of the Trinity, in whom unity and diversity make music together.
What of the Church in Britain? It will certainly be smaller with fewer buildings; ‘pruned down’ for faith. Whatever the shape or form there will be certain characteristics:
Burning faith, conviction, passion for the Gospel and a desire to share it.
A clear sense within a local congregation of how they are able to participate in the mission of God in their own particular place.
A ‘community of embrace’ especially welcoming the poor and the marginalized. Here people will learn respect for others and seek justice for the planet and all its inhabitants.
Real demands will be expected of the members who will want to pray, study the Scriptures and disciple each other. The Church will encourage imagination, exploration and risk-taking.
Churches will not necessarily be located in traditional church buildings. The liturgy and worship will be expressed through cultural forms which resonate with the new worshippers, but will also draw from the rich treasures of Christian theology, tradition, hymnology and liturgy.
The times, days and dates of gatherings will not be set in stone. There will be minimal structure, and the churches will be largely ‘lay’ led. There will be no clerical domination but there must be itinerant, ordained, ministerial oversight.
Holy Communion will be celebrated in such a way that worshippers will be broken and blessed.
As Pentecost beckons, I see the cobwebs of the past will be blown away along with much of the ecclesiastical mumbo-jumbo which is such a barrier to outsiders. Like the apostle Peter in Acts 10, we who still dwell in the mainline churches of Britain are being called to forsake the familiar and enter the uncomfortable world of God’s extra-mural activities. In the houses of outsiders like Cornelius we shall, like Peter, experience the New Pentecost.
The Revd Tom Stuckey was President of the Methodist Conference 2005/6.
Headline Spring 2007 p.7