A Resilient Church on the Fringe
The idea is to take an existing church and alter it so that it can be lean, effective, and build owned space. The goals are to make the institutional church cheaper, more agile, and more effective, whilst making the Christian community more resilient in the face of hostility and change.
Strategic Thinking for the Negative World
The church needs to change. I find this hard to accept. I am a rusted-on, curmudgeonly, conservative, traditional Presbyterian. I do not want to change anything. I’m the kind of Presbyterian that thinks Charles Hodge was a bit loose. But even Christians like me, perhaps especially Christians like me, need to face the fact that the church in the post-Christian West needs to rethink how it does things.
This is not a Rob Bell-style call for a watered-down faith nor Brian McLaren-style attempt to cloak liberalism in emergent church “orthodoxy.” You won’t catch me wandering off the reservation on doctrine or even ecclesiology. As I said, I am a curmudgeonly, traditional Presbyterian.
I am talking about how we organize our institutions. We need to rethink at a strategic level how we operate, how we spend money, how we invest in the future of our institutions, and how we create resilient Christian communities. The world of the twentieth century is passing away and the institutional arrangements that have undergirded the church will need to alter in the face of this.
My motives are not theological — hence my distance from Bell, McLaren, and even people like Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch. They imagined an ecclesial revolution from the perspective of either theological liberalism or a sort of Anabaptist primitivism. They were driven by ideals. The emerging and emergent church types believed change was theologically necessary. I do not agree with this.
I believe that change is necessary because of practical and political reality. It may turn out that some of the ideas I outline below will have some positive spin-offs for discipleship and community, some that people like Frost and Hirsch would welcome. Indeed, some of the ideas are needed for that reason, but this is not theologically necessary, nor are my prescriptions driven by high ideals. They are driven by that thing that every anabaptist primitivist despises: lucre.
I am no prophet. Even worse, I’m a cessationist. But I know that the future won’t look a lot like the past. Here are a few predictions, hopefully, founded upon reasonable suppositions, that undergird my analysis and constructive suggestions:
- The world as a whole is going to get poorer and more dangerous. To see why this is, read Peter Zeihan’s The End of the World is Just the Beginning. We might differ with some of the details in this book, but the basis of Zeihan’s analysis is demographics, and demographics, as they say, is destiny. Demographics concerning the number of workers, tax-payers, potential soldiers, retirees, and people drawing on their pension funds, are set for the next 20 years. So, too, is the number of deaths. Demographic decline is set to swallow the better part of the world. The economic decline will follow fast. And geopolitical and military chaos will ensue. Which will lead to trade chaos. Which will lead to more economic and military chaos. And so on. Add to this the reality that the United States world police force is going to withdraw from protecting the globalist economic trade order with its navy, and it is hard not to be pessimistic. Other outcomes are possible; e.g. during the Black Death, people and communities increased in wealth. But something akin to the scenario Zeihan outlines should be one we plan for.
- Churches will decline in numbers and wealth, mainly because of the demographic shift. Boomers are dying. They built, funded, and shaped the cultures of, the Western church. Boomers are the reason the church is the way it is in an aesthetic sense (bad CCM anyone?), but they are also the reason we have so many privately-funded parachurch organizations and Christian education institutions. They are the reason why churches can afford multiple ministry staff. They were rich, they are rich, and they are … going to take that wealth to the grave. It will be gone before we know it, all of the greyheads that currently make up 50% or more of our churches will disappear, and even if they were all replaced numerically, there is almost no way that their wealth will be replaced. We have peaked, and it is downhill from here.
- Persecution will increase. This should be obvious, given what the scriptures say about the normal mode of operation for the church. We have had it sweet for a long time, but in the West, that is coming to an end. Even if we recede into a form of out-of-favourism, where no one hates us but everyone ignores us, things will be hard. But if it ends up worse, if we are outlawed, if our schools are outlawed, if we lose tax exemptions for churches, if we are actively ostracised from society, then this will impact churches’ operations at an institutional level and also place a lot of pressure on laypeople.
These are the main reasons the Christian church needs to rethink the way it does things. I firmly believe in God’s sovereignty. The Lord reigns, and earth ought to rejoice (Ps. 97:1). Nothing that God plans is thwarted, and there is no event, whether personal or world-historical, that is beyond God’s control (Job 42:2, Matt. 10:29–31). In other words, there is nothing about any of this is out of God’s control, and Christians should not worry.
But we should plan and we should be strategic. And note an important distinctive of what I am doing here: note the lack of theology. My reasoning is pragmatic. We will almost certainly have fewer people, less money, and therefore far fewer resources taken as a whole. Even if we don’t get squeezed by civil governments for more taxes or get the rug pulled some other way, we will have less money. Those darker possibilities need to be prepared for, too. But the even best-case scenario is not a good one, and the plausible scenarios are even worse.
In short, we need to consider changing. The church needs to change to survive and thrive. To use Nassim Taleb’s concept, we need to make our churches antifragile in a world that will despise us and possibly hate us.
Key Ideas for the Church in a Dangerous World
What should we do? How should we respond to this possible, perhaps plausible future? This is where things get uncomfortable. For a Presbyterian who is wedded to traditional denominational structures, theological colleges, and other such niceties of Protestant Christendom, this is hard. However, these prejudices are also a strength, because I am going to posit some models which could work even in traditional denominational structures.
I believe in the Presbyterian polity. You might believe in episcopacy, or something different. You might not really care about church polity. Let me again emphasize that the ideas below are not meant to make you think of (once again) Mike Frost and Anabaptist primitivism. They should make you think of keeping the ecclesial scaffolding you already have but changing the building inside the scaffolding.
To properly understand my prescriptions and ideas, on top of the basic assumptions about the future outlined above, there are two ideas that readers should grasp.
- Ecclesial institutions will need to be lean.
- The church, in its organic form, will need owned space.
Put another way, the institutional church will ideally operate with less real estate, whilst the organic church needs more. This may seem contradictory, but there is reason behind this.
An Institutional Church that is Lean
In the first instance, the institutional church is, at this point, a big target for people who hate Christ and his Church. And it has a big target on its back — property. Property makes the church more vulnerable. The church is more vulnerable to being inflexible, to be unwilling to adjust to the environment around her when she is laden with sanctuaries, seminaries, and office buildings. These are blessings when things are going well. These could be blessings when things are not going well.
But my sense is this will not be the case moving forward. They are a target. People who hate God and what Christians stand for can get at us via our property through legal avenues. Who is going to be targeting the church? Well, the same people who are chasing us now. Activists from left-wing groups, but possibly governments as well. This woke revolution is not just going to blow over. This is one reason to make the institutional church leaner.
But there is another one: mission. Buildings can be a vehicle for mission, certainly. But into the next age of the church in the West, I believe they will be a barrier to mission. They will create big legal and financial headaches for an institution that is under siege, and they will burden the church’s mission.
The church in the developing world offers a model. Where there is a high level of difficulty in establishing a local church ministry, churches grow and multiply when the church is lean. Churches grow and multiply when they use a model that is focused on homes and is, in turn, replicable. It is low on staff, low on overheads, and big on house churches with local pastoral leadership. It is a house church which, when it gets too big, plants a further house church with a new leader.